‘Mr. Nelson: On the North Side’ Passes the Microphone to Prince’s North Minneapolis community

When Prince passed away on April 21 2016, the world mourned the loss of a titan within the music industry. Throughout his (almost) forty-year reign, Prince dominated the charts with a revered talent and staunch work ethic that appeared almost otherworldly. From early on in his career Prince bathed himself in varying degrees of purple mystique, ambiguities present within all areas of his life but one thing always remained true — his unwavering adoration for his home city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

Mr. Nelson: On The North Side offers a lesser-known story of Prince’s North Minneapolis roots and the people who raised him. The documentary allows the musician’s North Minneapolis community to share their story which is, in turn, the story of Prince. The documentary quickly establishes the history of the state of Minnesota and ‘The Great Migration’ which saw 5 million African Americans move from the South to Northern states such as Chicago and Minnesota in the hope of better opportunities. Growing up in North Minneapolis during the Civil Rights Movement, the young Prince Rogers Nelson saw the results of systemic racism first hand. Through the love and support of his North Minneapolis community, Prince’s talent was nurtured through community spaces and mentors and he never forgot the city he grew up in. 

Following a period of civil unrest, The Way, a community centre situated on Plymouth Avenue, North Minneapolis, opened its doors in 1966. Four years later, a shy twelve-year-old Prince Rogers Nelson walked into the centre and got to work. The Way was a space for Black youth to learn and create together as a community, with the centre offering a wide range of educational lessons and offered valuable opportunities to learn from some of the city’s most skilled local performers including Craig ‘Peet West’ Peterson and Sonny Thompson (who would become Prince’s teacher at The Way and life-long peer). The children were prepared for all aspects of musicianship, receiving endless support and advice from their community elders and learning about the importance of stage persona, dance and fashion. They even took modelling lessons to boost their stage presence. These years shaped Prince’s natural musical talents, developing his confidence and offering him the opportunity to play in bands with some of the cities most successful bands. 

The documentary also helps demystify Prince’s elusive self-crafted persona, sharing formative stories of the young ‘Skipper’ and shining a light on the friends, family, mentors and community that shaped him. As a lifelong Prince fan, it was incredibly exciting to see commentary from Prince’s teenage years, including Harry ‘Spike’ Moss, ‘Peet West’, Sylvia Amos and Particia Cymone. Moss explained the ethos behind The Way, expressing the importance of ‘passing on’ what you learned within the walls of the community centre to the next generation. It was truly moving to see how this ethos imparted in Prince’s life and legacy, with the musician supporting not just local Minnesotans but worldwide talents throughout his career. Always passing on to the future generation of artists. 

The second half of the documentary charts the universally known story of Prince’s ascent to superstardom, with commentary from collaborators, peers and the fan community. Mr. Nelson holds space for the importance of Prince’s fan community and the unique impact left by the musician. Whilst enjoyable, this section did feel less fleshed out than the first thirty minutes or so with some continuity, timeline and archival footage issues that may prove confusing to some watchers. Overall as a viewer, I was left wanting to hear more from the members of The Way and Prince’s childhood friends but this did not detract from my overall appreciation of the documentary. 

Whilst dedicated purple fam will be aware of the pivotal figures featured within this documentary, their stories are still not widely known within Prince’s pop culture legacy. In the documentary’s closing remarks, Moss explains after Prince passed in April 2016, no one came to speak to the community that raised the man, a poignant reminder that Prince’s Blackness has often been eradicated within his prolific legacy. Mr. Nelson On the North Side centres Prince’s lived experiences as a young, Black Minnesotan, rewriting decade’s old assumptions of his childhood and honoring the importance of community within Prince’s legacy.

Screening tickets are available now for Mr. Nelson: On the North Side at https://princetribute.ticketspice.com/on-the-north-side

Proceeds from the screenings will go to support charities Hopewell Music Cooperative North and Stairstep Foundation. 

by Casci Ritchie

Casci (she/her) is an independent dress historian specialising in fashion, film and consumer cultures. Her true great loves – film and fashion – began when she watched her first film noir, The Big Sleep, as a teenager and fell in love Bacall and Bogie hook line and sinker. Some of her favourite films include Whatever Happened to Baby JaneBeetlejuiceDouble Indemnity and Cry Baby. You can find her over on Twitter & her blog www.casciritchie.com.

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