PrinceFest ’21—A Firsthand Report from the Purple Underground

Curated by a former Hollywood cameraman who worked on Graffiti Bridge, this annual event in the small Minneapolis suburb of Henderson is a true labor of love

PrinceFest ’21 (Photo: Jason Webber)

It’s a scorching 99 degrees Fahrenheit, unseasonably hot for this time of year in Minnesota. A few hundred Prince devotees have assembled in Henderson, population 888, located about 50 miles south of Minneapolis. And I’m one of them.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

It’s PrinceFest, 2021, and we have come to party like it’s … you know the rest. It’s the weekend before Prince’s June 7 birthday, and Henderson is officially the funkiest city in the purple universe. The city’s cheerful website contains an online job application for city mayor and an ad for the Henderson Classic Car Roll In and something called Sauerkraut Days. It reminds you of the town the drag queens stumble upon in “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.”

PrinceFest is a labor of love, put on by one Joel King, a former Hollywood cameraman who actually worked with Prince on his movie Graffiti Bridge, as well as on classic ‘70s films like Spielberg’s Duel and de Palma’s Carrie. I never get a chance to interview Joel throughout the entire weekend because he’s simply too busy. But he’s quick to make friends with everyone he meets and you just instantly like the guy.

I’ve come to Henderson to sell my book Purple Bananas: How Prince Saved Me and Other Selections from the Soundtrack 2 My Life at the PrinceFest bazaar located inside the nerve center of PrinceFest, the Henderson Event Center. 

Jason Webber’s Purple Bananas is in fine bookstores now (Photo: Goodreads)

The Event Center’s interior has been turned into a purple playground. Tables selling DIY Prince arts and crafts and clothing have been set up. One woman sells leggings and blouses. Several visual artists are selling prints (pun intended) and Minneapolis legend Jellybean Johnson of The Time is even here, selling copies of his new album Get Experienced.  There’s a rickety sound system manned by a friendly guy named Paul (Fact: Minnesota Nice is not a myth) and a few local bands have been recruited to entertain the sweaty Prince-obsessed mass that has assembled in Henderson, the town near the section of the Minnesota River where they filmed the “That ain’t Lake Minnetonka” scene in Purple Rain. 

Outside the Event Center though is where the real action is located. There’s a beautiful bronze statue of Prince, standing the middle of an all-purple garden. There’s a stone bench where you can sit down next to the likeness and a purple painted mailbox containing a guest book, signed by visitors from all over the world. And indeed, people have come near and far for PrinceFest, with cars from Georgia, Florida, and Texas, among others parked around the block. 

Down the road from the Event Center there are two separate boutiques both serving as unofficial Prince gift shops. ‘Welcome Prince Fans’ proclaims a banner over the doorway of Heart of Henderson, a charming country shop with a separate room devoted just to Prince-related artwork and tchotchkes ranging from bedazzled hats and shirts to wall art. Next to the Event Center, there’s a bar and grill that’s apparently famous for its cheese curds.

About 200 or so people show up over the two-day convention. Many of the Prince faithful assembled here recognize one another from across the room and lots of how-are-yous and hugs are exchanged. Everyone is super friendly because Prince fans look out for one another. In some way, Prince fans are like Juggalos—fiercely devoted with colorful personalities. These people are having the time of their lives in Henderson, Minnesota. It’s a beautiful thing.

Prince cake! (Photo: Jason Webber)

There’s a lot of activity in the Prince world now. A complete, brand new studio album recorded in 2010 is schedule to be released in July. There are reports of the Prince Estate cracking down on these kinds of unofficial gatherings. Not the meeting part, but the selling of homemade Prince products. The DIY aesthetic and the creative arts have certainly taken a shine to Prince, but the Prince Estate is operating like a lavender Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre. Sure, there’s a fine American tradition of exploiting our dead heroes, but Prince, Inc., as it were, takes cultural capitalism to a new height, or low, depending on your opinion. The Prince line from Urban Decay cosmetics just dropped and promptly sold out. The $250 deluxe package, which featured everything in the line, was gone by 8:30 a.m. the day the collection went on sale. Soon there’s going to be Prince everything. There’s already Prince barware and stemware, enough T-shirt designs to put KISS to shame, and of course, the constant and incessant exploitation of the music. But in the end, that’s what it’s all about. Those songs that were released from 1978 to 2015, when we were so fucking lucky to share the Earth with truly one of the greatest masters of music to ever exist since the dawn of the Bronze Age. I still get such delight out of listening to the music of Prince Rogers Nelson. These songs defined who I was and got me through the gauntlet of adolescence. As a jaded middle-aged man, I now study the music less than I did as a teen, but you better believe I check out every deluxe album reissue that the Estate gifts to us. I’m still a fan. What can I say? I just love Prince.

Unofficial Prince merch (Photo: Jason Webber)

And so do the attendees of PrinceFest. There was a lot of action around the Twin Cities for Prince’s birthday weekend. Paisley Park was opened for a dance party. Various clubs around Minneapolis were hosting Prince night, but since I had books to sell and the fact that Minneapolis was 55 miles away prevented me from partaking of any other Prince-related festivities.

But I didn’t mind being at PrinceFest for two days. Nice people who are happy to be there and plenty of great music. What’s not to love? Well, there was a rather wack band from MPLS, featuring a guy who wore Prince-inspired garb with one notable exception—a pair of Crocs. Also, the sound system was squelchy and full of hissing. Not only that, the air conditioning inside the Event Center kept going in and out. No matter. We came here to party. And if U didn’t come 2 party, don’t bother knocking on our door.

 

 

   

 

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Jason Webber

Jason Webber is the author of the critically acclaimed book Purple Bananas: How Prince Saved Me and Other Selections from the Soundtrack 2 My Life.

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