In the two years since Prince passed, one of the biggest revelations that has surfaced about his personal life is just how much money he was quietly funneling toward the causes he believed in, especially those that worked closely with marginalized youth in urban communities and provided students with access to music education. On what would have been his 60th birthday, a few of Prince’s closest associates — his second wife Manuela Testolini, childhood friend and bandmate André Cymone, and NPG keyboardist Chance Howard — gathered just a few blocks from where Prince Rogers Nelson grew up to pick up the baton and continue his legacy of generosity.
On Thursday morning, the trio unveiled a brand-new music room at Anwatin Middle School in Bryn Mawr, which had been transformed overnight from an unused classroom into a fully functioning practice space outfitted with 18 keyboards, a pair of guitars, and a collection of percussion instruments from around the world.
It was the second school in the Twin Cities this week to receive a donation from Testonili’s organization, In a Perfect World. The day before, she had visited Valley View Elementary School in Bloomington to assess their needs and bring in another load of instruments.
Testolini says she works to identify schools that could benefit most from the donations. She chose Valley View, for example, because “87 percent of the kids are on free and reduced lunch, which means they’re struggling at home financially.” And Anwatin was chosen because of its connection to Cymone; his wife, Katherine Copeland Anderson, attended middle school there, and André and Katherine have maintained a close relationship with the school’s principal, Ellen Shulman.
Principal Shulman presided over the donation ceremony on Thursday morning, which began with an assembly in the school’s gymnasium. As a sea of giddy students gathered in the bleachers on their second-to-last day of school and Prince music blared from a PA at the center of the basketball court, Testolini and Cymone looked around the room and smiled. They were joined by a team of Prince associates who had helped them to load in the instruments, including former Paisley Park technical director Dave Hampton and Prince’s former personal assistant, Robbie Paster. Prince’s nephew, President Nelson, was also there to take in the proceedings.
“This reminds me so much of Lincoln,” Andre said, shaking his head and surveying the gymnasium. For a moment he seems to be transported back to the first day of school in 1971, which was the day he first met a young Prince Rogers Nelson in the gym at Lincoln Junior High School, which was less than a mile north of Anwatin. He points to a far wall, remembering where they would have lined up next to one another to get their class schedules and strike up their first conversation.
Speaking to the students, Cymone took the opportunity to reflect on his own upbringing and offer a few words of wisdom to the young crowd.
“I grew up right around the corner and went to a school just like this. I was just like you, sitting there with your friends now,” he said, explaining that he had no idea that he would meet a fellow musician who would change his life. He also reflected on Prince’s own spirit of giving, saying, “Of all the things Prince was involved in and successful at, the thing he wanted most was to give back to the community. One of the last times I spoke with him, one of the things he said he wanted to do was start a community center to help young people play music.”
Following the assembly, the musicians led a group of students to the new music room, which had been kept secret until their visit. About a dozen young students from across the music program eagerly ran into the room and sat down behind the keyboards, and soon the entire room was filled with the cacophony of scales and chords. “I opened the door and my heart skipped a beat,” student Emily Arce said, eyes wide.
Cymone took a seat at the front of the class with his guitar, and before long he was leading the whole room in a “jam” on the theme for the television show Batman, one of the first songs he played with Prince. A few moments later he began strumming through Prince’s “Sometimes it Snows in April,” describing it as the “moment Prince climbed to the top of the mountain” as a songwriter; as he moved through the chords on his guitar, Testolini lowered the brim of her hat and wiped a tear from her eye.
“We didn’t want to let the day go by. It’s his 60th birthday, so it’s extra special,” she said afterward. “It’s a great cap on the end of the school year as well, for the kids to see this, and to be really excited about diving in when they get back. It’ll be here for them.”
The donation ceremony closed with remarks from the school’s music teacher, Edward Barlow, who was clearly overjoyed by the gesture and beloved by the students in the room. “Everybody in here, I hope you know that I care about you,” he said, beaming. “The passion for me is seeing you grow. That’s why I do it. Because one day you can’t do something and the next day you can. That’s what brings joy to me — it does matter, and it does make a difference.”
Photos by Steven Cohen: