The public perceptions of Prince are contradictory. Divine and elusive on one hand, all too human and provocative on the other, Prince was a master at keeping us guessing as to who he really was and what he would do next. (He was a Gemini, after all.)
For those of us not fortunate enough to have known him personally, the best we can do is take a look at the company he kept. Prince loved mentoring artists—in particular, women artists. In his younger years, he was attached to acts like Apollonia and Sheila E and later in life he continued mentoring women who were supremely talented and showcased geniuses of their own.
One of those women, Janelle Monáe, once said of Prince: “He stood for the weirdos. He stood for the unique and he stood for those who couldn’t stand up for ourselves.” Monáe, known for her electrifying stage performances and, more recently, her acting skills, is one of the several artists that Prince mentored. He invited Monáe to tour with him after the release of her 2010 album, and he was featured on her 2013 album. Prince referred to her as the only performer that he was nervous about having as an opening act, and for good reason. Monáe is a triple threat as a singer, actress, and dancer and brings a similar essence as Prince to her stage performances; you never know how far she’s going to go and you get the sense that you’re experiencing something transcendent.
That’s a common theme with each of Prince’s mentees. Paris Strother, one-third of the group KING, recalls the first time she met Prince. The trio had just finished their 2011 EP when they received a call from Prince’s camp saying that the singer had heard their music online and wanted to meet with them. He flew them to North Carolina, where he was in the middle of a shoot, and began acting as an instructor and mentor. Like Prince, the women of KING are musical supernovas with a myriad of sounds. They’re somewhat genre-less, with enough nostalgic soul to remind you of their influences, but so entirely fresh that you’re certain they’re from the future. Strother describes Prince as “funny,” “cool,” “sharp,” with a keen attention to detail (all the things you would expect), but says what he impressed upon KING the most—and all without ever saying a word—was his commitment to excellence. “He doesn’t do anything that’s not excellent. He doesn’t walk down the hall without it being the most excellent walk."
Another exemplar of excellence is Misty Copeland, already soloist at the American Ballet Theatre and on her way to becoming ABT's first black principal dancer when Prince saw her perform and invited her to go on tour with him. As two performers who were both unprecedented artists in their respective fields, a friendship naturally formed, and Copeland credits Prince for helping her to embrace creative freedom in her artistry. "Prince always reminded me it’s okay to be an individual. He pushed me as an artist in new ways. I'd never had someone trust me to just go out on stage and do me,” Copeland says.
“Her voice is like an analog to me,” Prince once said of Judith Hill, the breakout vocalist best known for her season on The Voice. Hill, who also performed background vocals for Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John, was the sole artist on the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer; she became a friend and protege of Prince's after she mentioned him in an interview as the artist with whom she’d most like to work. In 2013, the two produced her debut album, Back in Time, and they were still traveling and working together in the days before his death.
Andy Allo is another vocalist who impressed Prince early on in her career. They met through the Africa Channel when they were filming his L.A. concert series at The Forum in 2011, and Allo began performing with Prince shortly after, appearing with him on tour and in television appearances. Allo, who’s not only a bluesy vocalist but also an instrumentalist and actress, has a role in the upcoming Pitch Perfect 3 and acknowledges the time she spent with Prince as the inspiration she needed to become the artist that she is. “Prince lived and breathed being an artist. Being around him, writing and playing with him, I saw someone committed to and invigorated by creating. It was intoxicating and inspiring. Through that and many other gems he shared, I feel I learned that that's what being an artist is all about.”