Friday, March 22, 2019

"Where'd You Get Those Glasses?" - Interview with Wally Safford

...With a little help from Jerome Benton

Photo courtesy of Wally Safford, pictured with Prince. 

"'17 Days' was about me."

"And 'Gett Off' was about me."

"'Pussy Control' was about me."

Those were some of the revelations that occurred during my interview with Prince's dancer, bodyguard and friend, Wally Safford, who called me with Jerome Benton on the line. Safford and Benton, former member of The Time and The Family, ran down a list of songs that Prince wrote about them.

They, of course, were joking.

"We are comedians," Safford said. "This is what Prince thrived on. He was a practical joker."

Well, there was one song that referenced Safford. The story of "Wally" has become legendary among the fan community. According to engineer Susan Rogers, Prince recorded the song in 1986 and had it erased. He recorded a new version, which recently surfaced on YouTube.



"That was a conversation between me and Prince," Safford said of the content of the song.

In most other cases, when it comes to subjects of Prince's songs, only the late superstar knows for sure.

"Everybody can come up with some creative connection to any one of Prince's songs," said Benton, whom I have also interviewed separately. "How many women have claimed to be 'Little Red Corvette?'"

"That was about me," Safford said, laughing.

Since Prince passed away, there has been an increasing amount of scholarship and other coverage of his life and career, as well as a re-examining of old narratives. Many people, myself included, are advocating for more diverse voices in this work. And as I spoke with Benton and Safford, I became excited by the value that they can add to the discussion, if they choose to do so.

"You let everybody else tell their story [and they say], 'All Wally is, is a bodyguard,'" Benton said. "There's more to him."

Much like bodyguard Harlan Austin, Safford became one of Prince's close friends. Having previously provided security for musical acts such as Earth, Wind & Fire, Safford met Prince in 1979 and worked with him through 1987.

Safford noted that there was a tight-knit group of people, including dancer and security guard Greg Brooks, who hung with Prince. "We were considered the Purple Gang," he said.

Both Benton and Safford were around to witness Prince and his father, John L. Nelson (Safford called him "Pops"), create on the piano, and join in musical discussions.

"With Pops, we talked about music a lot," Safford said. "Mainly jazz. His favorite artist was Charlie Parker. I would go to Tower Records to get him some cassettes and ... we would sit and listen."

There's so little knowledge about the extent of John L. Nelson's impact on Prince's music. It's great to know that there are people around who could help fill in those gaps.

Photo courtesy of Wally Safford, pictured with photographer Steve Parke at 2018 Celebration at Paisley Park

But my study is on Prince's spirituality. Safford said Prince was "always spiritual," and both he and Benton kindly shared their perspectives on his journey (there will be more in my book, of course).

While Prince has written so many straightforwardly religious songs ("God," "The Cross," "Anna Stesia," etc.), others also made a profound impact. Safford pointed to Prince's spiritual connection to "Purple Rain." In fact, both he and Prince's former press agent Robyn Riggs had similar observations about that.

"He would come off the stage and he would be in an emotional state," Safford said. "Prince was special. He was sent here by God for a special reason."

"His journey was pretty amazing," Benton added. "He started out onstage with the Rolling Stones, and wasn't accepted by that culture of people. ... At the end, he was onstage with the [purported] greatest guitar players of all time, which were all white [at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction], and they had to sit back and watch him destroy."

Safford left Prince's employ when Prince made personnel changes to his band.

"I wasn't angry or bitter with Prince because, as a kid off of Rosa Parks Boulevard, right down the street where the 1967 Detroit riots started, I was winning," Safford said. "I went around the world six times with this guy. ... The pleasure was all mine."

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Friday, March 15, 2019

"A Guitar That Can Part the Sea" - Prince's Moses References

Note: I do not think Prince is Moses.


I think most casual fans are aware that Prince referenced religion in his music. Those who were really into the Purple Rain era would know about the song "God," which is a recounting of the first chapter of Genesis in the Bible. If they stuck around for Lovesexy, they would have heard Prince proclaim Jesus as his God on "Anna Stesia."

Those who paid some attention in the '90s might have heard Prince reference the Biblical creation story again on "My Name is Prince," or praise Jesus once more on "Holy River."

