The idea for Purple Playground sparked among Prince fans at a backyard barbecue. It was 2016, shortly after the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s death in April 2016. Sadness and a yearning to keep Prince’s philanthropic legacy alive permeated the yard.
Lifelong Prince fan and Paisley Park regular Heidi Vader couldn’t let it go. In 2017, she formed Purple Playground, a nonprofit for youth music education and became its director. From there, educator, DJ and vocalist Willie Adams had the idea for Academy of Prince (AOP), a free monthly and summer music program put on by Purple Playground for teenagers to write, perform and collaborate musically.
Vader tapped into her 35 years of music connections to form a powerhouse of speakers and teachers. “It’s so touching how many ‘Yes’ [responses] we get,” Vader says of the people who generously give their time. “It’s about continuing Prince’s legacy of giving and educating the next generations—all taught by musicians who played with him, authors who wrote historical books about him and others who collaborated with him.”
Singer/songwriter Elisa Fiorillo joined the Purple Playground board of directors as a music director after serving as an AOP guest and seeing how it impacted the students. “The last time I worked with these amazing kids, I saw the huge transition from the time they arrived to how they left,” Fiorillo says. “At first, [students were] insecure to share their ideas, and, by the end, kids were going off on their own and creating songs all by themselves and performing them!”
Fiorillo was a backing vocalist on songs with Prince and The New Power Generation from 2009 until 2014. “[Prince] loved kids, and he loved sharing his music with kids,” Fiorillo says. “He inspired me to write, and I want to do the same for the kids of Purple Playground.”
Purple Playground music director Adrian Crutchfield, a saxophonist and The New Power Generation HORNZ liaison, toured and recorded with Prince. He, too, is inspired by exposing the next generation to Prince’s legacy through AOP. “Everyone has creativity and expression in them,” Crutchfield says. “The trick is finding the confidence and audacity to share it with the world.”
Unlike any program in the world, AOP students learn about Prince and his musical influences. Students also collaborate during the two-week camp, writing and recording in a professional studio at the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul.
“Academy of Prince is a revolutionary approach to music and arts-based education,” Adams says. “We don’t foster competition. We show our students and model for the community the power of collaboration. We see our differences as strengths and gifts, not deficits. I believe students and the communities we serve will be impacted for generations to come because, like Prince, we are about using music to unite, heal and uplift our world.”
Edina resident Kathy Tran learned about AOP from an Open Streets Minneapolis booth. Both of her daughters, Olivia and Natalie, have attended the program each summer since 2018.
From left to right, Kimora Collins, Amelie Bruning Way, Natalie Tran, Olivia Tran and Sophie Bruning Way, all from Edina, at the Academy of Prince.
Edina resident Rowan Nordin also attended Academy of Prince and is seen here performing at a local concert venue.
Olivia banded together with camp friends, writing songs, singing, playing piano and learning about music production. “It taught me how to collaborate, share ideas and gave me the confidence to create my own music,” the Edina High School (EHS) senior says. “Willie and Heidi have supported and mentored me in pursuing different career paths in the music industry. It was through their leads that I got a position on the board of a music venue called The Garage.”
Learning how to collaborate was also the biggest takeaway for Natalie, EHS junior, singer and ukulele player. “Everyone has some talent to share. Some are good at songwriting, some at singing or playing an instrument and some are good at producing music,” she says. “I like to sing, but I’m not the best songwriter. I found that working in a group, however, we came up with some really great stuff. Learning to collaborate has positively impacted my confidence and ability to better socialize in school.”
Olivia and Natalie plan to attend AOP this summer and recommend it to teens interested in music. “It is an unforgettable experience,” Olivia says. “How often do you get to learn about Prince, hear inspirational stories, write music with like-minded kids and record it with professional musicians in a state-of-the-art recording studio? It’s a chance of a lifetime.”
Natalie shares the same sentiment. “The people [are] so supportive and talented,” she says. Natalie gets together with friends from the camp regularly, “holding jam seshes in the basement.”
Purple Playground is funded through donations and grants, most recently from Metropolitan Regional Arts Council and Minnesota State Arts Board.
Purple Playground @purpleplayg @purpleplayg