Often, we don’t gain full appreciation of something or someone until it is gone. In the weeks since the death of Prince, I have realized something: “The Artist” was a rare advocate for and inspiration to someone like me: a young black female artist. Or anyone who is one or a combination of these things. There are some important lessons that Prince’s life exemplified. Lessons that can be useful to an aspiring, emerging, or maturing artist alike. Let me explain…
1 : SELF-CONFIDENCE
When it comes to self-confidence, it seems that people either have too much or too little. Overconfidence makes you an egotistical asshole. Too little confidence means that you are soft and weak. Now, I didn’t know Prince personally, so maybe he was a jerk. I have no idea (although I’d like to think that he was the coolest guy ever). However, as a creative person, confidence was one of the things that made him great. Think about the first few well-known, self-made artists/designers/musicians that pop into your head. Chances are these people have/had a ton of faith in their abilities and really think/thought they were the shit. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t know as much about them.
“A strong spirit transcends rules.”
The hard truth is that to “make it” as an artist or designer, you have to have faith in your abilities. Lack of confidence can not only lessen your chances of making a living from your work. It can also increase your chances of being taken advantage of by others. Prince knew—for much, if not all of his career—that he was an incredible musician. He didn’t necessarily say it publicly, but it was pretty evident in his music and the way he presented himself. His strong sense of character and talent permitted him to maintain creative freedom, control the rights to his work, and build a strong, loyal fanbase (of which I am proud to be a part).
LESSON 1 : Confidence in your abilities and knowledge is the first step to building a career as an artist and the key to maintaining that career.
2 : EXPRESSION
Prince’s confidence made it much easier for him to be his crazy self and get away with it. Prince initially had some pretty obvious influences: James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Earth, Wind & Fire, just to name a few. His early hits strongly reflected these influences. Over time, he came more into his own, as most artists do. With the confidence in his ability to sing, play instruments, and write songs, Prince was better equipped to experiment with sound, developing a genre that was uniquely his. Although he changed his sound with each new album/identity/hairstyle/outfit, you can always pick out a Prince song from others in the bunch. He coined a way of being that drew others to him and his music.
When it comes to style development, artists should keep this in mind. You can emulate and replicate those you admire, but it is finding your own means of expression that will get you noticed and respected. Fill your “inspiration bucket” with a range of influences. Be patient as your research, ideas, and trials work themselves out over time. As you find your so-called style, you become more confident in yourself and your work. You start to care less and less about what the haters say. Instead, you focus more on constructive feedback and being true to yourself.
LESSON 2 : Your means of expression (a.k.a. “style”) is developed over time, by examining a range of influences, experimenting with many methods, and maintaining confidence in your abilities.
3 : Learning
In addition to recognizing your influences and exploring new ways of making, continuous learning is a big part of sustaining creativity. This doesn’t mean you need to go back to school or take classes. It simply requires being open to new ideas and experiences. Recognizing advances in your field and adjusting (or rebelling) accordingly. Studying history: what worked, what failed, and what is still developing. Really, Prince explains it pretty well:
“The key to longevity is to learn every aspect of music that you can.”
For me, teaching has been a great way to ensure that I keep learning. Although I am tasked with teaching others, my students open my eyes to new perspectives. I am required to keep up with the latest technology and trends. It seems that Prince had much of the same approach. He worked with many other artists, many of whom were at the beginning or middle of their careers. As he helped establish these singers and musicians, his own music would evolve. Learning and growing never ceased.
LESSON 3 : Never stop learning (‘nuff said).
4 : CONTROL
If you come up with a brilliant idea, there can be this limbo between wanting to share the idea with the world and to protect it from moochers. Prince has been known to adjust ticket prices and add shows to his tours to ensure that fans get the tickets—not scalpers or second-parties. In a similar vein, his history of name-changes—from “Prince” to “the Love Symbol” to “the Artist” to “Prince” again—was about control. Prince had concern for two things: the integrity of his music and loyalty to his fans. His choice to use a symbol rather than his name was his way of rebelling against his music label. He also gained control of when and how his music was released.
“Like books and black lives, albums matter.”
I remember when Prince changed over to “the Love Symbol”: the female and male symbols melded together to form an undefined term. It was both cool and crazy. One minute, he had a name and the next, he had a mark. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned about Prince’s true reasons for the change. After giving several lectures on plagiarism and copyright law for artists and designers, I get it. No matter why you are producing work or who you are making it for, you should always maintain some type of control over the things you make. Prince took it to the extreme, but the premise of the action is a valuable lesson.
LESSON 4 : Keep control over your ideas and protect your work. Make sure you maintain some degree of rights over the work you produce.
5 : CONVICTION
People question a lot of things about Prince. Was he gay? Why did he straighten his hair? Why did he sing about sex all the time? There are many questions that will be left unanswered. I feel like Prince would want it to stay that way. Despite all this, Prince had pretty clear convictions for the respect and uplifting of others. In particular, Prince was an advocate for women and people of color.
Much of Prince’s music describes his love and elevation of the feminine. He worked with and was surrounded by talented women, his latest being the all-female band, 3rd Eye Girl. He wrote for and launched the careers of many impressive female singers and musicians. Outside the spotlight, Prince started, promoted, and maintained initiatives to help those in his community, particularly black youth. As Jason Johnson of The Root explains, “He played up his ambiguity when it came to sexuality and race, but he loved his blackness and black people.”
All of this to say that, despite what others thought of him, Prince addressed and fought for the things he believed in. He allowed his convictions to be exposed in his work. I would argue that this was key to his longevity as an artist. I know from my own experiences that having a purpose to my work drives my motivation, allows me to create more interesting work, and builds stronger connections to my audience. The work becomes more than just making something that looks pretty; it has a reason for existing.
LESSON 5 : Having a cause or purpose behind your work increases the meaning behind it and sustains your motivation to continue making impactful work.
Lessons from a Life well-lived
I hate that I will never get to see Prince perform in person. But then again, I didn’t need to see him in concert to know how much of an impact he had on people, myself included. I not only love his music—I am inspired by his passion for life and his craft. All of us creatives can benefit from these lessons Prince left behind.
Have you found inspiration in the life of your favorite artist? What lessons have your learned from your idol?