Special to AMFM Magazine by Juanique Sealey Now approaching just one year ago, on April 20th, my world shifted on its axis. Along with the rest of humanity, I lost the iconic being – the superstar artist, performer, and musician known to us as Prince. But separately, I lost the teacher, mentor and person known to me as Prince. Like, permanently, and that was surreal.
I had lost direct contact with him years before, following a headrush whirlwind of an opportunity to work for him, during which the universe granted me a profound privilege that only few would know. Prince allowed me entrance into his life and mindspace.
As I came to know him, he was as stubborn, and as intentional and directed (by self and spirit) as anyone I had ever met in my life. To be honest, I genuinely believed that if there would ever be a person to purposefully not die, it would be him. So, the magnitude of my shock and disbelief when he did is unimaginable. It created a new reality for me – one in which I was certain that we will all, every single one of us, pass on from here, and, in which I knew that my lessons at the feet of this great master teacher were over. My mind’s door had always left open the possibility that we might one day soon reconnect over another conversation. A conversation in which I told him of all the ways that I put his teachings to good use – how I became a CEO, and how I learned do things independently, and how I reach out to help my sisters of all shades. But now, that door was closed – shut tightly and locked by a truth that could not be changed.
In tears, in circular conversations, in ridiculous spontaneous solo dance parties in the middle of the living room, I searched for meaning. In the heaviest moments, I cried in heaving sobs because the humbling weight of the most significant question burdened me with its insistence to be acknowledged and then answered: knowing now that his time was so short, why did you get any of it at all?
Let me tell you, it was my dream to work for Prince. Even after he hired me, it took him weeks to talk to me directly – little did I know that for some, that same number of weeks would equate to years. But, eventually, we did speak. In the first conversation, he took himself on a tour of my mind – dancing from topic to topic with outlandish statements to gauge my reactions and to probe my thinking and analysis. I imagine that he was satisfied with what he found there in that he requested a second conversation the following day. On that occasion, his first expertly-researched words to me pulled forth with precision the very heart of my deepest hurt of the moment, so that he could examine it – and then, relieve it with words that from anyone else would read as a well-meaning lie: That’s over now. You’re going to be fine. From him it was the elemental truth. With an open heart, unwarranted patience, and rapt attention, he listened to me tell my entire story, patiently, for over an hour, and this was his response: That’s over now. You’re going to be fine.
Ironically, it was this moment, the first thing that happened, on my very first time meeting him that triggers my tears. There had been so many other conversations since. So many other moments – so many encounters, so many other words. But, this was the moment that said everything about who he was, and how the time he spent with me was far beyond what I deserved.
There will be people who stopped reading this early because there have been no personal or embarrassing details to satisfy the pull of their hungry curiosity. There will be no answers found here to the lingering questions surrounding his life or death. If you’re still reading it’s because you’re still searching…for something more than just the cheap souvenir of a plastic memory. Something that will feed your soul and your spirit when a piece has been taken away. Prince was a person who knew that privacy was both protection and currency. He chose when to expend it and for what purposes. For this reason, those that really knew him, that really understood him, whose lives he personally and substantively intersected – for them, us, silence, our silence, is the highest tribute.
Still, like the recordings in the vault, some parts of him, the beautiful melodies that he created – the words that carry thoughts and dreams and visions of heaven, cannot be held secret and must be given back to a world that so desperately needs just a little more of his light.
So, here is how I choose to talk about Prince. As I’ve come to understand it – as I saw it, everything he did, everything and everyone he touched was in the end a composition. A song that would live beyond him, that, if finished with just the right elements, would do its own work in moving people past their worries, troubles and doubts into the higher vibration of a better place. His life lessons were effective in the way that a master composer would touch his pen to staff paper or his fingers to an instrument to make it reveal the very essence of its purpose for creation. My experience with him, I carried around like an unfinished work, which would be just mine – until his death forced me to reconsider. His passing made me realize that it was my responsibility to finish the work so that it could be shared. I focused on making the final transformation until I felt that I had gotten it right. That I had something to share that was remotely worthy of my teacher.
And so, I only have one Prince story to share from beginning to end. In as much as any one of his songs, or shows, statements or movies may have sparked a shift in your heart, or your mind – delivered courage where there was none, or love when it was needed or hope in a void – this is where I’ve learned to look for him now and where I’ve found him still, every time.
“That’s Over Now; You’re Going to Be Fine.” The lessons I learned from Prince.
