Friday, May 31, 2019

"Come to the Park and Play" - Interview with Kathy Good

Photo courtesy of Kathy Good

It's been over 25 years since Kathy Good went in search of Prince in New York City. Trudging over snow and ice in the dead of winter, she asked passersby where he might be. Visits to Central Park, the zoo and even a rooftop proved fruitless.

That was the story line for Good's audition tape for Prince's 1994 video, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." A huge fan since the early '80s, the New York native saw Prince's vague newspaper ad--"Eligible bachelor seeks the most beautiful girl in the world," it read--and sent in a couple snapshots at the behest of her friends. Selected as one of the finalists, she was asked to submit a video.

Then, Prince called her at home.

Kathy Good's audition video for "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" 

"He said, 'Who did your video?'" Good recalled, laughing. "Those were the first words. ... And he asked what I was wearing."

With a background in sound recording and experience managing post-production for commercials and film, Good's audio/visual skills were evident. Prince saw something in her and invited her to be in his music video.

Prince's newspaper ad for "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,"
courtesy of Kathy Good

According to Good, original plans to host the shoot in Los Angeles were derailed by the massive 1994 earthquake. To her delight, production was moved to Prince's home, Paisley Park.

At the airport, she met a woman who was also en route to the video shoot.

"I was like, 'Wait a minute, there are other girls?'" Good said. "'I thought I was the only one.'"

Correspondence from Paisley Park,
courtesy of Kathy Good

In fact, Prince featured several women of myriad colors, shapes and sizes in various roles (singer, mother and even president).

With her dreadlocks and signature top hat (she wears one every day), Good felt out of place. She was also one of the oldest women there.

"I'm this funky girl and there were all these girls with beautiful hair and long eyelashes," said Good, who did her own makeup for the shoot. "I'm just not that kind of girl. I'm a nerd."

But in the video, Good, who portrays a director, is striking. Though Antoine Fuqua was hired to direct the video, Prince ended up coaching Good through her performance. They also formed a bond on set.

"I followed him all around," she recalled. She also stood in for his lighting and held his cane while he filmed his scenes.

"After a while he just gave it to me," she said.

At the end of shoot, Prince pulled her aside. "I want to work with you," he said. Nothing ever came of that desire, but she did see him again at one of his shows in New York.

"He's like, 'Hang out and we'll dance together,'" she said. But she didn't want to be a hanger-on.

"I'm just not about being in that scene," she said. "What did I have to show him? I didn't have anything. I didn't have music."

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Now that Prince is gone, Good has her memories--watching him walk up the stairs in pants that exposed his behind through a layer of mesh; that time he told her not to dirty up his bathroom; that other time he joked about disliking peanut butter and chocolate cookies.

But she has so much more. Like others who have interacted with Prince, she has been inspired beyond measure.

"After the whole thing happened, I was like, 'Well, what was that all about?'" Good said. "'It's gotta be something more.' And I thought, 'Well, maybe it's to come into my own. I never was doing what I really should be doing because I'm a creative person. And I was doing a job that wasn't creative at all, and it was very frustrating to me. But when he died, I thought, 'You know what? You just have to go for it.'"

Today, Good is fully committed to her work as a watercolor painter and writer, creating whimsical, Gothic characters for children. She recently completed her first art show at her local library.

Painting of Prince by Kathy Good.
"It's small, just like him," she said.

More than 25 years after being found by Good, Prince remains a steady presence in her life.

"I think he just had such a big, powerful soul that touched so many people in a cosmic way," she said.

Follow Kathy Good on Instagram @kgoodart

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Friday, May 24, 2019

"She's Our Inspiration" - Prince and Aunt Esther

"Hold, it Fred!"

The unmistakable voice of Aunt Esther rings out at the end of Prince and the New Power Generation's 1991 song, "Gangster Glam." In the video, a classic for the "mankini" scene alone (just watch and you'll understand), the God-fearing older woman's picture flashes across the screen in sync with the line.

