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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  1. Looking forward to reading this book. I loved that Prince saw the importance of teaching future generations about music. And his compassion for children. Heartwarming...�� He had such a gentle, compassionate soul and he is truly missed. #Love4OneAnother

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