Thursday, September 21, 2017

"I Know That the Lord is Coming Soon" - Podcast Appearance

I recently taped a podcast with Zach Hoskins of dance/music/sex/romance. We spoke briefly about my experience at the Purple Reign academic conference at the University of Salford, but we spent most of the time talking about spirituality in Prince's music and life.

I talked about the outline of my book and some of the interviews I've done so far. And I really enjoyed hearing Hoskins' perspective on the topic. 

Click here to listen, and scroll through the rest of Hoskins' blog, where he is analyzing each song in Prince's discography. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"A Promise 2 See Jesus" - Thoughts on "Diamonds and Pearls"

"C'mon save your soul 2 night."

My serious introduction to Prince is unique, and it definitely informed my fascination with his spiritual journey. In high school, after watching "Purple Rain," I bought the soundtrack and then immediately picked up Rainbow Children because it was his latest album. So you can imagine how jarring it was to digest risque songs like "Darling Nikki" alongside Jehovah's Witness anthems.

The third album I listened to was Diamonds and Pearls, only because a friend of mine found the CD in her mother's music collection and burned a copy for me. The first track, "Thunder," opens with the lyrics:

"'Twas like Thunder--all thru the night/And a promise 2 see Jesus in the morning light."

Prince was talking about Jesus back in 1991? That was one of my first thoughts. But I would soon find out that, despite his fluctuating doctrines, Prince always expressed a belief in God and even adopted a spiritual mission to make others aware of God’s existence--which is the central argument of my book.

Despite that reference to Jesus, Diamonds and Pearls is not overtly religious; in fact, it's arguably a return to push-the-envelope form for Prince after the spiritually dense Lovesexy and Graffiti Bridge projects. My spirituality focused analysis will be in the book.

Diamonds and Pearls is the official debut of the New Power Generation (NPG), which is my favorite Prince band. As I analyze the album, I can't help but think about the narrative that has been repeated in the media: the Revolution was the only band that pushed Prince creatively, and the heralding of the NPG coincided with a loss of magic in Prince's music. I don't mind people taking that stance, but it would be nice to hear other narratives, and I didn't even think about the role that race might play in those arguments (the early NPG was mostly African-American, while the Revolution was more diverse) until recently, but that's not my study.

Back in high school, I immediately gravitated toward the Diamonds and Pearls track "Willing and Able," which is an infectious blend of gospel and country. I still love the song but I like the fact that I've been honing in on others like "Live 4 Love." I just love Prince's vocals and Michael Bland's drumming on that track.

In the past, I'd always skip "Walk Don't Walk," but I find myself listening to the song now if only because Prince is singing in his low register.

I'm excited to dive deeper into the 1990s NPG era. "A family is born," Prince wrote in the liner notes. "And God bless us cuz we fonky."

What's your favorite track on Diamonds and Pearls?

Thursday, September 7, 2017

"U're the Reason that God Made a Girl" - Interview with Terri Ivens

"As far as loving God and being your best self, he was completely on board with all of that. ... Just having an open relationship and really understanding the power of God and that God is real and God is love and it was just really simple. It wasn’t a complicated, convoluted thing."

Actress and self-proclaimed "Jesus girl" Terri Ivens only dated Prince for a few months in the mid-1990s, but she was able to get an impression of his spirituality--at least enough to want to talk to me about it. And she still remembers those guitar picks that said "Love God."

I was fortunate to get in touch with Ivens through Prince's ex-girlfriend Devin Devasquez; sometimes, once one source speaks with me and discovers I'm not writing a tabloid, they will recommend another person for me. I love when that happens.

Ivens has kept pretty quiet about her time with Prince, despite being one of his muses, and possibly inspiring the song "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" (yes, even Prince's ex-wife Mayte Garcia acknowledged there may have been other influences).