For those who didn't grow up in the 1970s--a golden age for black television--or catch enough old TV reruns in later years, Aunt Esther Anderson was a character on "Sanford and Son," starring comedian Redd Foxx as widowed junk dealer Fred Sanford.

Portrayed by comedian LaWanda Page, Aunt Esther was Sanford's sanctified sister-in-law. She never missed an opportunity to reprimand the irascible Sanford, often with her trademark phrase, "Watch it, sucker!" Their classic trading of insults--usually in Sanford's Watt's, Los Angeles, home--was a highlight of the show.

In real life, Page and Foxx were great friends. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1920, Page grew up in St. Louis, attending elementary school with Foxx. She spent time playing the chitlin' circuit, a series of venues accepting of black people, "where if you ain't home by 9 o'clock you can be declared legally dead," she once said. Page moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s. There, she joined comedy group Skillet, Leroy & Co. before Foxx recruited her for "Sanford and Son."

"I'd freeze up every time Redd would come into the rehearsal hall," Page said of her rocky first days on set. "They were going to let me go, but Redd said, 'No.' ... I went over to Redd's house that Sunday and we went over that script and got it together! Redd told me to let myself go and do it my way ... and when we taped on Tuesday that's just what I did. And, baby, it went over!"

Running from 1972 to 1977, "Sanford and Son" was a highly successful sitcom--though not without its criticism--breaking barriers for and influencing future black shows. It was part of noted producer Norman Lear's stable of hit shows, which were celebrated for tackling social and political issues of the day. (A testament to Lear's ongoing significance, live remakes of his shows, "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons," just aired on ABC Wednesday, May 22.)

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A teenager in the '70s, Prince clearly watched "Sanford and Son" like most American families. And like many black artists, he was inspired by iconic black characters like Aunt Esther, and paid homage to her through his songs and videos. In addition to appearing in "Gangster Glam," the character shows up in 1992's "Sexy M.F." in the most fitting way: as part of an insult-trading session.

"Would you check my messages, please, and see if Prince's mama called?" NPG guitarist Levi Seacer says in the video, holding up a fan with Aunt Esther's picture printed on the front. The fan was later made available as part of a "Sexy M.F." promo kit, which included the song on a gold 12-inch record.

"She's our inspiration," Prince said of Aunt Esther in a 1991 Spin article.

"Black comedy feeds all other black art," said writer Scott Woods, whose book of essays, Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods, was released last year. "If you were rocking [Redd] Foxx in the late '60s or early-mid '70s, you came across Page. ... She's easy to love as ribald comedy goes, and she was just obscure enough by the '80s that you could borrow her energy and stuff without being obvious."

That content was mined from six comedy albums, including 1972's gold-certified Watch It Sucker!, which capitalized on the success of "Sanford and Son." While Page was a devout Christian as "Aunt Esther," her stand-up was extremely raunchy. Of course, that same dichotomy was not foreign to Prince, who could write spiritual songs like "God" or "Anna Stesia" just as easily as explicit songs like "Head" or "Darling Nikki."

LaWanda Page portraying, of course, a religious woman on "The Richard Pryor Show." 

While Prince later became a Jehovah's Witness, Page was not affiliated with a particular group. Nonetheless, she was said to have "strong religious convictions," according to an interview with Ontario Daily Report.

While Redd Foxx's life ended tragically in 1991, Page lived a decade longer, and saw a resurgence in the '90s. She had guest roles on TV shows like "Martin" (Martin Lawrence and Tichina Arnold's ribbing was reminiscent of Foxx and Page) and cameos in movies like "Friday," which featured her, ironically, as a foul-mouthed Jehovah's Witness.

She also collaborated with RuPaul, guesting on the drag queen's classic 1992 song, "Supermodel (You Better Work)," and starring in the music video for "Back to My Roots" in 1993.

"I loved making it," Page said of the video in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. "They treated me like I was Queen Elizabeth.”

When asked about retiring, the comedian said, "Honey, I tried, but people won’t let me.”

