Monday, May 7, 2018

"Up in Funkytown" - Prince from Minneapolis Symposium Recap

"I think God puts you in the place you’re supposed to be. Flying back from a concert tour from around the world and you look down over the land and all the beautiful lakes and it just feels like home, that this is where I belong." - Prince, Minnesota Monthly, 1997

Authors Daphne Brooks and Jeff Chang at the opening keynote of the Prince from Minneapolis 
Symposium, April 16, 2018

If it were up to University of Minnesota faculty member Arun Saldanha, the Prince from Minneapolis Symposium would have coincided with Prince's 60th birthday, and with the artist in attendance. But the Symposium was still an effective, posthumous honor for Prince; scholars, artists, activists and fans descended on the "land of snow" to discuss the superstar's lifelong connection to the city.

I was honored to be invited to present my research on Prince's spirituality, which was rooted in and near Minneapolis. He attended Glendale Seventh-day Adventist Church and Park Avenue United Methodist Church as a child, and later the Kingdom Hall of the St. Louis Park Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.

I'd met Saldanha at the Prince-based Purple Reign Conference at the University of Salford in Manchester, England last year. He mentioned his intention to plan something similar in Minneapolis, and it was a great experience witnessing him realize his vision.

Organizer Arun Saldanha speaking at the close of the 
Prince from Minneapolis Symposium on April 18, 2018

That the three-day event was a super-sized version of the Purple Reign Conference made perfect sense given it took place in Prince's lifelong hometown. In addition to academics, organizers brought in respected authors like Andrea Swensson (Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound), Duane Tudahl (Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984) and Jim Walsh (Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ’90s). Attendees also heard from people who knew Prince, including his ex-wife Mayte Garcia and band member Matt Fink.

Presenter badge for the Prince from Minneapolis 
Symposium, April 16-18, 2018

Overall, I had a nice time at the symposium, though it was quite overwhelming. It was impossible to attend each presentation, and I even missed some key moments because I was off doing research for my book--attending a Kingdom Hall service here, talking to a potential source there.

You can read a recap of day one--albeit with a twist of shade--from longtime StarTribune and Prince reporter Jon Bream. You can also search the #PrinceFromMpls hashtag on Twitter for some highlights.

Additionally, I encourage you to visit the Symposium website for a complete list of speakers and abstracts, and check out the Purple Syllabus of essential readings. What follows are some of my personal highlights.

What else is there to learn about Prince?

You would think after eight years of working on a Prince book, I'd know all there is to know about his music and life. As I discovered last year at the Purple Reign Conference, there is so much opportunity for further study, from fashion and gender identity to music theory and implications of his name change.

It really depends on the subjects scholars choose to tackle. I will say there were moments during the Prince from Minneapolis Symposium where I felt I was already familiar with the information. But there were still exciting moments of discovery.

For example, during the MPLS panel, which explored Prince's geographic, social and cultural roots, independent scholar Kristen Zschomler challenged some misconceptions about Prince's early residences. She also pointed out some inaccurate details regarding the busing of black students to predominantly white schools in Minneapolis during Prince's childhood in the 1960s.

Independent historian Kristen Zschomler (center) presenting at the Prince 
from Minneapolis Symposium, April 17, 2018

That work is extremely important, as many Prince biographers have been recycling the same incorrect details over the years. (Additionally, Zschomler is working to get historical protection for Prince-related landmarks.)

Another interesting topic from the panel included an overview of Minneapolis's historical investment in music education, which informed Prince's musical development as a child. There was also a discussion of the "Minneapolis Sound" pre-Prince, and the role of race in the ownership of that sound.

During another session, scholar Maciek Smółka gave a related presentation, "How Minneapolis became a sound: an analysis through the examples of Minneapolis, Palm Desert and Seattle." I never thought about why certain cities become known for musical sounds, while others do not. I'm looking forward to Smółka's forthcoming dissertation.

Scholar Maciek Smółka presenting on the Minneapolis Sound at the Prince from 
Minneapolis Symposium, April 17, 2018

I was thrilled to see extensive attention paid to Prince's spirituality. While I presented an overview of his spiritual development from 1990 to 2016, Chris Johnson talked about eschatology in Prince's work. Patricia McKee highlighted Prince's interpretation of biblical text through song, and Jane Jones explored Prince's "messianic desire in two senses."

