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In an engaging discussion with WAMU arts and culture reporter Elliot C. Williams, author and music journalist Andrea Swensson took fans on a journey through the creation and lasting impact of Prince. Swensson's new book, "Prince and Purple Rain: 40 Years," offers an in-depth look at a pivotal moment in the artist's career, drawing from more than 150 interviews with Prince's collaborators, friends and associates, as well as her own experiences with the iconic musician.

Swensson shared her perspective on Prince's early life and musical development. She explained that he grew up in a tight-knit black community in North Minneapolis, which was largely segregated from the rest of the city. Due to racism, Black musicians from this neighborhood struggled to book gigs elsewhere. She recalled that Prince watched his father, a jazz musician, having to play the piano behind a curtain at adult establishments to conceal his race. Swensson noted, "At the root and the core of the Minneapolis sound is a defiance from Prince to figure out how to break through that, and he was very strategic early on."

The author noted that Prince implemented this strategy when early in his career he told a Warner Brothers executive, "Don't make me Black." Swensson elaborated, "Of course Prince, as a proud Black man, and hugely proud of his role in the African-American community, he wasn't saying, you know, that he didn't want to be known as a Black person, but I think in the industry at that time, it was so deeply segregated that he knew that if he was marketed only to Black audiences, he would end up only on Black radio stations, only playing these certain kind of clubs, and he wanted to make music for all people."

Throughout the discussion, Swensson emphasized Prince's innovative spirit and boundless creativity. "He was masterful in combining spirituality and sexual innuendo that was a true calling for him," she remarked. She also touched on Prince's experimentation with synthesizers and drum machines, pushing the boundaries of what was possible in music.

Swensson's passion for Prince's legacy shone through as she shared her research and interactions with the artist. One particularly memorable moment occurred when Swensson drew a small doodle of Prince and his band performing at the Dakota Jazz Club in her notebook. Despite her self-described lack of artistic skills, she found the sketch endearing and included it in her review of the show. The following morning, to her surprise, she received an email from someone she believed to be Prince's manager at the time but later discovered was Prince himself. The message stated, "Prince would like to own your drawing." Swensson agreed, and the next day, Prince released a recording from the show featuring her drawing as the cover art. To this day, Swensson still marvels at the surreal nature of the experience, finding it just as odd and hilarious as she did when it first happened, "I still have no idea what to make of any of this. I mean, it's still as odd and hilarious to me as it was the day it happened."

With the 40th anniversary of Purple Rain, Swensson's work celebrates Prince's enduring artistry and cultural impact. Her book offers a fascinating glimpse into the creation of a landmark album and film while also exploring the man behind the music – his creative vision, deep connection to his hometown, and unwavering commitment to authenticity and self-expression.

"It's just so special to me that it's still so important," Swensson reflected. "To know that it's continuing to be important for new generations is so meaningful to me, and I just feel so proud to be a Minnesotan and to be a person that got to exist in the same time and space as him somehow."

For Prince fans old and new, "Prince and Purple Rain: 40 Years" is an essential read, providing fresh insights into one of our time's most iconic and influential artists, as told by an author who had the rare opportunity to know him personally.

The full discussion can be viewed below. This event was generously supported by the DC Public Library Foundation. 

Audiences: All Ages
Topic: Author Talk