But there are so many other Biblical references, both coded ("De-elevator," "Spooky Electric" even "love") and conspicuous. And Jesus isn't the only person getting shine. Prince also alludes to the prophet Moses quite a bit. With that said, I give you some of those occasions.

Moses
Charlton Heston in the The Ten Commandments. Photo: "Moses" by Superfloop, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0


"Thieves in the Temple" - Extended version (1990)

To make a point about an ex-lover, Prince sings, "You led me on, thinking you was Moses, herding sheep blindly through a fantasy.” 

Did Prince use these analogies because they were easily accessible, given his religious upbringing--or just given his life in a Christian-leaning Western country? Plenty of American writers employ Christian imagery regardless of their personal faith.

Something else to chew on: Is "Thieves in the Temple" even about a lover? Could his plea, "Love, come quick," be directed to God? These are ideas I discuss in my book. 

Side note: Prince is dancing his behind off in this video.




"Chelsea Rodgers" (2007)

The Planet Earth track is about a model whose soul and personality are as beautiful as her appearance. It is said to be inspired by a real-life woman, but I wonder if all the attributes in the song were real or projected on this goddess by Prince for purposes of the song. Whatever the case, Prince paints her as a spiritual guide, teaching him information about ancient civilization.

"Moses was a pharaoh in the 18th Dynasty," he sings.

So this is a bit of a trick. I originally thought research would lead me to Moses, but it appears Prince is referencing the Egyptian name Thutmose. Several pharaohs took the name during the 18th Dynasty, which lasted in Egypt from 1549/1550 to 1292 BC. Because the name is sometimes stylized as Thutmoses, Prince may have shortened the name.

Interestingly enough, some theorize that the Biblical Moses did cross paths with Thutmose III. They believe the Exodus--Moses and the Israelites' exit from Egypt--occurred in 1446 BC, which was during Thutmose III's reign.

Coincidentally, Akhenaten was also a pharaoh during the 18th Dynasty. According to Prince's ex-wife Mayte Garcia's book, he once believed he had a special, spiritual connection to the pharaoh.

Additionally, some scholars suggest Egyptian pharaoh Amenmesse (or Amenmose) is the "real," historical Moses, but he ruled during the 19th Dynasty. So who knows what Prince believed about that theory.




"Feel Better, Feel Good, Feel Wonderful" (2008)

This Lotusflow3r track allegedly addresses Prince's long-term battle with the music industry. With the bitter dispute with Warner Bros. over a decade behind him, he has a more amiable attitude toward record labels in the song. However, he can't resist reminding them of his musical prowess.

"I've got a guitar that can part the sea," he sings. He is comparing his instrument to the staff Moses used to part the Red Sea (with assistance from God) and lead the Israelites to safety.



As if that weren't boastful enough, Prince doubles down on the staff metaphor with the following lyric. "Don't mean no disrespect I ain't trying to brag/But that might be the same one that tapped on the crag/And brought forth water that quenched your thirst."

According to Numbers 20:7-11 in the Bible, Moses used his staff to bring water from rock so the Israelites could drink during their journey in the wilderness. In Prince's mind, the music brought forth from his guitar is comparable to that water.

Can we really argue? Exactly fifteen years ago today, he did this:



Am I missing any other Moses references?

Check out my discussion of "Feel Better, Feel Good, Feel Wonderful" on the Prince: Track by Track podcast here.


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Friday, March 8, 2019

"She Gave Me Seven" - Top Blog Posts

As this blog approaches its ninth birthday, I figured it's a good time to look back at my most popular posts of all time. I'm fortunate to have some new readers (I've been a lot more consistent), so I hope you'll find some content you haven't discovered yet.

7. "U Call 'Em Bodyguards But I Call 'Em My Friends" - Interview with Harlan Austin. I met Prince's former bodyguard, who was a Jehovah's Witness long before Prince, at the Prince from Minneapolis Symposium. He is one of multiple people who share the perspective that Prince struggled to reconcile his spiritual beliefs with his explicit music.

6. "Think About the Future!" - Upcoming Projects from Prince's Protégés. Before Prince died, there were several non-music projects from protégés (think "Hollywood Exes"). In this post, I mention Shelia E.'s autobiography and a rumored reality show featuring Jill Jones.

5. "Interactive" - Prince Twitter Chat (2011). I still don't know how this blew up on my blog; I didn't even get many responses on Twitter. But it's cool to revisit. For a more robust conversation, check out my 2019 Twitter chat here.