It's too bad she never appeared in the flesh in Prince's videos. For "Gangster Glam," Prince also attempted to get video star Leisl AuVante to say, "Hold it, Fred!" during the shoot.

"I tried over and over but I couldn’t catch the rhythm," AuVante said in an interview with writer Laura Tiebert. "He knew I was always a beat behind.”

Prince and Page shared more in common than a robust sense of humor. Like the Purple One, she was an entertainer of many talents, getting her pre-comedy start as a dancer. She added a fire-eating act, billing herself as the Bronze Goddess of Fire, though she nearly burned a club down perfecting her tricks. She later showed off her skills in a circus-themed episode of "Sanford and Son."

Like Prince, Page had a charitable spirit, caring for her ill mother and divulging plans to open a school for handicapped children to Jet magazine.

Jet magazine, Oct. 6, 1977

After decades in entertainment, Page died at 81 years old in 2002 from complications of diabetes. Her memory lives on through fans like RuPaul, who quoted a line from the comedian's Watch It Sucker! album on a recent episode of "RuPaul's Drag Race" ("You was crazy as hell when they brought you here, but you're in your right damn mind now").

"As a tribute to comic genius LaWanda Page, I pronounce
military as 'mill-lent-terry,'" RuPaul tweeted on May 24, 2016.

Billed as the "queen of comedy" during her career, Page is viewed as a pioneer for other women comedians.

"I did attend her funeral out of homage and respect," said comedian Luenell, according to writer Darryl Littleton. "[I said], 'Thank you for the work that you have done. Had it not been for you there would be no opportunity for me.'"

"It makes me happy that I’ve paved the way for a lot of young comedians,” Page once told Entertainment Weekly.


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Friday, May 17, 2019

"Surely people that created rhythm and blues ..." - Howard Journal of Communications' Prince Issue

"Let's stop and take a moment to look at yourself. There is nothing minor about you. You are a blessed people. You're the most talented on Earth and you are still grateful. That is why upon winning in their game, you always thank God. Tonight, I would like to ask one favor of you. Imagine what it would be like in our own game." 

- Prince, 2000 Soul Train Awards

In December, the Howard Journal of Communications published a special Prince issue, "Centering race in the life and work of 'The Purple One.'" The icon's racial politics are examined through a collection of papers covering everything from his stance on intellectual property to his depiction of the black experience in music videos.

"It is critical that we strive to ensure that the legacy and essence of Prince not be viewed solely through a hegemonic lens, highlighting him as a man who transcended race;" editors Kimberly R. Moffitt and W. Russell Robinson write in the intro, "But instead, as a musical genius we believe embodied his blackness as a forethought, not an afterthought to his authentic self."

Moffitt and Robinson were inspired to create this issue at the 2017 Purple Reign Conference, where they presented their work, "Transgressions in Purple: The Prince Protest Mixtape, Vol. 1," at the University of Salford. During the week, they said they noticed emphasis placed on Prince's universal appeal, while his race was minimized.

I don't recall feeling that way at that particular conference (I presented on spirituality), but as I've participated in more academic events, engaged with fans online and consumed new articles on Prince, I've noticed a troubling whitewashing of his image.

That is why I was so thrilled to discover this special issue of the Howard Journal of Communications. The scholars have produced significant, thought-provoking writing on Prince and race. Honestly, I feel it should be required reading for fans interested in understanding Prince's motivations. And I would love to see versions of these pieces created for mainstream publications and websites (Essence, The Atlantic, etc.) so casual fans of Prince and/or popular music have access to this information.

Unfortunately, Prince's heyday preceded two developments: A greater amount of black writers employed at media outlets (though still not nearly enough) and the advent of the internet "think piece." Today, each time Beyonce releases new music or visuals, there is so much intelligent analysis on her symbolism and other messaging--and it always centers her blackness. We barely had that in real time for Prince's output. That's why so many of us are pushing for it now.

