Local Current Blog

Prince symposium explores identity, Paisley staff memories on day 2

A photo of the "Prince from Minneapolis" program (Cecilia Johnson | MPR)

Prince took us to Uptown. He took us to church. And yesterday, he took us to school, drawing several dozen fans and scholars to the University of Minnesota for the second day of their “Prince from Minneapolis” symposium. After a breakfast of starfish (cookies) and coffee, attendees watched a handful of panels, many of which featured familiar figures from Prince’s career. Various breakout sessions tackled topics such as spiritualities, aesthetics, and the literal and theoretical properties of Paisley Park.

For better or worse, the symposium could be synopsized as “Prince experts talking to Prince experts.” When USC’s Griffin Woodworth played a clip of “Bob George” – which Prince trashed along with the rest of 1994’s The Black Album, a rare artifact these days – several in the classroom sang along. Some in the crowd seemed to have a better handle on Prince’s past than certain presenters. But there’s joy in that; where else do fams get to strut, except in pockets of fellow Prince obsessives?

So if most symposium attendees could quote Prince minutiae back and forth for hours, the event’s value lied not in any newly uncovered facts, but in analysis that situated Prince alongside historical and contemporary figures. During the “Race” breakout session, Joseph Vogel compared Under the Cherry Moon to James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village,” pointing out that both men evaded U.S. racism by situating themselves abroad (in the French Riviera and Switzerland, respectively). Twila Perry discussed Dred Scott and Nellie Stone Johnson‘s lives while explaining how Prince viewed work through the historical lens of slavery. Representing DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis, Dr. Roy Kay put Prince and Louis Armstrong in conversation with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Several “Race” presenters discussed Prince’s vocals. Kay used a blues framework to make meaning of his vocal patterns; Perry likened his screams to the operatic high C, so riveting and dramatic. Communing via Skype, Griffin Woodworth shared a fascinating exposition of “vocal cross-dressing” and gospel’s vocal connotations — which many white Americans missed due to a “lack of cultural literacy” — in a paper adapted from his upcoming book.

Later, eight “Prince alumni” joined in remembering their boss and the ways he changed their lives. Tour manager and Purple Rain assistant director Craig Rice moderated this plenary panel, which comprised bodyguard Harlan Austin, sound engineer Scottie Baldwin, hairstylist Kim Berry, sound engineer Dave Hampton, dancer Mayte Garcia, designer Stacia Lang, and designer Sotera Tschetter.

The panelists had the audience howling as they recounted personal moments with Prince. He’d summon Berry to do his hair at any hour, she says, including one time in particular at 5:30 a.m. “Are you getting ready to be somewhere?” she asked him. But he replied, “No, I’m going to bed.” Mayte slapped her knee upon the punchline, shaking with laughter.

Of course, working for Prince had its issues. He wasn’t “a monster,” as his industry reputation might have warned. But he wasn’t particularly empathetic. Berry hid her pregnancy from him for fear of shaking up his world. Tschetter says, “If you did fail, you were humiliated until you got it right.” Once, after an ungraceful severance, Scottie Baldwin remembers Prince claiming, “I’ve never fired anyone. They all fired themselves.”

Prince would never apologize outright, but Harlan Austin remembers one time he tried to make amends. While shooting the “Gett Off” music video, Prince made fun of the security specialist’s look: a yellow bandana tied above his forehead. “You look like Harriet Tubman,” Prince cried, and the whole band broke into laughter. But Austin says he must’ve realized how much that hurt. When he walked in the next day, Prince was wearing a bandana in the same style. “I thought I looked like Harriet Tubman,” Austin said. “You did!” Prince replied. “I make it look sexy.”

“Sometimes creativity is a blessing, and sometimes it’s a curse,” Sotera Tschetter says. She achieved career highlights working with Prince – one of which, she says, was directing the “7” music video – but she eventually quit due to the stressful pace and expectations.  Berry remembered a flight to Hawaii, when she watched Prince keep scribbling on pieces of paper. “Aren’t you going to take a vacation?” she asked. “I can’t,” he said. “When one song stops in my head, another one pops in.”

During the plenary panel entitled “Come,” the University of Minnesota’s Elliott Powell called the symposium a “love letter: to Prince, from Minneapolis.” While many of the audience members, presenters, and panelists hailed from outside the Twin Cities, their meeting in his hometown proved Powell right.