Stokley, the soul man from St. Paul, was talking about Prince between songs Saturday at Paisley Park. Suddenly, he was overcome with emotion. He teared up and did an about face for a moment, hoping to compose himself.
He looked up at a photo of him and Prince projected on the big screen backdrop. Stokley picked up a towel, wiped his face and then turned around to the crowd. He was ready to sing.
Emotions of all kinds surfaced at Celebration 2023, a four-day celebration of all things Prince that ended Sunday. It was part concert, part museum, part education, part family reunion for more than 1,500 Purple believers and part peek into Prince's vaunted vault of unreleased recordings and concert footage.
At the fifth posthumous Celebration, there were more than 30 hours of organized official activities, not to mention unaffiliated Purple events at First Avenue, the Capri Theater and elsewhere. Celebration 2023 featured performances by Doug E. Fresh, Shelby J and Twin Cities acts Sounds of Blackness, Stokley, Nur-D, Nunnabove and Known Mpls. There were DJ parties, a one-on-one interview with Chaka Khan, a hip-hop panel featuring Chuck D of Public Enemy, free time in the museum and a whole lot more.
After two Celebrations organized by Graceland LLC and two by the Prince Estate, this year's event was helmed by Prince Legacy LLC, led by New York lawyer Londell McMillan and New York music maker Charles Spicer. They chose the theme of "7," because it was Prince's favorite number and this is the seventh year since he died.
McMillan said this is the first year that Paisley Park "will not lose money to produce Celebration."
Here are some highlights, quotes, quibbles and suggestions for next year.
At Sunday's gospel brunch, Known Mpls, Courtland Pickens' youth choir from North Minneapolis, offered a stunning George Floyd-inspired song, "I Can Finally Breathe Again," featuring Naomi Nichols. What a stirring, show-stopping performance, which earned a standing ovation and warranted wipe-away-the-tears tissues.
Who knew that Stokley was such a dynamic dancer? Limber, nimble, athletic, energetic and exciting. His showmanship matched the splendor of his music.
In a new-artist showcase, the enthusiastic, engaging-under-any-circumstances Nur-D impressed with both his singing and rapping, and Nunnabove, the sibling quartet from Woodbury, triumphed with a cover of Prince's "She's Always in My Hair," featuring 20-year-old Bennett Nunn's he's-got-it guitar work.
A panel on hip-hop was equally entertaining and informative, as Chuck D and Doug E. Fresh explained the essence and elements of hip-hop, and, at the end, Fresh free styled for nearly 15 minutes.
On June 6, 1985 (a day before his birthday), Prince, on falsetto vocals, collaborated with his piano playing father, John L. Nelson, on "Don't Play with Love," an unreleased ballad heard at Celebration 2023. There is banter between the two musicians as they're creating. "Say hello to love," Prince sings, "it's what we live for."
In 1999, when Chuck D pulled up at Paisley Park to meet Prince for the first time, the Minnesota icon was outside having a yard sale with price tags on guitars and amplifiers. D was incredulous. "This is crazier than the Charlie Murphy story about pancakes," he said referring to a 1985 incident when Prince challenged Murphy, Eddie's brother, to a game of basketball ("shirts against the blouses," Murphy called it) and after beating them in hoops in his stage clothes, Prince served his opponents pancakes.
In a far-from-verbose interview with a curator from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, new inductee Chaka Khan explained: "That's one of the beautiful things about me, how I like to cuss."
Damon Dixon, a former NPG dancer, once told Prince he was getting married. The boss asked, "Why?" Dixon said because he loved her. "Prince came to the wedding," the dancer reported.
Communication. Celebration 2023 tickets went on sale in early April, a mere two months in advance, but the list of performers and panel topics wasn't announced until three weeks later. The organization, communication and marketing left much to be desired.
Prince content. Donny English of Baltimore has attended all the Prince Celebrations, including the ones when Prince was alive. In what he called an "honest review" on Twitter on Sunday, English, 51, decried the lack of Prince content this year, figuring only 5% of the music and panel discussions dealt directly with the Purple One.