4. “Gotta Tell the Truth Y'all” - Interview with Gayle Chapman. This is the interview that started it all! Way back in 2010, most folks still believed Chapman left Prince's band for religious reasons. But she told me that wasn't the case.

3. "Preach the Good News" - Extended Interview with Larry Graham. You can't do a book on Prince's spirituality and not interview the legendary bassist and spiritual adviser.

2. "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic" - Interview with Cheryl Sonny Thompson. I think this interview blew up because the production assistant is not part of the group of people who always get asked about Prince. She really opened my eyes to some possible changes in Prince's spiritual path around 2013.

1. "All Good Things, They Say, Never Last" - Interview with Jerome Benton. Prince's friend and former member of The Time and The Family called this interview "different" (which I took as a compliment) and kindly promoted it on social media. He was sweet and funny, and he called me "Miss Thompson." It was a pleasure.


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Friday, March 1, 2019

"Interactive" - Twitter Chat 2019

Eight years ago, I hosted a Twitter chat about Prince and spirituality. It went well enough. A couple questions went unanswered. And some responses on Prince.org were not exactly positive.

Because I have more followers and a more active role in the Prince fan community (which has also grown), I decided to do the same Twitter chat again. I advertised in Facebook groups, on Prince.org again (no shade this time) and on Twitter, of course.

Check out some select responses below. You can search the #PrinceSpiritual hashtag on Twitter to see them all.

1) What are your thoughts on Prince as a spiritual artist?









2) Thoughts on Prince's decision to eliminate "Darling Nikki," etc. and profanity
from shows?







3) Thinking about the Purple Rain Tour ... what is your opinion on the "conversation with God" segment?






4) Thoughts on The Rainbow Children album? Inspirational? Confusing?






5) Thoughts on the One Nite Alone Tour? Inspirational or too preachy?







6) Which Prince song has inspired you the most, and why?






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Friday, February 22, 2019

"Black is the New Black" - Interview with Adrian Crutchfield

"He found certain aspects of God in the [Jehovah's Witness] belief. He found certain aspects of God in music. He found certain aspects of God in women."

Photo courtesy of the artist

Prince's 2004 "Musicology" video works on multiple emotional levels. When you see the young boy purchase a 45 record and play along with the song in his bedroom, you imagine a young Prince doing the same thing in his Minneapolis home. You also think of future generations completing the same ritual with Prince's music (though they might be watching YouTube videos).


Saxophone player Adrian Crutchfield followed the pattern, though he was a teenager when the Musicology album was released.

"[He made me] see it as cool to wear a suit and tie," Crutchfield said. "The whole swagger of that record was on another level to me than everything else I'd heard at the time."

Less than a decade later in 2012, Crutchfield began working with Prince, eventually playing onstage, sweating out suits and wearing out the soles of his dress shoes.

"[We were] going to rehearsals for eight or more hours a day, and doing this in our full dress clothes," Crutchfield said. "Every night we'd leave rehearsal, and then the next day, before we went into rehearsal, we'd drop our stuff off at the cleaners. And by the time that stuff was clean, the rest of the stuff was worn out."

Though he was a demanding bandleader, Prince held himself to the same standards. "You've got to imagine all of the wear and tear he's done on his body over the years," Crutchfield said. "He would come in and do the stuff with us and have it down."

Crutchfield also recalled a time in rehearsal when Prince noticed Crutchfield was playing a B flat instead of a B.

"Now there are 11 horns on stage," Crutchfield said. "How did he know that one note was off? And how did he know it was me? He was in tune and he knew his stuff."

In Crutchfield's eyes, Prince was not only a musical mentor, but a spiritual role model. "He led by example, and he made you admire him so that you'd want to follow in his footsteps," he said.

Crutchfield gave his opinion on the different spiritual phases Prince passed through, the songs that seemed to have a spiritual vibe (Crutchfield played on Art Official Age and Hitnrun Phase Two) and the spiritual moments live onstage. (More on that in the book, of course.)

We spent a lot of time talking about Black is the New Black, the last studio album Prince recorded before the 2016 Piano & A Microphone Tour. Bassist MonoNeon and drummer Kirk Johnson were also part of the sessions.