This journal issue impacted me emotionally and intellectually, and allowed me to examine some of the problematic, race-based messages that even I had internalized about Prince. I will need to spend more time with the issue to fully digest its contents, but here are several immediate takeaways from my first reading.

1. Prince loved and supported black women.

Kamilah Cummings' brilliant and exhaustive paper, "Sisters in the Shadows: an Examination of Prince's 'Strange Relationship' with Black Women," is the content I have been craving for a while. It has been unsettling to see the erasure of black women in Prince's legacy in both scholarship and mainstream media.

Black and white people alike have charged Prince with practicing colorism in his romantic life, and highlighted the contributions of non-black women to Prince's career. Since Prince's death, we have more information about the black women (of all hues) that he dated and the black women he supported philanthropically. We've also learned more and more about the black women working for Prince behind the scenes.

And we now have scholars like Cummings who can go back and analyze and synthesize Prince's lyrics, visuals, interviews, selection of musicians and vocalists, as well as other decisions--which we've had in front of us all along--to demonstrate just how much Prince elevated black women.

None of this is to say Prince was perfect and didn't evolve in some of his viewpoints or ways of expressing his support of black women. Cummings addresses that growth, and ultimately accomplishes her goal to present Prince's support of black women "as an indisputable example of his love of not only black women but of his own blackness and the black community."

2. Prince's spiritual messages intersect with his messages about race.

When it comes to spirituality, Prince loved to talk in code. He has confirmed "de-elevator" means the devil in "Let's Go Crazy." He's given enough context clues for fans to make an educated guess that "Spooky Electric"--referenced on the Lovesexy album--is the devil. In "Anna Stesia," he reminded us that "God is love," which would cause one to interpret his future use of the word ("Let love guide you to the Purple Rain;" "Love opened its arms;" "Live 4 Love") as a code for the deity. I could go on and on.

But this journal opened my eyes to the possibility that Prince's descriptions of spiritual paradises are promises of liberation for black people, specifically. In his paper, "Purple Visions of Blackness: Prince's Expansion of the Depictions of Black Experiences Though His Music Videos," Sedrick Smith cites videos like "Holy River" And "Betcha By Golly Wow" to demonstrate Prince's hopes for black people.

"Prince takes earthly elements (stars and rivers) and uses them as gateways into new future realms for black people," he writes. "In these future realms black people are free to be whomever they wish to be, however they wish to be."
"It'll be all over when the people are free/Free to be who and what they want to be." - Prince, "Act of God" (2010) 
As a result, I've been inspired to think about Prince's references to the "new world" and "afterworld" as more than Christian-based views of heaven. I'm reminded that some of Prince's most religious projects are also his most pro-black. The Rainbow Children, with its Jehovah's Witness doctrine mixed with messaging about the evils of slavery ("Muse 2 the Pharaoh," "Family Name"), is a prime example.

Prince's practice also brings to mind African American slaves' practice of using spirituals as texts for liberation from oppression. A day before I read this journal, I interviewed one of Prince's black employees, who interpreted songs like "Beautiful, Loved and Blessed" as being directed toward black people, even though the lyrics do not explicitly reference them. I do not take that as a coincidence.

3. Prince's name change to the Love Symbol is a commentary on the effects of chattel slavery.

This conclusion seems straightforward enough; after all, Prince did write the word "slave" on his face while challenging Warner Bros.' control over his creativity and ownership of his master recordings. But Anjali Vats' paper, "Prince of Intellectual Property: On Creatorship, Ownership, and Black Capitalism in Purple Afterworlds (Prince in/as Blackness)," delved deeper into the ways Prince signaled the damaging and lasting effects of slave owners re-naming African Americans.

The practice deprived black people of their right to keep their given, African name, and stripped them of their personhood and identity. It also provided white slave owners with "parental authority." Remade as property, black people's labor built wealth for the sole benefit of white people.

"The moniker 'Prince' became a corporate entity, a brand decoupled from the person," Vats writes. And Warner Brothers had authority and ownership over the music produced under that brand. Therefore, Prince's name change provided a freedom his ancestors were not able to experience.

