A fellow Prince fan recently reminded me that my favorite holiday was coming up — Princemas! Fans of the late musical genius cheekily celebrate his birthday every June 7 in spite of the fact that our hero’s devotion to his Jehovah’s Witness precepts say otherwise. He encouraged his fans to do something positive on his birthday in place of a frivolous celebration.
He’s quoted as saying, “Compassion is an action word with no boundaries.”
Prince Rogers Nelson’s artistic life was molded by the compassion we now realize he himself gave unceasingly and in almost complete anonymity. The stories of his generosity are still being revealed after his untimely death on April 21.
As someone who also benefited from early exposure to the arts, I am especially intrigued by Prince’s devotion to his ballet teacher. Yes, ballet! Prince’s earliest interest in dance was sparked by ballet training he received when matched with artists from the Minnesota Dance Theatre in an early arts program called the Urban Arts Program, based in Minneapolis.
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His relationship with his dance teacher, Loyce Houlton, remained into his adulthood. He regularly consulted with her during his early touring days and used his celebrity to keep the dance company solvent through special benefit concerts.
Had there not been a Ms. Houlton or Mr. Jimmy Hamilton at Bryant Junior High School who allowed that shy and gifted kid to spend hours in the band room before and after school, would The Purple One have truly evolved into his higher self?
Supporting arts education and the teachers who see the Prince or the David Bowie in the “weird” or quiet kid in school is important toward preserving our unique, American cultural heritage.
Prince’s sound was a mix of the punk, funk, jazz and R&B of his childhood and adolescence. Arts education shows that there is no black or white music. There is only the sound of expression and the freedom that is unleashed with each teacher who says, “Yes!” to the initially imperfect movement, note, word or line placed on a page.
Arts education is about seeing and seizing the potential in young people. The wonder of discovering one’s passion and early lessons about hard work and practice to achieve a goal is a virtue being lost as arts programs and funding are continually cut and social media clouds our youth with hopes of fame from “likes,” views and seconds-long interactions on Snapchat.
If Prince had been discouraged from experimenting with rock ‘n’ roll as a young black man, would the world ever know his sultry and powerful guitar prowess?
Prince was the physical embodiment of freedom of expression. With each album and lyric he challenged us to also let go of our inhibitions and judgments of each other. He used his musicianship to seductively encourage anyone who listened not to be afraid of who they were. From his hit Cream:
You’re so good
Baby, there ain’t nobody better
So you should
Never, ever go by the letter
You’re so cool
Everything you do is success
Make the rules
Then break them all, cause you are the best
In an ode to his own gender-ambiguous lyrics, Prince was simultaneously our own Ms. Houlton and Mr. Hamilton, encouraging us to discover our unique brand of self-expression by way of an unpronounceable symbol or a not-yet-perfected, but earnestly executed plié.
Carla Hill is education and outreach manager for South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. She is the former director of national programs for the National YoungArts Foundation.