"[Prince] was very excited and very motivated," Crutchfield said of the unreleased project, which he labeled jazz fusion. "I don't know what lit the fire, but he was on a path to be basically an activist."

Before Prince died, he supported myriad social causes, raising money for Black Lives Matter and collaborating with news commentator Van Jones on #YesWeCode to educate urban youth. And, according to Donatella Versace, Prince said he wanted to be "the face of Black Lives Matter."

Crutchfield said Black is the New Black is also a commentary on other communities adopting black American culture after viewing it as undesirable for so long.

"When we were listening back to the record, it was undeniable that this was going to be a very conscious thing, but also a very big shake to the industry because it wasn't pop," he said. "The first [person] that I thought would have eventually jumped on it was Kendrick [Lamar]. ... And I'm sure Kendrick probably heard some of it."


Now that the Prince Estate has rolled out a stream of reissues (A three-disc bundle, Ultimate Rave, is due out April 26), I do hope they'll get around to new material soon. Tidal is also set to put out a new and unreleased Prince album this year. Could it be Black is the New Black? 

If and when the album is released, I think it would definitely excite consumers.

"I just really want people to hear it," Crutchfield said.

But we can take solace in all of the released content people have yet to discover.

"There's gonna be some kid that's 6 or 7 years old ... and that person is going to carry on the spirit of Prince," Crutchfield said. "That's what makes Prince immortal, which is dope to me."


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Friday, February 15, 2019

"Don't U Wanna Know The Word?" - Four Spiritual Messages on 3121

Last week, the Prince Estate and Sony Legacy reissued three albums from the 2000s--Musicology, 3121 and Planet Earth on CD and (purple!) vinyl. Coincidentally, I've been talking a lot about 3121 lately, from interviewing folks from that era of Prince's career, to doing podcast episodes on tracks from the album.


I figured it's as good a time as any to dive into some of the spiritual messages on the project, released in 2006. By this time, Prince was a Jehovah's Witness, and his beliefs certainly influenced the lyrics. However, Prince's pattern of alluding to Biblical scripture on his albums dates back to his early career. For me, that's part of what makes his repertoire so fascinating to review.

In 2004, Prince told Entertainment Weekly that he didn't start reading the Bible until he became a Jehovah's Witness. That used to strike me as odd, but oftentimes when you grow up attending church (as Prince did), scripture has a way of staying with you even if you don't study as an adult. And so much of our American culture, literature, films and TV shows draw on Christian themes.

I often wonder if Prince included Christian imagery in some of his early work either unconsciously or strategically, understanding his listeners would more easily grasp his messages in a Christian framework. On the other hand, it may have been deliberate because he was personally dedicated to those Christian beliefs (I explore those questions in my book).

Despite the religious influence, most of Prince's music was able to captivate fans of all faiths because it also contained many universal messages. The 3121 album is no exception. Even though I've extracted four references to scripture on the project, there's a more general lesson to be gained from each example.

1) "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh." - Matthew 12:34

In the song "Love," the scripture is part of the chorus. Prince and Támar sing, "From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." In the Bible, Jesus is explaining that the words people speak are indicative of the good or evil in their hearts.

Prince references this idea in the song by exploring one's motives to manipulate or benefit by saying certain things. He also warns against reacting emotionally to gossip. Additionally, when he sings, "Love is free from all this" and "love can do anything," it brings to mind 1 Corinthians 13, aka as the "love chapter" in the Bible.

A Christian perspective might stress people watch their words because they will be judged by God. A universal perspective might stress people watch their words so they do not cause unnecessary harm to others.

2) "He that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not." - 1 John 5:18

In the song "The Word," Prince warns of "the treachery of the wicked one." In the Bible, the "wicked one" or "evil one" is a reference to Satan. Prince communicates that the only way to be "saved" is to "know the Word," which could refer to the Bible or Jesus Christ, who is also called "the Word" in scripture.

A universal perspective might warn against falling into traps of temptation--or spiders spinning "sticky webs," as Prince sings--to do something harmful. "Get up, come on, let's do something" could be interpreted as being productive and proactive. After all, idle hands...

3) "We are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand." - Isaiah 64:8 

On "Beautiful, Loved and Blessed," Prince and Támar proudly proclaim to be God's creations, and thus magnificent and worthy. For example, Prince sings, "I could truly say with all the fame and glory/I was just a piece of clay in need of the potter's hand."