Although Ivens' experience was largely positive, she did talk about an event that may lend a bit more support for Prince's possible lifelong struggle reconciling his preference for both the sacred and profane, which I'm exploring. I'll have more details on that incident in the book, of course.

So while the interview wasn't as extensive as others, it was definitely another piece of the puzzle I've been working at for several years now.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

"Insatiable's My Name When It Comes to U" - Interview with Robin Power Royal

"He talked about living in the moment. He talked about God being love. Did he talk about Jesus per se? ... No. We didn’t have long spiritual conversations. It was more or less about society, the way the world is, what’s going on with it and the people just being believers of love. He always described God as love."

I think most Prince fans know Robin Power Royal had a small role in "Graffiti Bridge" as Morris Day's girlfriend, and recorded an unreleased rap track, "Number One." However, I don't think many know the extent of her time and influence in Prince's life. Like Roy Bennett once said to me, "There may be one visual woman that looks like that’s the main one, but there’s quite a few on the side that you don’t see." So Royal was one of Prince's girlfriends from 1989 to 1991. She was poised to become the female rapper of Paisley Park Records--a job that eventually went to Carmen Electra. And Prince indicated that she inspired his song "Insatiable."

One of the most intriguing aspects of my interview with Royal was her treatment of Prince's gender. "I’ve never been around someone that was so much a boy and a girl like that in a male form," she said. Throughout our discussion, she'd slip into "they/them" pronouns for Prince and correct herself whenever she used "he/him." I didn't coach her on this or bring this up; I could tell it was her organic way of thinking and speaking about Prince.

To my knowledge, no one who knew Prince personally has addressed him this way, at least publicly. This year--and especially at the Purple Reign academic conference--is when I started putting some serious thought into that aspect of Prince's identity. When he changed his name to the "love symbol," a combination of the male and female signs, I don't think the media, his community of fans and the general public were prepared to delve into that analysis. And I'm not prepared to, either; I have to leave that to experts in gender studies. My book is primarily concerned with his spiritual identity.

I talked to Royal before Prince's ex-wife Mayte Garcia's book was released, and I found that a lot of Royal's descriptions of that early-90s era lined up with Garcia's descriptions. And again, just because dancers "Diamond and Pearl" were the muses Prince put forth in his art at the time, Royal played a role as well--just behind the scenes. (But there is a rare interview of all three women together.)

It was fascinating to hear how the "Diamonds and Pearls" world Prince presented with his album, tour and videos was an extension of his real life, according to Royal. (More on that in the book.)

Even though Royal parted ways with Prince in the early '90s, she still gave me tremendous insight into his spirituality later in life by telling me about a conversation they had around the time of his conversion to the Jehovah's Witness faith. It just goes to show you can't predict how valuable an interview is going to be. And honestly, it's rewarding to be able to amplify the voices of certain people from Prince's world.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

"The Beautiful Experience" - Mayte Garcia's Book

"He was always a spiritual seeker ... fascinated enough in all possibilites to integrate the signs of the zodiac and third eye and reincarnation into the Christian beliefs his Baptist mother and Seventh-Day Adventist father had exposed him to. He was way too smart to be sucked into something just because he was vulnerable in that moment."

I've been wanting to interview Prince's first wife, Mayte Garcia, since 2012, when I saw her on "Hollywood Exes." I was suprised by how much I enjoyed watching the show. (Click here to read my blog entry on the series.) Sometimes I get lucky and track down a source even after years of trying. At this point, I don't think a chat with Garcia will happen.

Fortunately, I have her book, The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince. I finally read it and I honestly think she answered all of my questions regarding his spirtuality, unless she held something back (hit me up if there's more, Mayte). I interviewed Larry Graham about Prince's conversion to the Jehovah's Witness faith, but it's nice to have another perspective on that transition--especially from someone who doesn't believe in the doctrine.

But Garcia also expounds on Prince's interest in Egyptology and some aspects of eastern religions prior to his conversion. I think this is a fascinating period in the artist's life (the early '90s) and at this point in my research, I think he was beginning to return to some of those interests before he died.