I had never flown on a private plane before this trip, yet, similar to our flight to New York, on the flight back to Minneapolis, I was one of only three passengers, including the legendary artist, Prince.
At the outset, I was so green about this mode of travel that I started to panic, believing that we were going to “miss our flight” because we had arrived at the airport so late. Instead, almost synchronized with the last person’s feet reaching the top of the airstairs, the airplane door closed immediately behind us and we taxied down the runway for takeoff.
On the flight, we discussed preparations for the impending Welcome to Chicago performances and corresponding events. Even though I was originally employed as a lawyer for Prince and his record label, I had taken on some business responsibilities along with managerial duties for some of his New Power Generation roster artists. One of my first responsibilities was to make sure that one of the artists would make her promotional rounds and otherwise have a successful performance to introduce her to the Chicago audience. Although we were landing in Minneapolis near midnight, our flight in the morning to Chicago was just hours away.
Leaving the airport, from the back of our SUV, Prince said to me, “I’d like to do a performance before Chicago.”
I didn’t turn to look at him, but based on the simplicity of the statement and the hour of night, I thought that he was being wistful, rather than delivering notice of a wish to be fulfilled.
“I know, it would have been nice if we could.” I said.
He didn’t say another word the rest of the ride. In the seat behind me, he sat silently facing forward, his eyes covered by his customary dark glasses and his lips simply closed. Thinking the conversation was complete, I turned my thoughts to the next day’s responsibilities as the car continued to Paisley Park.
Arriving at Paisley, I just expected that we, the business team, would drop Prince off, settle any lingering details for the next day and head off to the “home away from home” hotel to steal what was left of the sleeping hours for the night. So, if you can imagine, I was simply shocked to walk into the Paisley soundstage area and see the band bustling about in the lobby. It wasn’t unusual for them to still be there, rehearsing at all hours of night; what was unusual was that they were actually packing up. Quitting early? I thought. The night before we leave for a big show? And then, I saw the girls, popping into the generous bathroom to put on their makeup. Putting on makeup… I wondered. And, then it clicked. We weren’t going to the hotel and neither was the band. There was going to be a show.
I remember next being in the car speeding into downtown Minneapolis, arriving at First Avenue, the location made famous as Prince’s first performance of the incomparable classic Purple Rain. The significance of history was lost to me in that moment, however, because my mind was sent reeling by the unfolding of a complete 15-piece band performance that had suddenly materialized before me in real time – all from a simple utterance on the way from the airport 45 minutes prior, that I thought should be dismissed as impossible.
It was happening. As I sat in the back corner of the darkened club, next to Prince at a two-top high table, the band had taken the stage and it was only then with a look of mild amusement that he said his next words to me.
“So what do you think, Jaunique?”
Simultaneously, I wanted to sink into the floor and float up to the clouds. Yes, my ego had been bruised a bit and I felt foolish in front of my idol turned boss, but I had learned that day. While my mind was conceiving impossibility, “impossible” was already being accomplished by someone with a different perspective.
The next day, we continued to Chicago and I wish I could say I had left my blunders in downtown Minneapolis. I hadn’t.
Following a listening party at the Chicago House of Blues, we were to embark on a grueling schedule of morning shows and PR rounds the next day starting at 4:30 am. I probably went to bed at 3 am. Thank God for the amazing showers at the Chicago Four Seasons, it was the only good part of that day.
Before 5 am, I had assembled eleven members of Prince’s band, The NPG, to accompany our artist to a morning show performance, scheduled to air at the 6 am hour. With everyone accounted for, we boarded the Sprinter bus and headed to the station. When we arrived, we entered a soundstage with nothing but a piano. No drum kit, no guitar amps, not even microphones, nothing needed for the performance. Nothing, except an 11-piece band, and me feeling like an incompetent disaster.
I was mortified. I called our PR executive on the West Coast and in her sleepy voice, she insistently told me that the lack of instruments was my fault, and that “everybody knows” that you need to order backline to perform at a television station. Everybody but me. Evidently, there is no “I” in everybody, because I. did. not. know. that.
Unbelievably, I had to shepherd the entire professional band back onto the bus because we were going to have to cancel the performance.
To say I was devastated would be like calling an amputation a paper cut. I was stunned – and humiliated. If I could, I would have evaporated into the wind, and blown off in a wisp of the brisk Chicago morning air.
In full triage mode on the phone with Prince’s manager, she was able to scramble a backup set of instruments from the United Center to meet us at the next interview location in time to make our appointment. I will never forget the relief I felt when I heard the sweet sound of those horns starting the familiar opening bars of the performance song. A relief that washed over quickly and was replaced with dread – knowing that there would be hell to pay when Prince found out.
Still operating on no sleep, once we had made our a.m. rounds, I collapsed on my bed at the hotel, not even taking notice of the luxe surroundings. My mother and cousin had driven in from Detroit, and it was all I could do to respond to their questions. Not only was I exhausted, I was also personally spent. Every atom in my body felt like lead. Sure, perhaps it was a rookie mistake, but the stakes were so high – on all levels. Eleven people dragged themselves out of their beds at the crack of dawn, for a broadcast television performance that had to be cancelled specifically because of my mistake. I had let myself down, our artist and the band, and worst of all, Prince, who had entrusted me with such a huge responsibility.
The tortuous minutes passed until the phone in my hotel room finally rang. The message was simple, “Your services are no longer needed here.”
And just like that, the travel team called me to make my arrangements to take the first flight back to Los Angeles.
Once I got back to LA, I perched my shattered remains into a chair in my living room where I think I sat for days. I played it over in my mind, the incredible Welcome to Chicago performances at the United Center that I would be missing. How I was embarrassed and humiliated and disappointed and just, simply undone. For a week, I walked through my own echo chamber of thoughts – thinking I had not only completely blown my opportunity with Prince, but that I had also now become a Failure in the most spectacular way.
The pain was immense, an exquisite shame mixed with loss, mixed with a gripping and physical fear. It felt like a consequence that would alter the entire course of my life. As an engineer by education and an attorney by training, I had spent over a decade fully immersed in a world of precision and relentless attention to detail. I typically would never find myself in a completely unfamiliar circumstance, let alone over my head in a situation beyond my knowledge and capabilities. This was a first. My confidence was shaken – the very way I defined myself, as a competent professional, had been eroded. Sure, I had made mistakes in the past, but they had only been to my detriment, not others. I could make them invisible, socially and professionally as long as I internalized their effects, putting on a brave face to the world around me. But in this, my shame was public – my errors had touched others. I wondered how could I face them, any of them, ever again.
Now, perhaps the above seems a bit extreme – melodramatic, even. In retrospect, it was really not that big of a deal. Instruments were located, and the performance got rescheduled. I had been thrust into a completely unfamiliar situation; I made a rookie mistake – and we all lived to tell the tale. On the radar of life, this likely amounted to less than a blip. So why devote so much time to it?
At the time of a setback, of a failure or mishap, there is no perspective. There is only the present. And in the present, you feel overwhelmed, drowning in your own feelings and perhaps even the immediate judgments of others. Time has not yet addressed the chaos you feel within; you have no way of contextualizing the current events in light of their future resolution. The weight of now is the heaviest burden.
During one of my very first conversations with Prince, he told me the story of his friend, another well-known musician, who had cultivated a spirit of freedom and fearlessness in his daughter. A trait Prince seemed to admire. He said that he asked his friend what he did to give her that nature. In reply, the friend said that as a little girl, he would take his daughter to a flight of stairs. He’d put her on the step, lower ones at first, stand back a bit, and encourage her to jump into his arms. Of course, he caught her. Their game continued over time, progressing to higher and higher steps. Yet, no matter how high she climbed and how far the fall, her father always caught her. Of this, Prince said, “this is what I want for you.” His “you” was generous and wasn’t just in reference to me; it meant all of us working for him.
It took me a long time to understand, but I began to realize that I was fooling no one about my lack of experience as I attempted new things. He knew that I was a novice. I was the one who didn’t know. He wasn’t giving me opportunities to fail, he was giving me opportunities to fly.
About a week passed following my first class seat on the “flight of shame” back to Los Angeles. I was contemplating moving to Antarctica where I wouldn’t have to tell anyone that I’d been fired by the Prince when my phone rang.
And just as if I hadn’t been sent to my own planet of misery, as sure as if nothing had happened, Prince’s manager was on the line with a new assignment.
“But…I thought I had been fired?” I managed to say.
“Oh, you were. From Chicago and working with his artist. Now, Prince wants you to only work with him.”
Regroup: The How-To of Never Giving Up launches April 18, 2017 and can be found at your local independent bookseller, Amazon or Jaunique.com.