Whether or not one acknowledges the existence of God, the song teaches a valuable lesson about self-esteem and positive affirmations.

4) "For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world." - Matthew 24:21

On "Get on the Boat," Prince sings about a "tribulation that will be great throughout the land." This is a reference to the Bible's description of the turmoil to come during the end of the world.

To prepare, Prince encourages people to "get on the boat" or, arguably, join the Jehovah's Witness faith so they may "live together underneath the sun" in paradise on Earth following Armageddon. The statement may also apply to the 144,000 selected to be resurrected to heaven.

Prince also sings, "When we love each other, that's the only way it's gonna be right." From a universal perspective, the song can be interpreted about being friendly with others and building community to better humanity.

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Friday, February 8, 2019

"My Name Will Be Victor" - Giveaway!


Congratulations to Debra O., winner of a free T-shirt! 

This contest is closed. 

Friday, February 1, 2019

"Get on the Boat" - Interview with Josh Dunham

"He just started saying, 'Let go and let God.'"


Photo courtesy of Josh Dunham
There is no question that 2004 was a landmark year for Prince. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, released a top ten "comeback" album and embarked on a massive, national tour.

But historians would be wise to also look at the significance of 2006 in Prince's career. His album 3121 became the first to reach number one since Batman in 1989. He launched a residency in Las Vegas, and penned a Golden Globe-winning song for the animated film Happy Feet.

And he still found time to make a movie. The 3121 film was never released, though select fans said they saw some of the footage when it was reconfigured for the 2009 album Lotusflow3r. Bassist Josh Dunham had a role in the film, though he wasn't expecting to be included.

He and his then-wife, drummer Cora C. Coleman, were playing with Prince at the time, and were surprised to find a camera crew in the studio one day.

"In the scene we were in, we were playing a song and he wasn't feeling the vibe," Dunham said. "He stormed out the studio. And I said something to Cora like, 'What's wrong with him?' And she was like, 'I don't know.'"

In the next scene, Prince called in two veteran NPG musicians, bassist Sonny T. and drummer Michael Bland, to play. But Dunham and Coleman weren't aware of that part until they viewed the film at a private showing.

"We were like, 'Aw, he made us look like we didn't know what we were doing,'" Dunham said, laughing.

Dunham played with Prince for several years, contributing to 3121, Planet Earth, Indigo Nights and Lotusflow3r. He also played bass for Prince's proteges Ashley Támar Davis and Bria Valente.

"I know she was really nervous," Dunham said of Valente. "He was trying to get her out of her shell."

Being around Prince for quite some time, Dunham was exposed to the artist's spiritual side. We talked about Prince's invitations to Kingdom Hall (Dunham politely declined), and his practice of changing risque lyrics in live shows. I also asked Dunham if there was a spiritual moment onstage that stood out in his memory.

He immediately thought of a performance of "Come Together," which Prince performed regularly in 2006 and 2007, and occasionally in subsequent years.

"He just started saying, 'Let go and let God,'" Dunham said. "He just stayed there for a minute."

We also chatted about Larry Graham, who played the role of spiritual adviser in Prince's life, and how Prince's beliefs may or may not have shifted in later years (more in the book). And there were many funny stories, like the time Dunham and Coleman almost got their pay docked for an error onstage, or how they played Prince in a game of HORSE on their first visit to Paisley Park.

"I think Cora won," Dunham said.

Dunham also revisited his last phone call with Prince on the day before the superstar died. It's a sad moment, sure, but Dunham was able to hear his voice one last time and let him know he cared. In my opinion, that's something to cling to in the midst of the grief.


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Friday, January 25, 2019

"Beautiful, Loved and Blessed" - Interview with Ashley Támar Davis

"Me and Prince were always on a spiritual plane that was going the same way."

Photo courtesy of tamardavis.com

If you're a singer trying to break into the industry, I suppose you have to be ready to perform at the drop of a hat. But what if the person asking you to perform on the spot is Prince? And what if you were in his home?

I'm freaking out just thinking about it, but it was a cinch for Ashley Támar Davis. Her singing impressed Prince at his house party around 2004.

"We went into his studio and he let a drum loop just play," said Davis, who became a significant part of his musical and social circle. "I just [improvised]."

They almost met years earlier when she was doing demo work at age 11 with Morris Hayes, a keyboard player in Prince's New Power Generation band. (During her childhood, she was also a member of the pre-Destiny's Child group Girls Tyme.) Prince overheard her demo, and asked her to record "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," one of his favorite songs, according to Davis. But they weren't able to connect in person.

Davis performed "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" during Prince's epic medley at the 36th annual NAACP Image Awards in March 2005. I consider it one of his best televised performances of all time.

 

However, I wouldn't learn Davis's name until she appeared a year later on Prince's number-one album, 3121. Davis recalled Prince's creation of the title track.

"He would be playing a song and he would let a groove go by for minutes," she said. "And then, all of a sudden, he was like, 'Don't you want to come, 3121.'"

Davis sings on some of 3121's most spiritual songs, including "Beautiful, Loved and Blessed," a duet with Prince that she originally wrote for her solo album, Milk & Honey.

"He challenged me to compose music, and then to write a song that was very deep in meaning," she said. "He never said anything else but, 'Go deep.'"

The result is a beautiful R&B song about creation and man's connection to God. The track also fostered a spiritual bond between Prince and Davis, who is a Christian.

"It was the most emotional connection I'd ever had to anyone," she said. "The song didn't really come to life until we were getting ready to perform it for 'Saturday Night Live' [in 2006]."

 

"It was so heavy spiritually for us, he was like, 'Támar, you know we can never perform this song again,'" she continued.

Though some of their religious beliefs differed, Davis attended Kingdom Hall with Prince. She also said their spiritual conversations strengthened her own convictions.

Prince left Universal Records (he had a single-album distribution deal), and Davis's album was delayed indefinitely.

Davis's album was originally advertised as 
Beautiful, Loved & Blessed on an insert inside the 3121 CD.

"I was like, 'Well, what am I supposed to do, just wait until I get a call?'" she said.

After they parted ways, Davis went on to release two albums, act in multiple theater productions and compete on "The Voice." She looks back on her time with Prince as a period which enriched both their lives.

"Anyone who was [associated with] him, they would always feel like we were influenced by him musically," she said. "But what they don't know is I created all those songs [on Milk & Honey] from the ground up, except 'Kept Woman.' ... I was a vessel for him, and he was a vessel for me."

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Friday, January 18, 2019

"Rise, Rainbow Children, Rise!" - Interview with Najee

"He was really trying his best to evolve as a spiritual person and reflect that in his behavior."


Photo by Stephenson Photography

I'm losing track of how often I've told my origin story as a serious Prince fan, but here it goes again: I saw Purple Rain for the first time on BET in high school. When I saw him perform "Computer Blue" in the film, I was floored. It was like, 'Oh, this dude can play. He's a rock star!'"

I bought the soundtrack along with his latest album. So imagine a 17-year-old listening to the pop/rock/funk masterpiece Purple Rain and 2001's jazzy, Jehovah's Witness concept album The Rainbow Children back to back.

"That's like going from James Brown to Miles Davis's Bitches Brew or something," said jazz saxophonist and flutist Najee (née Jerome Najee Rasheed). He was introduced to Prince, then going by the unpronounceable symbol, in 1999 by rapper Doug E. Fresh.

"He called me up and he said, 'Yo, the Artist is looking for you,'" Najee said.

Najee went out to Paisley Park and participated in jam sessions, joined the Hit N Run Tour and recorded sax and flute parts for The Rainbow Children.

"I had some room to improvise, but a lot of the melodies were how he heard it," Najee said. "So I would come up with stuff and then he would say, 'Yeah, that's what I want right there.' And then in some cases, he would just sing exactly what it is he wanted."

And if Prince wanted Najee to play a certain arrangement for a show, he'd sometimes play it on guitar and record it on cassette for review. It didn't matter that Prince didn't read music; his pieces were still challenging for Najee, who studied at the New England Conservatory.

"I'd have to write it out because sometimes his stuff was so complex, I couldn't remember all of it," Najee said. "He was a true genius in every sense of the word."

I was especially interested in speaking to Najee about Prince's spirituality, given the saxophonist met Prince at arguably the height of his evangelism for the Jehovah's Witnesses. Just as I talked to keyboardist Matt Fink about the intersection of his Jewish faith with Prince's Christianity, I asked Najee how he received Prince's worldview as a Muslim.

