by Dr Kirsty Fairclough, Senior Lecturer in Media and Performance

When I decided to organise an event looking at the life and legacy of Prince, it was obvious that this wasn’t going to be a standard academic conference.

The Purple One touched a lot of hearts – including my own – and while his passing last year was incredibly sad, it made me question why his work has never been given the full attention it deserves. When I put out a call for academic papers for the conference at the end of 2016, I was amazed by the number of responses I received, the range of institutions they came from, and the range of subjects covered – from Prince’s contribution to music to his spirituality.

But while we attracted academics from New York University, Harvard, and the Smithsonian museum – as well as from Amsterdam and New Zealand – it was clear that Purple Reign – An Interdisciplinary Conference on the Life and Work of Prince would also be able to fulfil an important public engagement element.

We wanted to engage with Prince’s worldwide army of fans as well as the local community – and most importantly, we wanted this to be an imaginative event that people would remember for years to come. We worked in collaboration with our US partners, Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) who were essential in bringing one of the event’s biggest draws – former Revolution guitarist Dez Dickerson who took part in a fascinating public Q&A session talking about his time playing with Prince.

We worked with HOME Manchester, the arts complex where we hosted a screening of Prince cinematic rarity Under The Cherry Moon, and with The Lowry in Salford, where much of the conference itself took place, were also essential. But it was our collaboration with Salford City Council which really helped us turn the conference into an event. They took Purple Reign to heart, arranging tie-ins with local businesses, promoting it as an event for the city, and helping us pull off one of our most visual coups – lighting public buildings up in purple throughout the event.

The responses of those who flew thousands of miles to attend the event left no doubt that it was a success. Sharon Davis, who came from the US, said:

“It was a pleasure to be part of and amongst wonderful people. I could see it was a huge team effort and everyone involved did a great job. It has been inspirational for me.”

Kamilah Cummings from DePaul University in Chicago said:

“I want to express my deepest gratitude and appreciation for all the work that you and those who supported you did to produce a truly wonderful, insightful, and unforgettable conference.”

But one of the most powerful reactions came from a group who had flown over from Washington State. Tragically, the conference came just days after the horrific attack which occurred just miles from our campus at Manchester Arena – a terrorist atrocity which the city of Manchester met with inspirational strength and resilience. The Manchester bee – a long-standing symbol of the city’s industrial heritage – became a symbol of defiance in the face of terror and was tattooed on the arms of proud Mancunians and Salfordians.

Carmen Hoover, her daughter Astrid, together with Dawn Barron, her daughter Sonrisa and family friend Ayana Eagans, were so overawed by the way the city pulled together they chose to travel into the city centre to get bees of their own – only to find huge queues outside every tattooist. Not to be deterred, they flew back to the US and had them done at home. Carmen said:

“I am back in my classroom now, but Manchester and the conference are never far from my mind.

“Manchester’s grief and horror was contagious, but so was your fight, your love, your songs, your dignity—and somehow through the whole week, you were welcoming to strangers and outsiders like ourselves. We felt immediately at home.”

Mike Taylor, Head of Industry Partnerships who also sits on the Salford City Council Cabinet, said:

“Our close relationship with Salford City Council enables us to co-design, plan and implement collaborative City wide events with students, academics and industry.

“The current University Strategy 2016 – 2021 is underpinned by our vision of pioneering exceptional industry partnerships to will lead the way in real world experiences preparing students for life. The focus is on developing cross-sector ‘industry’ partnerships building upon the University’s heritage and embracing our future aspirations.

“The Prince Conference is a perfect example of how when we work together as a HEI & LA our collective impact in the local community & economy is far greater.”


Image courtesy of PxHere under Creative Commons CC0