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.