"At the end of all our conversations, there was always a learning experience," Najee said. "We always found a commonality."

Not everyone was able to connect to The Rainbow Children, which was a marked shift in both messaging and musical direction. Rolling Stone doled out just two-and-a-half stars, while Spin magazine derided the project as "dirt-free, melody-free, jazz Olestra."

"A lot of people were either with it or they weren't," Najee said. "Of course, live, the music always came off. It was just always dope."





Najee played on select dates of the 2002 One Nite Alone Tour (he rotated with saxophonists Candy Dulfer and Maceo Parker). He flirted with the idea of recording an album with Prince before moving on. He last saw Prince around 2007.

Though they only collaborated for a few years, Najee has a wealth of funny and touching stories, many of which he graciously shared with me (I'll include them in the book). One especially stands out to me.

Najee recalled a time when his 11-year-old son was watching one of his sound checks with Prince.

"He's standing right next to Prince, watching him play the guitar. ... And he's asking questions," Najee said.

Embarrassed, Najee told his son not to disrupt.

"Prince checked me," Najee said. "He said, 'He's all right. Leave him alone.' And Prince literally shut down the sound check to talk to my son."

"These are the stories people never would know," Najee said. "I gained a better appreciation for him as a person."

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Friday, January 11, 2019

"Doctor!" - Interview with Matt Fink

"He was constantly struggling with what was right and wrong, what was moral or immoral."

Photo courtesy of facebook.com/matt.fink.969

A lot has been written about the cultural makeup of Prince's bands over the years, with journalists often highlighting the Jewish members of the Revolution, Matt "Doctor" Fink and Bobby Z. Rivkin. While those conversations were mostly centered on Prince's approach to image and sound, I've always wondered how the musicians engaged Prince's Christian ideology.

Fink spoke briefly on this at the Prince Lovesexy Symposium last year. I decided to follow up with a phone interview for my book.

"Jews have always been a minority everywhere they go or live," Fink said. "Because we had a lot of Christian friends living in the neighborhood, [my parents] wanted to give the whole Christmas tradition to my brother and I. So when we were growing up, we would celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah at the same time."

But as a child attending synagogue, Fink wasn't taught the concept of Jesus as the Savior of mankind. And he wouldn't have learned that in school. So being exposed to Prince's beliefs was a new experience.

"He, from day one, was very Christian-oriented," Fink said. "He wanted us to do prayer circles before every show, and each prayer was in Jesus's name. ... That felt uncomfortable to me. I didn't know what to think about it."

Prior to becoming a Jehovah's Witness, Prince didn't make a habit of speaking to a lot of people in his inner-circle about religion. "He didn't really talk about his belief system," Fink said. "He just acted on it and just sent that message out there, so all I can do is observe it and try to draw some opinions on it."

Fink shared his thoughts on topics like Prince's conversations with God onstage on the Purple Rain tour and on songs like "Temptation" on the 1985 Around the World in a Day album. He also talked about Prince's spiritual concept albums, 1988's Lovesexy, and 2001's The Rainbow Children.

Prince supported both projects by touring and preaching from the stage. Fink was present for the Lovesexy tour.

"He was talking to the audience for a pretty good amount of time [for] an arena show," he said. "It was pretty controversial in a lot of ways."

Following Lovesexy, Prince made the highly spiritual Graffiti Bridge movie, which flopped. "I don't like being critical of Prince," Fink said. "This is the only time I've ever been critical--when he did that film."

After leaving Prince's employ in 1990, Fink saw the superstar on a few more occasions. The last time was in 2014.

"He was considering a reunion with the Revolution," Fink said. "He was also disappointed with Prince tribute bands that were out there."

Prince's bodyguard Harlan Austin told me, "If you really want to know about Prince, who he is, listen to his music." I can write all day about my interpretations of Prince's art (and I do), but it's also important to collect the perspectives of those who knew him and created the art with him. So I am grateful to have spoken with Fink, who was part of Prince's career during the 1980s, when his pre-Jehovah's Witness Christian messaging was at its height.

And it's always interesting to get into Biblical discussion with folks who are open to it (regardless of their beliefs). So it was cool to touch on that with Fink, who talked about how Prince may have referenced Biblical prophecy in his work.

"For all we know, maybe we'll see Bible prophecy come true," Fink said.


