In 2010, I was tasked with writing a salutatory biography on Prince for the program book that was distributed only to attendees of the 2010 BET Awards in Los Angeles. There was only one problem: no current bio on Prince existed. Because the world knew who Prince was. He had long surpassed the point of needing one. But the award show booklet did. So I opened my journalistic toolbox, and researched 40 years of Prince in all his permutations.
Fortunately, I was a rabid Prince fan. This was borne out of being strictly forbidden to adore him as a young girl because he was usually naked and fiercely provocative. My mother banned him from my poster wall, leaving it to the Jacksons. So by the time I got to college at 16, I was focused on seeing and hearing and studying the artistry of Prince at every opportunity. I summoned all of this fandom and poured it into the mission, which was to wrangle four decades of achievement onto *one* page of a spread, that included a flawless photo of him, resplendent in a white bejeweled pantsuit.
For weeks, I toiled on this bio. I was unable to interview him. The conferring of his award was a secret–even within BET, so the bio assignment was called “Project Lester” by the booklet’s art director, Kundia Wood. I finished the draft and sat on every pin and needle praying he would not rip my attempt at encapsulating his career to shreds. He alone would be the approver. I was freaking. Out. The word came back, with one note to delete a sentence that I cannot discuss. To have this genius approve my writing will be a career milestone for me forever. I can only imagine that Anna Wintour would be more formidable editor than Prince.
Yesterday, Prince Rogers Nelson left the planet; strutting into a spin of purple stardust to assume his ancestral throne. I haven’t fully processed this, and surely won’t for quite some time; he informed so much of my understanding of the power of one’s own ideas. He confirmed that it was natural to embrace the sacred and the profane, and to own one’s personhood on one’s own terms without apology. As a young Black girl growing up in Inglewood, getting these messages from a petite yet larger than life, Black but otherworldly human with glittering eyes and a soul-piercing voice was truly a godsend. Like no other public figure, Prince told me it was okay to be me. To make up words, to conjure new language, to write for hours in journals. So having this same person tell me my writing–about him–had his blessing? Psssh.
I am still in a bit of denial at his passing. I woke up today feeling like the world was off its tilt. As the mourning and the remembering unfurled over the last 24 hours, it occurred to me that only the 1500 or so people who took the booklet home from the 2010 BET Awards had read this bio. Until now. Maybe someone will update Wikipedia.
2010 Lifetime Achievement Award
Few artists have created a body of work as dynamic or as diverse as Prince. No other recoding artist has accomplished what he has in music, film, or new media; he is a one man juggernaut, uniting the genres of funk, rock, soul, jazz, R&B, pop, rap and new wave under one sound: his.
In the 1970s, Prince Rogers Nelson became a central figure of ‘Uptown,’ an underground funk scene in his native Minneapolis. In 1976, the demo he cut with the help of producer Chris Moon and Owen Husney caused a bidding war eventually won by Warner Bros.
The now classic For You, his first recording for Warner Bros., was recorded in 1978 with him listed as sole writer, performer, arranger and producer. His debut was a foreshadowing of the potent sexuality tempered by emotional vulnerability and love for the sacred that would become his hallmark. With a catalog too extensive to list, Prince proved himself to be prolific, consistent and ultimately prophetic on albums like Dirty Mind (1980), Controversy, and 1999 (1983), which garnered global multi-platinum sales. Provocative and political, the album’s title track managed to protest nuclear proliferation and pack dance floors, earning Prince his first global Top 10 hit and Grammy® nod. In 1984, leading his band, The Revolution, Prince took the entertainment world by storm with Purple Rain, the 13-times platinum Oscar®-winning soundtrack to the cult classic film of the same name. $80 million at the box office was unheard of for a film with a Black male artist in the lead. Purple Rain immortalized Prince as one of the most influential artists of the 80s. He closed the decade out with the chart-topping Batman Soundtrack (1989).
The next decade, however, would test both his dominance in the marketplace and his indomitable spirit. His relationship with the label became acrimonious, and the fight went public: he emblazoned the word ‘slave’ on his cheek, changed his name to the unpronounceable love symbol, and became known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. Prince’s independence was far ahead of the wave of marquee artists to enjoy success without a major label. He also took to the Internet, wielding it as a means of distribution for NPG Records via the NPG Music Club website and membership driven social network, the first of its kind for an iconic recording star. Prince also challenged companies such as YouTube, eBay, and The Pirate Bay for allegedly encouraging copyright violations, which highlighted the need for protocols to help rights holders protect their property.
The new millennium ushered in the re-emergence of Prince in name and creative output. He was inducted into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He sought out label partnerships for all his subsequent releases: Musicology (Columbia records, 2004); 3121 (Universal Records, 2006); and Planet Earth (Columbia Records, 2007). In 2007, the stars (and clouds) aligned to literally shower him with purple rain the night of his Super Bowl XLI halftime performance before 140 million viewers, followed by a record-breaking run at London’s O2 Arena for the Earth Tour. In 2009, Prince released the triple album set featuring LOtUSFLOW3R, MPLSoUND and Elixer by Bria Valente.
After 100 million albums sold, seven Grammy® awards, a Golden Globe, an Oscar®, and a Webby Award for visionary use of the Internet, the influence of Prince is endless. His chameleon-like image, signature style and constantly evolving sound all echo in the work of two generations of artists across multiple genres. As a songwriter and producer, he has collaborated with legendary artists including Mavis Staples, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Celine Dion, Madonna, and Sinead O’Connor. Over the course of his career, Prince helped to launch, propel or extend the careers of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Sheila E., Morris Day & The Time, Wendy & Lisa, Madhouse, Brown Mark, Jesse Johnson, Vanity 6, Appollonia 6, Rosie Gaines, and others. For five decades, Prince has given the world countless musical, entrepreneurial, and spiritual gifts. Love is at the foundation of all he gives: love of God, humanity, and the world. For this and more, BET is proud to confer upon him the 2010 BET Award for Lifetime Achievement.
They say two thousand zero zero/party over/oops/out of time -Prince, “1999”
Thank you, Prince Rogers Nelson, for every single moment.
Thembisa S. Mshaka is a journalist, author of Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business, filmmaker, and award-winning creative campaign writer. During her tenure at Sony Music, she served as the senior copywriter for Prince’s Musicology album. Her first Prince concert was the Lovesexy Tour.