Notes from the DIA’s Prince tribute dance party

A night under the cherry moon
Notes from the DIA’s Prince tribute dance party

Everyone was different, but purple was their common denominator. Purple shirts, purple pants, purple hearts — the color played a not-so-secret game of peekaboo at the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Prince soiree on June 10. Thrown in honor of the late pop god, the event boasted both superfans and mere appreciators. Mourners congregated in front of the museum along Woodward Avenue, spilling over the front steps, alongside the lawn, and throughout the building. Kresge Court was abuzz, and the museum front’s upper deck was starting to fill.

The overall energy was not quite morose, but not exactly cheery either. “If you’re looking for someone to say something positive, you’ve picked the wrong person,” an unidentified event-goer told me. She donned a tiny purple cape that twirled around her shoulders as she sped away.

There were a few more fans like the caped woman — distant, dreamy. lifelong Prince fans Connie Diaz and Joanna Jividen were stunned when they heard that the performer died April 21 from a fentanyl overdose.

“I’ve been in grieving since, and watching endless YouTube videos and crying,” Diaz says. Despite the heavier undercurrents of the evening, Jividen and Diaz were most looking forward to “getting down” once the sun went down.

Faces around me visibly changed as soon as Emily Thornhill, aka DJ Thornstryker, spun the opening synths of “When Doves Cry.”

Prince’s connection to the city of Detroit is strong, first facilitated by influential disc jockey Electrifying Mojo in the mid-’80s. Mojo would spin Prince tunes on his late-night WGPR show, sparking the attention of listeners and turning them on to the young artist’s music. Mojo did the same with Morris Day and the Time, an early ‘80s funk-pop project produced and nurtured by Prince (1984’s “Jungle Love”).

Phyllis Toliver, a Prince superfan, met Prince and the Time in Detroit by chance some years ago. Sporting Prince’s infamous symbol via custom-made gold earrings, a necklace, bracelet, and tattoo that occupied her upper right arm, the 54-year-old Detroiter paused in front of the fountain to chat while “Little Red Corvette” blasted in the background.

“I met Prince in 1982 at the Book Cadillac Hotel, when Chick [Charles “Big Chick” Huntsberry] was his bodyguard — when he had the purple suit on and his hair in curls,” Toliver says. “My friends came down from the elevator, and they were like, ‘We were in a room with Morris Day and the Time!’ And I was like ‘Hell no, I was looking for y’all!’ In their room was Prince, Chick, all the band members. I said, ‘Well, take me back upstairs to see Morris Day and the Time.’ So we went back upstairs, knocked on the door, and that’s when I got tight with Morris Day and the Time.”

Toliver says she was particularly affected by Prince’s unexpected death. “I was crushed,” she says. “I said, I just gotta take it one day at a time because he was a family member to me. When I lost my sister and family members, I’d grab a Prince song to pull me through whatever pain I was having. And now, he’s gone, I gotta listen to his music to build my strength up.”

Toliver appreciates the DIA for throwing the tribute party and found comfort in being surrounded by fans akin to her. “It’s like family,” she says.

After the sun had gone down and the cherry moon was up, Emcee Rich Rice ushered in the Mighty Funhouse, a local band formed by drummer Skeeto Valdez, well-known for their “jazzy P-Funk.”

As deep lavender spotlights shone brilliantly on Rodin’s “The Thinker” statue and illuminated the building’s white walls, I watched clusters of purple bodies, dancing and talking and bustling around. I wondered what that tall, steadfast, unmoving purple man was thinking about before he became stone. He was kind of like Prince, in that way — the constant, grandest entity of the party. You just knew he was onto something great.

Sooner than later, the crowds shuffled out. But he was still there, still in the middle of it all, still purple.

Melina Glusac is a summer editorial intern. As an aspiring music journalist, she geeks out over all things MC5, Mariah Carey, and Meat Puppets.

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