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Friday, January 4, 2019

"Get Yo Groove On" - Interview with Rhonda Smith

"He would talk the talk, but he could back it up with scripture."


Photo courtesy of facebook.com/rhonda.smith.378

It's hard not to be a fangirl of bassist Rhonda Smith, who met Prince in the mid-1990s. Prince welcomed many talented women in his bands over the years, but he kept men on bass (Andre Cymone, Brown Mark, the great Sonny T.) until Smith came along.

She's talented and beautiful, and I uplift her as one of many important women of color who contributed to Prince's legacy--a fact that is often overlooked. She also has a pleasant voice.

I, on the other hand, was suppressing coughs during our interview last year. I was very sick, but you don't miss a call with Rhonda Smith. She was gracious enough to bear with me.

Smith began playing for Prince at a significant time. She was there just before he began his serious study of the Jehovah's Witness faith with Larry Graham, so she saw the changes in Prince.

"He would always spend time with everybody individually or want to have spiritual talks," she said. "It was a big part of who he was becoming at the time."

While most of the band and staff members would attend Kingdom Hall services with Prince, Smith opted out. "It wasn't really something that I was interested in getting involved with at the time," she said. "And he was fine with that."

In addition to playing on Prince's Emancipation album, Smith contributed to the acoustic record The Truth, one of my favorites. To me, "Don't Play Me" has one of the most meaningful lines regarding Prince's spirituality: "The only fame is the light that comes from God and the joy you get to say his name."

I asked Smith her thoughts on Prince's approach to fame in the midst of his religious conversion. We also talked about one of his signature spiritual phrases, "Welcome 2 the Dawn;" Rainbow Children (his Jehovah's Witness concept album); and why he may have still performed "Bambi" despite shelving other risque/controversial songs later in his career. I'm looking forward to sharing more in my book.

Overall, Smith noticed that Prince seemed more at peace after becoming a Jehovah's Witness. "The difference that I saw was the sureness that you see in an individual who feels more centered," she said. "The sureness that he was going in the right direction."

Smith didn't have much insight into Prince's spirituality before he passed; the last time she played with him was in 2009. However, if Prince had his way, she would've played with him after that.

"Prince asked me to go back at least twice, if not three times starting in 2010," she revealed. "But I was always committed to Jeff Beck, who I've been touring with for eight years now."

We can only wonder if Prince would have gone in a different musical direction if Smith had been available. One of my dream lineups would have been Prince, Smith, Kat Dyson on guitar and Sheila E. on drums.

Given Smith's tenure with Prince, it's no surprise his passing was devastating.

"There's a few things in my lifetime that I'll never forget where exactly I was standing, what I was doing," she said. "That's one of them. One of the other ones that I will never forget is when I woke up to 9/11. But this was even worse. This was the worst."

Smith was on the phone with Dyson, and they happened to be discussing Prince when they heard the news.

"What was the worst was all of these magazines and news people finding our personal phone numbers and calling us within minutes of getting the news," she said. "I certainly never did an interview because I didn't want to. I was just too emotional to do it."

Smith also said she received angry messages from fans accusing her of disrespecting Prince by remaining silent.

"Everybody's got a different way of dealing with this," she said. "It's major for fans, but imagine how major it is for people who actually knew him."

As fans, we cherish the memories of discovering Prince, buying his music and seeing him live in concert. Smith will cherish memories of collaborating and conversing with her friend.

"He was a funny man and a very nice cat," she said. "This was a man who read constantly, all kinds of books. ... [People] really don’t understand how intelligent he was."

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

"Love God" - Theology of Prince Journal

Over the holidays, the first journal solely devoted to interrogating the "theological, spiritual and religious motifs in Prince's work" was released by the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. I'm super honored to have contributed an academic paper, "He’s Your Messiah: Prince’s Purple Rain as an Expression of Christianity and Internal Conflict" (page 256-273).

Earlier this year, the seminary put out a call for submissions, including art, essays and poetry, and the best pieces in each category were rewarded. I heard the winners present their work at the Theology of Prince session of the Prince from Minneapolis Symposium.

It was a really cool surprise to be cited in Lianne Raymond's wonderful, winning academic paper, "Prince’s Spiritual Terroir: Relational Spirituality Rooted in Minneapolis" (page 244-255).

Click here to download the full journal.