Drawn by Magnus Atom
Hardcore Prince fans are a breed of our own. Known amongst ourselves as the Purple Circle, the Purple Army, and, in Canada, the New Power North, we are the people who would drop everything and every dollar whenever Prince came to town. The True Funk Soldiers who would fly to Minneapolis, Las Vegas, or anywhere for a special Prince show. The ones who stayed at the after parties until 4AM on a Monday knowing that, if they were lucky, the "Purple One" would grace the stage for another legendary aftershow. Super Prince fans have been banding together since the 80s, when Prince and other musical icons like David Bowie or Michael Jackson begged our allegiances. My own journey towards the fan group Purple Circle began at 14 years old, when I was still a dorky teenager in suburban Philadelphia. I had heard, even loved some of Prince’s music already. But the choice to go full throttle was a kind of silly, impulsive challenge my brother and I made to each other in the record store one day—“Why don’t we just become totally obsessed Prince fans?” Little did we know we would soon be hooked to Prince’s every word.
Musically, Prince could move me to dance or tears. The irresistible danceability of his music was only matched by the total virtuosity of Prince and the musicians he groomed. And the unflinching eroticism, magnetically seductive swagger, and promise of social emancipation were at once scandalous and newly liberating. As a pubescent teenager, “Lady Cab Driver” and “Erotic City” offered impulsive, compulsive sexuality not as the cause of my own insecurities, but as an escape. “Uptown” suggested the dancefloor as the front lines for raising consciousness. “Pink Cashmere” made heartbreak and longing seem lined with glamour during my first breakup. And “Housequake” made it feel like anyone who couldn’t keep up with the funk wasn’t worth my time. There was endless amount of material, and my brother and I rapturously consumed albums, movies, live shows, anything Prince.
Eventually, I would move to Toronto, and even though the words “Lansdowne and St. Clair” meant nothing to me, I was willing to bike up the steepest, slipperiest hills to get to the Prince tribute party I had seen advertised on high contrast purple posters in Kensington Market. Of course, I knew of Prince’s deep connection to Toronto — he had a house here on the Bridle Path, and played here often. He even recorded Musicology in Mississauga, ON and local musician Donna Grantis would come to form a key part of his band during my time here. Still, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But as the DJ spun early-evening deep cuts like “Partyman” from the Batman soundtrack and “She’s Always In My Hair,” I knew I was exactly in the right place. Prince footage I had never seen screened all night as the dance floor slowly filled with people decked in purple, gold and glitter. Adorned in Prince symbols and paisley, they gave each other hugs and laughs between dance breaks. I’ve never been to a family reunion, but I’m sure the best ones feel something like this.
I met and danced with people from all walks of life—lawyers, grandmothers, computer programmers—that night at Purplelectricity, Canada’s only recurring Prince party and a home for fans in Toronto. The next day, one of my newly made friends had added me to the popular Toronto Prince Fans Facebook group, as well as a smaller, secret group for hardcore fans. And this invitation marked the precise moment that I entered the outer circles of the Prince community I had only dreamed of. Finally, I had found people who felt the same way I did, in my new city and in the world. I was in.
By this time, Prince had already closed his online home for loyal fans, the NPG Music Club, where a paid membership gave one access to exclusive music and video releases. The site existed for five years before a British publishing group with rights to the “NPG” acronym filed a trademark lawsuit. And Prince’s own aggressive anti-piracy stance had killed most of the remaining fanclubs and websites. But in these groups and in our inboxes, the deep passion of the Purple Circle was alive and well. “We live and breathe Prince,” says DJ Dr. Baggie, who produces the Purplelectricity party and is a key figure in Canada’s Prince scene. “For me, Prince filled a spiritual void… Many fans see Prince as their god.” And it’s true. Besides the sheer fact of his musical genius, Prince had a strange, fantastic power on many people. Over the years, I saw Prince’s music help people through homelessness, depression, coming out. In my life, his music carried me as I grew older and got involved in queer and activist movements. When I thought more about my values and imagined the kind of society I wanted to live in, Prince’s world presented a possible version of the radically inclusive, infectiously funky, ecstatic utopia I desired. And though I was never at its centre, the Purple Circle became a home. I knew exactly where to turn to when Prince was threatening a surprise show, when a new album dropped, or when I needed to talk without reservation about the intense ways his music was working in me. We’d make plans to meet in a particular bar before a show, or message each other with after party details. While plenty of casual fans didn’t bother listening when Prince and his all-girl rock band released Plectrumelectrum in 2014, the die-hards pulled up and compared notes. It was as much exclusive as it was immersive.
We learned to expect stunts from our reclusive and eccentric icon, who was sometimes almost abusive to his fans, shutting down fan clubs and threatening legal action against his devotees. False leads, cease and desist orders— these were the norm. But rather than a test of our dedication, this behavior was almost a part of his charm. For instance, when a rogue tweet led thousands to line up for a surprise show at Massey Hall in 2014, I actually got a perverse kick out of it when it turned out to be a fluke. We always came back to Prince because, again, as Dr. Baggie put it, “Prince is an addiction.” But none of us were ready for April 21, 2016. When the texts and calls started coming in around noon that a medical emergency was going on inside Paisley Park, Prince’s Minneapolis headquarters, my heart nearly stopped. Like many others, I went into denial, hoping it was some kind of trick or mistake. But news spread that our idol, our icon, our god was gone. The Purple Circle simultaneously exploded with emotion and shut down in shock.
See, even though an outpouring of love and admiration has poured in from all sides, many in the Purple Circle, this family of fans Prince brought together, are paralyzed. Everybody’s a disaster. People are calling in sick to work. A lot of us can hardly listen to his music, hardly look at the memorabilia, hardly talk about it at all. We aren’t ready to go to the tribute parties popping up. For me, Prince has played such a huge part in my life, and a huge part in the life of Toronto, a city that loved him back. On some level I feel that I’m starting to accept his passing, and I’ve been going back through the catalogue from a new perspective. But it feels like there’s just a giant question mark looming above us all as to what's next. We've lost our idol. None of us know how to handle it, not just yet.
Whatever your or my relationship with Prince may be, we’re facing a different world now. And while we each mourn differently, we deserve to express our love for him however feels best. With this piece being just one of countless tributes to Prince, I realize that we all care enough to carry his life and music forward with us. That we’re all connected. Prince has left us with a mission to share the funk. A mission to take that purple, funky world we tried to build for ourselves—a world where gender is undone and reimagined, where seduction is introduction, where music is a tipsy conversation between lovers and friends—and build it with others.
Jonathan Valelly is a writer based in Toronto and a lover of all things Prince. Follow him on Twitter.