Local Current Blog

Giant Steps conference celebrates creative entrepreneurship and Prince

Giant Steps conference on October 7, 2016. All photos by Cecilia Johnson / MPR.

On Friday, October 7, about 200 people gathered at the Minneapolis Convention Center for Giant Steps, an one-day conference put on for creative entrepreneurs. Creative entrepreneurs? The term’s definition is a little loose, but it covers anyone who makes a living off their art (even in part), whether they may be photographers, graphic designers, chefs or musicians.

At the conference, session topics bounced from taxes to global creativity to networking, but more than anything, one theme brought together the crowd: Prince. Purple art greeted attendees all over, and several of the panelists (David “TC” Ellis, Gary Hines, and more) had shared years of friendship with Prince.

The first panel, entitled “Controversy?,” sprang directly from Prince’s fidelity to himself and his passions. The session’s prompt asked, “What does it mean to be ‘unabashedly, unapologetically you’ in your work?” A handful of A++-list locals, comprising KARE 11 new anchor Jana Shortal, Clockwork co-founder/CEO Nancy Lyons, emcee Toni Blackman, and Sounds of Blackness founder/executive director Gary Hines, shared what they learned from Prince. For starters, Hines pointed out how loyal Prince was to his state: “From day one, the industry wanted Prince to move to L.A. From day one, he told them it was never going to happen.” Even more important than that, Prince’s music helped Lyons come out of the closet; “I’d never met a gay person,” she said, but after she bought a Controversy cassette, she said, she realized that the title song’s lyrics were asking the same questions she was. In no time, Lyons became a “rabid fan.”

Quite a bit of the panel centered around the idea of vulnerability as a strength. Part of Prince’s strength came from his quiet attitude, according to Hines. When Prince would call — usually at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, Hines noted with a smile — “The majority of a given conversation would be about spirituality. He really was a gentle soul — a strong soul, but he saw his meekness as a strength.” Blackman shared about her experiences being vulnerable through her art, tearing up while she pointed out how difficult openness can be. Lyons turned to her, looking in her eyes, and half-joked, “Are you looking for a best friend?”

The main takeaway from the panel: affirmation of individuality. Lyons said, “Our society tells us, ‘Sit down. Get in line. Wait for your turn.’” But when she tried to play by the rules, her career stayed mediocre. Just like Prince, she realized she needed to avoid the ordinary, embracing her uniqueness and ignoring those who’d have her fall in line. Shortal echoed Lyons, answering a question on the scariness of being true to herself with, “It was a hell of a lot scarier to pretend to be someone else.”

The rest of the day held much more discussion of Prince’s legacy. Several people, including musician PaviElle French, director of Arts and Culture at MSP Robyne Robinson, and The Current’s Andrea Swensson, shared poignant Prince stories — but I never felt more connected to his way of life than during that first conversation. His legacy lives on, I realized, and not for the first time. What an example he set.

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