Cutting corners. A wrinkled tent tarp serving as a movie screen for distorted visual images of Prince in concert in Japan in 1986 is not acceptable. Not for VIP ticketholders paying $1,141 — or at any price. Prince set high standards; it's incumbent on Celebration to aim high.
Evasive answers. At a listening session for several unreleased songs, a fan asked Charles Spicer of Prince Legacy about plans for releasing new music (it's been two years since an album from the vault dropped). Spicer offered spin control about the challenge of transferring the recordings from old technology. On Twitter, English speculated that the real answer is "internal strife" in the Prince Legacy whereas all concert footage is on hold until after the contracted Netflix documentary.
Invisible Obamas. Barack and Michelle Obama sent a letter of condolence to Paisley Park and Prince's family after his death. However, their signatures from May 2016 on White House stationery (on display in Paisley's atrium) have already faded to the point of near invisibility. What kind of preservation is going on at Paisley Park?
What happened to the Steeles? In April, the Steeles were advertised as performers at Celebration 2023. However, last week they pulled out because they did not find the terms of the eventually proffered contract acceptable, J.D. Steele told me. They had performed at last year's Celebration.
Big-shot publicist. After using Twin Cities publicists for the previous four Celebrations, Paisley Park hired the high-powered New York-based Shore Fire Media, which represents Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and other music names big and small. Shore Fire even enlisted Kevin Mazur, a top-notch Getty Images photographer, to capture one day of activities. Surprisingly, the Shore Fire publicist dispatched to Chanhassen and Paisley Park's own communication specialist were slow to respond, and they asked media members to sign a three-page nondisclosure agreement (NDA) as they arrived at Paisley. How can media report on an event if they sign an NDA? What happened to the idea of a free press? I've never signed an NDA.
Advisory board. Paisley Park should consider forming an advisory board of, say, seven fans. Pay them to meet regularly and allow them veto power (at least five votes would be necessary) over (nonfinancial) programming decisions for Celebration. After all, the event is for the fams, as Prince called them.
Marquee names. Celebration should have a marquee name, be it in concert or conversation. Maybe one concert could be presented at a bigger downtown venue (Paisley's soundstage accommodates about 1,000) and open to non-Celebration-goers. Think H.E.R., Janelle Monae, Alicia Keys, Lenny Kravitz, Erykah Badu and Cory Wong, to name a few, or even a "Prince Live on the Big Screen with the Revolution" to commemorate the 40th anniversary of "Purple Rain" in 2024.
At Paisley Park, think Mavis Staples, 3rdEyeGirl, Norah Jones, Christone (Kingfish) Ingram and Chaka Khan, among others.
As for marquee speakers: Spike Lee, who's used Prince music in his movies and directed a Prince video; Tim Burton, who featured Prince music in "Batman"; Questlove, who could also do a DJ set; Dame Kristin Ann Scott Thomas, costar of "Under the Cherry Moon," and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis.
More Prince. At Sunday's gospel brunch, Donny English shared a simple suggestion with me: "Just press play." In other words, show more concert footage and introduce more unreleased recordings from the vault.
Reconfiguring panels. Limit panels to three people plus a moderator to encourage a flowing conversation, not merely a rigid interview in which every panelist responds to the same question. Panels should be respectful but not necessarily always polite. Fans deserve a full portrait of Prince, not just sanitized hagiography.
Panels to consider: drummers (Bobby Z, Sheila E, Michael Bland); publicists (Howard Bloom, Karen Lee, Michael Pagnotta); concert sound engineers (Scottie Baldwin, Cubby Colby); Glam Slam nightclub (Ruth Whitney, Gilbert Davison, Sotera Tschetter); Paisley Park & NPG Records (Alan Leeds, Craig Rice, Trevor Guy).
Corporate sponsorship? Although Prince might never have considered corporate sponsorship, times have changed in the music business. An outside source of funding for Celebration 2024 could be explored, perhaps grants or sponsorships.
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