Prince – Ode to one of the Greatest Musicologists

By RW

{I’d been asked to contribute in this portal many a times but dither at some point due to one reason or the other. On this one, I’ll give my interaction with the music of this harmonious virtuoso. Ours is not only to acknowledge his life but now to live and reflect on what a rich legacy he left behind}

It’s been a momentous week in the world of music. The death of Prince Nelson Johnson known only as Prince (yes for you who thought it was a pseudonym…) has shaken the very core of the entertainment. It did steer some emotion when I first saw it on TV news headlines before jumping online onto Twitter and other social media sites to confirm my fears.

“I wanna be your brother,

I wanna be your mother and your sister, too

There ain’t no other,

That can do the things that I’ll do to you… I wanna be your lover”

Let’s start though from the beginning: – In 1979, one of the musician’s many hits made it to the charts in the decade of my birth, the song – I Wanna Be Your Lover. Interestingly not many noticed this songster’s eclectic work then but this marked his path to greatness – but it did mark my adoration with his melodic arrangements.

Prince 1979 album cover

Prince 1979 album cover(image courtesy bet.com)

In the 1980s, he made his mark both in music and cinema. One of my favourite album 1999 released in 1982 (performed and produced with his then band The Revolution) featuring the title song 1999 – one of my all-time greatest songs and another Little Red Corvette, proved that indeed he was an artiste ahead of his time. The song 1999 gained renewed fame in the year 1999 of course with the century coming to a close and the dubious Millenium Bug about to bite. The musician also refused to perform the song in that year and latter times seeking to limit exploitation by commercial interests in his work.

In 1984 he continues his prowess producing what would be his defining works, the movie Purple Rain with an album of the same title. This movie won him an Oscar (for Best Original Song Score) as well as 2 Grammys. All the singles from this album became top 10 world hits. While at that time I was just getting a grip of worldly matters, I’d slowly immerse myself into the music of the times and as one Chris Rock put it once, the music you listen while growing up, ends up growing on you.

In the Purple Rain (1984) album, Prince produced another hit When Doves Cry which has been covered by a number of other artistes including Ginuwine. Both versions were palatable by my take. He also had another banger I Would Die for You – a fast disco-like love song about underlying commitment to a person.

Being one of the few musical artistes who rarely did cover versions, in 1986 he produced his 8th album Parade which featured the hit song Kiss. In the same year, Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie managed to put together a collective of US-based musicians to work on the We Are the World project in aid of famine victims in Ethiopia. While most of the stars did indeed make time for the recording of the song and accompanying video, Prince and his band opted to skip the momentous session. This would see him suffer the wrath of fellow musicians and Hollywood Press who felt like the artiste was being selfish and already sinking into his own glorified world.

Indeed his absence from the We Are the World collective would haunt him in his later days of his career. He sought to give to charities away from the spotlight and also given his professed faith in Jehovah Witness – which seeks for one to make charitable acts without calling attention to self.

Coming into the 1990s, in what would be my teens and coming of age, Prince’s music also matured and produced some of the hits that I’d serenade the ladies with. Starting with Diamonds and Pearls in 1991 which featured Rosie Gaines vocals – true classic, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World released in 1994 – with a vocal range that I keep trying to wrap my finger around and to one of the collectible albums Emancipation in 1996. Though this album didn’t enjoy much airplay in this part of the world, it had one of my favourite Prince songs Somebody’s Somebody.

Prince's Guitar

(image courtesy of latimes.com)

I also remember back in the late 1990s when there were a handful FM stations, one of the then leading ones featured this album playing 5 of the songs in its afternoon show. I can’t recall the name of the show though I may be wrong, the presenter though was one Brodie Osome.  It is around the same time I managed to catch a good part of the Purple Rain movie. It did make sense now that Prince had sought to announce his arrival on the entertainment with the story of his life (by then). His music though would become a regular hum to our ears thanks to the liberalized airwaves and FM stations. The liberal acts of the late 1990s and early 2000s in Kenya, meant now that we could have a fairly balanced view of the world.

In the 1990s too, would be a momentous decade for Prince. He tried to free himself from his then record label Warner Brothers and because of this, he decided to change his name to the Love Symbol or what the Press christened him to be ‘The Artist(e) Formerly Known as Prince’. Such moves only fuelled the rumour mill of his mythological being among his fans as well as alleged evil worship to his detractors. This is what he stated at the time;

“Warner Bros took the name Prince, trademarked it and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music I wrote. The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros…I was born Prince and did not want to adopt another conventional name. The only acceptable replacement for my name, and my identity was (insert love sign), a symbol with no pronunciation, that is a representation of me and what my music is about. This symbol is present in my work over the years; it is a concept that has evolved from my frustration; it is who I am. It is my name.”

Prince Love Symbol

The Prince Love Symbol 

I remember once trying to place his symbol into a portraiture in school and the rest of the boys would have none of it believing it was indoctrination to the dark ways of the world. The 1990s had been a controversial era with Kenyan social scene laced with allegations of devil worship. I remember a Commission of Enquiry on devil worship, set up by the then regime. Also given the prominence of the Freemasons, who are known to use masonry symbols, the Love Symbol obviously didn’t make things better. Once he was let go by Warner Bros. contractual obligations, he did revert to his name and continued producing hits albeit less controversially and less provocative too.

My last memorable album from Prince is Musicology (2004) featuring the title song Musicology and another favourite Cinnamon Girl.  And as it was with most of his albums he arranged and played the instruments in this work.

For Prince, there was never a fine line between his expressions in the art of music as well as his sensuality, something that gave him the crossover effect in both black and white audiences; men and women as well as same sex people. If anything, valor in singing and wearing it well – make-up or using moisturizing cream meant he set the fashion trends for some both men and women. Some on Twitterati have argued that Prince was one of the few artiste who would slice a man his chick and still wear it better than the lady.

Prince is also one of the few artiste who did their own albums rarely doing cover versions (my only recollection being songs in the Emancipation (1996) album like Betcha by Golly Wow! which he covered with great aplomb). He also rarely did single songs ( are Kenyan musical artistes listening?) preferring to do albums which would take longer and of course put him on collision course with record labels and promoters. Touring dates also played a role in this.

He also worked in collaboration with other artistes including Sheena Easton ( U Got the Look) and Madonna ( Love Song), as well as working with Tevin Campbell in Round and Round among many others.

Prince’s clashes with music labels and tech companies foretold a period where recording labels ultimately gave power to the musicians and bands. Not one to quickly take up technology, he removed all his music from online portals like YouTube and other free music streaming sites. He only took up certain technologies such as Twitter and Instagram much later, though he did most of the updates himself retaining his authenticity.

There’s word that some of his music troves include hundreds of songs yet to be released. Though his lifestyle and eccentricities may have had the better of him, for now I choose to celebrate this genius with the ‘few’ albums he managed to share with us in this verse from one of his songs;

This big ol’ world can be so empty livin’ in it all alone,

I realize, in its best disguise, a pretty house don’t make a home,

There’s a hunger deep inside of me, how the fire burn

RIP Prince…

 

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Showcasing the best in the Kenyan Visual and Performance Arts. Run by Njeri Wangari a Published performance Poet, Blogger and Tech Enthusiast.