Vats points out how the unspeakable and "empty" signifier is a fitting name for a brand that yields zero profit for Warner Bros. Furthermore, the writer brilliantly links the record label's inability to decipher the Love Symbol to illiteracy rates among black people in the aftermath of slavery. Unlike his ancestors, Prince was able to "best" his masters, "whose literacy did not match that of their star artist," Vats writes.

Prince could not totally prevent white control through naming. Reminded of the condescension and superiority slave masters exhibited while branding black people (literally and figuratively), I realized how hurtful media's nicknames may have been to Prince--especially when it came from another black person. With that in mind, Prince's song "Billy Jack Bitch," in response to gossip columnist C.J.'s "Symbolina" nickname, takes on a new meaning for me.

"What if I called you silly names/Just like the ones that you call me?" Prince sings. "What if I told you that you're worth/Only half of what you be?"

That last line is particularly chilling, given the history of subjugation of black people upon coming to America to be renamed, enslaved and oppressed.
"People, people what's ur name? Maybe we should start all over. Let everybody get in the game." - Prince, "Family Name" (2001)
4. Prince presented an expansion--not a transcendence--of blackness.

This entire special issue does a remarkable job of highlighting how Prince's image, behavior and business decisions reveal the expansive nature of blackness. For example, Prince's refusal to be included in Warner Bros.' R&B catalog was not an attempt to transcend race, but to demand greater respect as a black artist.

"[It] was an important act of claiming equality of creatorship and ownership, one that pushed back
against the notion that black art was and is inferior and deviant as compared to white
art," Vats writes.

Similarly, when Prince presented multiracial utopias ("Uptown," "Paisley Park"), he was advocating for equal participation in society for the black race.

As the articles lay out, Prince moved beyond stereotypes of black masculinity (dressing in traditionally feminine attire and showing vulnerability in lyrics); the black experience in many of his videos (eschewing violent, criminal depictions) and black women in lyrics (pushing back against demeaning language used by hip-hop artists). But that was to demonstrate that black people could be shown in more than one way.

By fighting for independence from his record label, referencing the exploitation of black artists before him, encouraging younger black artists to avoid record deals and emphasizing the power of black ownership across all industries, Prince was dedicated to expanding the current reality of being black in America.
"The system is broken. It's going to take the young people to fix it this time. We need new ideas, new life. ... The next time I come to Baltimore I want to stay in a hotel owned by you." - Prince, Baltimore 'Rally 4 Peace' concert (2015)
"What he showcased throughout his career was that blackness could be infinite, equally as unbound by convention as music could be," K.T. Whiteneir writes in his paper, "Dig if you will the Picture: Prince's Subversion of Hegemonic Black Masculinity, and the Fallacy of Racial Transcendence."

He continues:

"Rather than defining it as transcendent, and unintentionally dismiss a critical aspect of the artist and his work due to a limited scope of analytic vision, we as scholars and consumers are responsible for digging deeper into the artist's intent and expanding our own critical lenses if we are to engage with the sophistication of his work."

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Friday, May 10, 2019

"This Kind of Beauty ... " - Prince's "Most Beautiful" Women

Meet the stars of "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" video.

Photo by Phil Simms

In 1994, roughly two years before he married Mayte Garcia, Prince released the video for "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." However, the production didn't feature Garcia, whom Prince was dating at the time.

"I know of at least three women besides me who believe it was written specifically for them," Garcia said in her book, The Most Beautiful. "Take a look at the music video. ... You'll see a collage of girls and women of every age, race and body type. This was his love song to all of us."

The video was directed by Antoine Fuqua at Paisley Park. The Training Day filmmaker described the dreamlike environment in an interview with HuffPost.

"It was just women everywhere, hanging out and sitting around," he said. "It was like walking into a Warhol painting with rock stars hanging out."

Fuqua's favorite memory was Prince "floating" down the staircase to meet him.

"All I saw was this red, paisley-type outfit," Fuqua recalled. "It was like something out of an amazing Fellini movie."

As dreamy as Prince was, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" is all about women, and they are shown watching their fantasies come to life on a movie screen. The cast includes people who played special roles in Prince's life, and others whom he just met. Here's a brief introduction to a select few.

In the video, Nona Gaye portrays a black woman as the 43rd U.S. president.

"He was an incredible man, an unbelievable, unfathomably talented artist--we all know that--but he was also a beautiful, beautiful man," the model, singer, actress and daughter of Marvin Gaye told TV One after Prince passed away. "I miss him, and I will miss him for the rest of my life."

The video also features esteemed educator Marva Collins, who started the West Side Preparatory School in Chicago for low-income black children. In 1985, Prince donated $500,000 to help Collins start the West Side Preparatory School Teacher Training Institute.

Marva N. Collins receives a golden plate from Ernest W. Hahn for "Teacher Extraordinaire" during the 1982 
Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Awards.

"He was really excited and thrilled by the way she was teaching these little kids," Prince's protege Jill Jones said in our interview. "He sat and watched this class. ... He thought hard and long about the causes he did get involved with."

Jet magazine, Nov. 4, 1985

Syracuse actress Rita Worlock plays a comedian in the video.

"He had a vision; he knew what he wanted and he got it, but in a way where he wasn't a jerk," Worlock told "He was very into everyone's well-being. ... What saddens me is not a lot of people got to meet him like I did. He was cool, laid-back and all about the music, never about himself."

Marianne Cotrin, a Brazilian former model and competitive skydiver, portrays a bride in the video. 

"[It was] a very big loss for me--because I was a friend--and for the whole world," she said in an interview after Prince died.

Prince's longtime friend Leisl AuVante appears in the video as a woman reliving the birth of her child. 

"Spiritually, he was always fundamentally connected in a higher way, but it took him some time to find his true path," AuVante said in an interview with author Laura Tiebert. "The forces of good and evil pulled and tugged at him. The forces of the record industry can be very dirty. He had to navigate through the egos of musicians, and the drawbacks and benefits of fame."

The video also features a curvy woman viewing her fantasy of having a singing career. Prince didn't mention her name, but he became emotional talking about her in an interview with Q magazine.

"[She] wrote to him afterward saying that although she was overweight, he had made her feel beautiful," the journalist, Adrian Deevoy, relayed, "and she would lose weight with the intention of modeling one day."

When Deevoy asked Prince if physical beauty was overrated, the superstar replied, "Yes. See, you understand."

Photo by Phil Simms

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Friday, May 3, 2019

"Black Muse" - Prince Decor

This is a poster I purchased during my first trip to Paisley Park in 2018. For a long time, I thought I'd write about my visit, but it's too personal. Back in 2016, I made plans to display all of my Prince decorations, but I'm just now starting to follow through. And I've added more things since then.

This tambourine is also from Paisley Park. It cost ... a pretty penny, but it was worth it. The framed post card is a picture taken by Herb Ritts. I scored that on a trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

This is a painting of Canal Street in Manchester by S L Scott Art. I got it in the city in 2017, which was one of the best trips of my life, despite the tragedy that happened at the Manchester Arena a day before I arrived. I gave my first Prince presentation at the Purple Reign Conference at the University of Salford. I really need to get back to England.

This painting by Hemalatha Venkataraman was done on a tea bag! It's in my bathroom, which didn't do much to convince my sister that my apartment is not, in fact, a shrine to Prince.

I received this beauty by Kent Grosswiler as a gift. I will never stop singing, "Pimp rag, Tootsie Pop and a cane" randomly in my head.

Another gift, this portrait was done by Kristi Abbott. My leasing office is ... less than efficient, so I received this package several months after it was sent.

I tried to put a Love Symbol decal on my car today, but it fell apart. I snagged one of the last of the bunch from Electric Fetus, Prince's go-to record store in Minneapolis. The employees saw him all the time, and as one unenthusiastic clerk told me, his life remains unchanged. Sure, buddy.

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