Overall, I think The Most Beautiful is a wonderful book. It's well-written, and, like "Hollywood Exes," showcases Garcia's charming personality. That isn't to say there weren't parts that made me uncomfortable. I was also felt incredible sadness and compassion for she and Prince while reading about the death of their son, Amiir. At times I almost stopped reading.

The book also opened my eyes to the full extent of Garcia's influence on Prince's music in the 1990s. Of course he had other muses; Garcia even admitted, "I know of at least three women besides me who believe ['The Most Beautiful Girl in the World'] was written specifically for them" (and I interviewed one of those women, but that's another blog entry). But Garcia was a mainstay onstage, in videos and argubly in his lyrics for much of that decade.

I also enjoyed her detailed descriptions of shows like their performance at the 1995 American Music Awards (with Prince's classic gum-chewing), and interviews with Oprah and Sinbad. I liked being able to go back and watch knowing what was going on behind the scenes.

Discussing Garcia's book also made me think about fandom, particularly its dark side. Some Prince fans absolutely despise her and her decision to publish the book. And when confronted with some of Prince's less than desirable actions described in the book (or, really, by any other source), some fans defend him to the point of delusion--or almost as if the women in his life deserved any poor treatment they received.

Now, of course, I am guilty of taking Prince's side on some things or rolling my eyes at certain people who knew him. But sometimes I need to check myself, and Garcia's book--in addtion to the process of writing this biography--helped me realize that. I would like to think I am learning to have more empathy for people in Prince's world and I don't think I allow my admiration for the late superstar to prevent me from viewing him as a human being with strengths and flaws--just like the rest of us.

 What do you think of Mayte Garcia's book?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Willing to do the Work" - Purple Reign Conference Presentation Video

As promised in my summary of the Purple Reign Prince conference in the UK last month, I have included video of my presentation, "Willing to do the Work: The Spiritual Mission of Prince, 1958 - 1988," and some details below.

That was most of the presentation, which I captured using an iPhone and small tripod. I was happy with my performance, and I think it was well-received. Many said they were looking forward to my book, and that encourages me to keep going. Of course the book will also cover Prince's life beyond 1988.

Talking to the other scholars during the Q&A segment and throughout the week really helped me with my research. As a result, I have a few new areas to explore regarding Prince's spirituality, and hopefully some new sources.

When I started this project, Prince seemed firmly rooted in his Jehovah's Witness faith, and I really thought my story would end there. However, in the last several years of his life, his spirituality seemed to be evolving beyond the boundaries of that religion. I'm looking forward to learning more about that.

Some photos:

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"All the Hippies Sing Together" - Purple Reign Conference Recap

I'm still digesting my experience at the Purple Reign conference at the University of Salford in Manchester, England. The first of its kind, the academic conference brought in dozens of scholars from all over the world to present their research on various aspects of Prince's life and career in front of a public audience. I was fortunate enough to be among the presenters, and I thought I'd share some of my impressions, pictures and videos of the event, which took place May 24 - 26.

First, I was shocked and saddened by the May 22 suicide bombing at Manchester Arena. I'm glad I was able to attend the May 23 vigil in Albert Square to honor those who lost their lives.

A member of the Manchester Sikh community at the May 23 vigil in Albert Square

The Purple Reign conference organizers proceeded with the event as planned, demonstrating a resilience I saw time and time again across the city. The conference was also a needed source of positive energy; I can't describe the amount of love I felt among my fellow presenters and Prince fans.

On the first night, we were treated to a Q&A with Prince's former guitarist Dez Dickerson. I'd read his autobiography, so I knew a lot of the information he shared, but it was delightful to engage with him face-to-face. He was humble, funny and candid. He also played guitar for us, which was so surreal.

I also got a chance to ask Dickerson about Prince's spirituality. I'll include more details (and the video!) in a future post.