Presenting as part of the "Spiritualities" session with (clockwise) 
Chris Johnson, Jane Jones and Patricia McKee.

There was also a Theology of Prince session organized by the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. In partnership with the University of Minnesota, the seminary accepted submissions of essays, academic papers, poetry, spoken word and visual art on Prince's spirituality. The winners presented their work at the Symposium. What stood out to me the most was a discussion of Prince's connection to African spirituality, which I have yet to explore myself.

Theology of Prince session at the Prince from Minneapolis 
Symposium on April 18, 2018

One of my favorite experiences was attending the Prince Alumni panel, featuring security specialist Harlan Austin (whom I later interviewed), sound engineer Scottie Baldwin, hair stylist Kim Berry, sound engineer Dave Hampton, dancer and ex-wife Mayte Garcia, designers Stacia Lang and Sotera Tschetter, and moderator Craig Rice (whom I'd interviewed years earlier).

Autographed copy of Prince's ex-wife Mayte Garcia's 
book, The Most Beautiful: My Life With Prince

Their stories about working with Prince were fascinating and emotional. I didn't expect to be in tears, but I wept in the audience after Berry's recounting of Prince's Super Bowl performance, which had a profound effect on me.

Autographed picture of hair stylist Kim Berry with Prince

Whose voices get heard in Prince scholarship?

During a 2004 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Prince responded to a question about the meaning behind his music by saying, "That’s for all of you to decide. I don’t intellectualize my music.”

But who gets to decide? Before there were Prince conferences, there were biographies upon biographies and articles upon articles about the Purple One. And they were mostly written by white men. And now, partly because black people do not have the same level of access to academia, there is a concern that, for a man who was firmly connected to his black roots, black voices are not leading enough of the discussion about Prince's legacy.

Of course impressive strides are being made. The recent Prince issue of the Journal of African American Studies featured many writers of color. And the Prince from Minneapolis Symposium invited numerous scholars and writers of color, including Alexander Weheliye and Greg Tate to lead panels on Prince's blackness.

University of Minnesota faculty member Zenzele Isoke introduces
panelists Alexander Weheliye and Greg Tate at the Prince from Minneapolis 
Symposium on April 18, 2018.

However, there is room for a lot more diversity, according to some Symposium participants. And that's why it's important I keep striving to get my book published, they told me. I was incredibly grateful for the encouragement that I received from other black women scholars in this respect.

Prince from Minneapolis Symposium scholars from left: Kim Ransom,
Sonya Green and Crystal Wise

There were interesting discussions about Prince's blackness, especially tied to queerness, but I thought there was room for even more areas of study. I also saw an oversight in the voices that get amplified as scholars, writers and reporters research Prince's life and music. For example, someone mentioned they wanted to hear more about Prince's mother, who was not discussed in any of the presentations I attended. I think there has not been enough written about the black women who played major maternal, romantic and musical roles in his life.

A slide from a presentation during the Prince from
Minneapolis Symposium on April 18, 2018

I think part of this responsibility lies with the passionate, knowledgeable fan community. I've noticed we've elevated certain women in Prince's life, and diminished other women for largely superficial reasons--because we don't care for their personalities, or we assume they weren't as important, but we don't have any evidence to support this assumption. I witnessed this marginalization firsthand during the conference--even during my own presentation--and it was very disturbing.

I also think this carries over into other areas of Prince's life, particularly religion. I think some fans minimize Prince's Jehovah's Witness faith for largely selfish reasons--some don't like organized religion, and/or don't like that particular sect, and prefer Prince's more universalist approach to spirituality.

"We are all building Prince," a friend eloquently said. However, we must be careful we don't build the Prince we want to see in place of the Prince who actually existed.

What's so special about Purple Family?

Much of the Prince from Minneapolis Symposium was a reunion for me; I made some special friendships with people from the Purple Reign Conference, and it was an amazing feeling to see them again in Minneapolis. I also made new friends, who have become my Purple Family.

Reunited with Purple Reign Conference alumni 

These folks understand my passion for Prince, and the impact he's had on my life. I don't feel embarrassed if I start to cry thinking about his influence; when I sobbed unexpectedly at the conference--and later at Paisley Park--I was consoled without judgement. I am so grateful Prince brought these wonderful people into my life.

Purple Family 

Thank you, P.

Did you attend the Prince from Minneapolis Symposium? What did you think?

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