The next two days were filled with presentations on "all aspects of [Prince's] creative output and the ways in which it intersects with video, performance, literature, theatre, film, digital culture, design and fashion," as described on the conference website. These presenters were not your average Prince fans gushing about their favorite artist. They were serious students and professors drawing from a wealth of scholarly research.

I knew Prince was a significant artist in 20th- and 21st-century popular music, but hearing fascinating presentation after fascinating presentation really put his importance in perspective, and it took my breath away. Additionally, I left with the realization that there are hundreds of other opportunities for more analysis.

If you're having trouble understanding how one person could generate an entire conference, here's my very simple summary (which I also found myself explaining to Customs officials in airports): Prince recorded about 40 studio albums and allegedly thousands of unreleased songs; he pushed boundaries with his lyrics, fashion and sometimes androgynous image; he is partly responsible for the Parental Advisory label on recordings; he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and wore "slave" on his face in the midst of a legendary battle with Warner Bros. for control of his master recordings; and he was one of the first artists to utilize the internet to distribute his music directly to his fans. He also played multiple instruments, wrote and produced nearly all of his music and maintained a high standard of performance in his record-breaking live shows that is arguably unmatched by very few, if any, of his contemporaries.

With that said, here are my thoughts on just a handful of the presentations I witnessed:

Keynote speaker Sarah Niblock, who co-wrote Prince: The Making of a Pop Music Phenomenon, broke down Prince's style in fascinating ways that included discussions on everything from macaronis to zazous.

Although Prince often dismissed his link to Jimi Hendrix ("It's only because he's black. That's really the only thing we have in common," he told Rolling Stone), Tom Attah outlined the connection in his presentation on Prince and the postmodern blues aesthetic. Also, who knew Prince's "5 Women" borrowed heavily from B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone?" (hint: not me.)

Andrea Foy regaled us with intriguing stories of her Paisley Park adventures over the years (she even danced with Prince, you guys!). I'm looking forward to finding out more in her book!

I think I learned the most from the "esoteric French panel," otherwise known as Joni Todd's presentation on the similarities between Prince and painter Marcel Duchamp, and Karen Turman's examination of Prince and 19th-century dandyism. It would have never occurred to me to look into those topics.

Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy

Karen Turman

Chris Aguilar-Garcia, Scarlett Brown, Natalie Clifford, Leah Stone and Shannan Wilson provided interesting presentations on Prince and gender and sexuality studies. I think this was the most eye-opening segment for me because I never took time to view Prince as a queer, gay or trans icon. I realized I don't have a monopoly on interpreting Prince--he means so many different things to so many different people. At the same time, I was glad the presenters addressed Prince's contradictory statements and behaviors regarding these topics.

From left: Aguilar-Garcia, Brown and Clifford

Leah Stone's presentation on Prince and misogyny

I was one of the last presenters, and I was very happy with my performance. I will provide more details, along with video footage, in a separate blog post.

Other highlights from the conference included a viewing of "Under the Cherry Moon" at the Home theatre and more:

There was a special Q&A via Skype with Prince's cousin, Chazz Smith, who provided some endearing stories about Prince's childhood. I really wanted to ask him about his #justice4cuz campaign on social media, but I didn't want to bring the room down. I'm still wondering what that's about...

I met Casey Rain of the legendary website, and his Violet Reality partner, Kim Camilia.

We had an awesome dance party on the final night of the conference.

This is the moment when I started sobbing at the conference. It was hard seeing Prince's image projected everywhere, but the organizers saying their farewells really got to me. I still can't believe Prince is gone, but I find comfort believing he achieved so much and he's finally at peace. I also hope to use his example to live my life to the fullest.

It really helped to have other folks there whose lives have been impacted by the artist. The best part of the conference was being able to fellowship with people who are really like family now.

This was definitely one of the best weeks of my entire life. Thank you, Prince.