Why not Prince? One woman’s seven-year journey to make Minneapolis ‘shine purple’

Photo by the Rae Mackenzie Group Sharon Smith-Akinsanya speaking at the June 7 unveiling of the Prince Rogers Nelson Way street sign in downtown Minneapolis

First of a two-part story

In the years since Prince’s tragic and untimely passing, there have been several artistic tributes created in his honor around the Twin Cities, including a handful of public murals.

There’s Jonas Never’s “Purple Rain”-era piece at 424 Washington Ave. in the North Loop. New Zealand-born artist Graham Hoete’s mural graces the back of the Chanhassen Cinema, casting Prince’s eyes west toward Paisley Park. 

Rock Martinez’s efforts, including a painting of Prince at 26th and Hennepin in Uptown, and the six-panel mural titled “I Would Die 4 U” that now greets travelers at Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport—after previous stops at the U of M’s Weisman Art Museum and Seattle’s Museum of Popular Culture. 

Related Story: Why not Prince? One woman’s seven-year journey to make Minneapolis ‘shine purple’

And finally, there’s Peyton Scott Russell’s “Northside” at Penn Ave. and Golden Valley Road, which features two images of the artist that bookend his four-decade career in music.

Still, there are a couple of notable characteristics that differentiate these works from the new Prince mural that now adorns Ramp A. 

For one, this new work of art by internationally renowned muralist Hiero Veiga is in downtown Minneapolis, quite aptly overlooking First Avenue and the entertainment district, rivaling the scope and grandeur of the Bob Dylan mural just across the way. 

What is more, the vision for this mural was conceived prior to Prince’s death in a venture intended to “give Prince his roses,” so to speak, while he was still around to smell them.

This is the story of a seven-year journey to get Prince those roses, and the story of the woman who led this effort from the starting blocks and over the bumps and hurdles to reach the finish line.       

The force behind the Ramp A mural 

A native of Kinloch, Missouri, Sharon Smith-Akinsanya made the journey to Minneapolis on somewhat of a whim more than 30 years ago. Her boyfriend at the time “was in love with Prince, literally,” laughed Smith-Akinsanya. Not only that, but he was also a guitarist whose mission was to land a spot in Prince’s band.

“We have to go to Minneapolis. It’s so cool,” he pleaded. “Is he serious?” she thought to herself. Although she respected Prince’s music, Smith-Akinsanya was not a Prince fan then. But ultimately, besides her job there wasn’t anything keeping the couple in St. Louis. So, she threw caution to the wind and said, “Okay. Let’s go.”

Once in Minneapolis, Smith-Akinsanya got a sales job at KDWB Radio. One of the first accounts was Prince’s famed downtown nightclub Glam Slam on North 5th Street. 

It didn’t take long for Smith-Akinsanya to get Glam Slam on the air, and likewise, she implemented some additional marketing and promotional strategies that immediately started to pay off for the club. Unbeknownst to her, someone was paying close attention to her work.

The job offer

When she set foot in Glam Slam one summer evening, Smith-Akinsanya couldn’t possibly imagine how her life was about to change. “The boss wants to see you,” said a man who gently tapped her shoulder. 

“Child,” she shot back, “I know my boss ain’t hardly up in this club, OK?!” The man, one of Prince’s bodyguards, then nodded his head as if to say, “No. The Boss.” “OK, here we go,” she said to herself.

Smith-Akinsanya made her way to Prince’s private booth on the second level that oversees the stage and dance floor. “Have a seat,” Prince directed. Then he said, “I love what you are doing with the club.” 

And then came her first real glimpse into what came with Prince’s universe: “Can you come to Paisley Park at 3:15?” he asked. Smith-Akinsanya politely explained that she had plans tomorrow afternoon at that time. “No,” Prince clarified, “I mean in a couple hours.” 

A little perplexed, Smith-Akinsanya added that she’s generally not out that late. “Just bring a girlfriend,” Prince assured her. “You’ll be safe.” 

Smith-Akinsanya called up a girlfriend and they made the early morning trek out to Chanhassen. Upon arriving, she was escorted to Prince’s office, where his first words were, “Will you come work for me?” 

“Doing what?” 

“That’s a detail,” he countered, before adding, “Call me at 11:15 with an answer.” 

Prince gave her a phone number to call and then asked if Smith-Akinsanya and her friend would like to come hang out because “the band is going to jam for a little while.” They made their way to the soundstage, where they saw Chaka Khan among a host of other big stars. “There were people all over the place,” she recalled. 

By now it’s 3:22 am, and Smith-Akinsanya is trying to process what just happened. The meeting was barely a minute long. “This is weird,” she told herself, “I just don’t get it.” 

Eventually, Prince and his band, The New Power Generation, took the stage and played until it was nearly daylight outside. “This is nuts,” she kept saying to herself, “but then, there’s something interesting about it as well.” 

(l-r) Hiero Veiga, Joan Vorderbruggen, Sharon Smith-Akinsanya, and Tim Drew

Once she got home and caught a couple hours of sleep, Smith-Akinsanya called her mother and told her, “Prince wants me to come work for him.” She reminded her mother that she already had a job, but her mom said, “Yeah, but this is Prince” and encouraged her to try it out for two years.

At 11:15 that morning, Smith-Akinsanya dialed the number Prince gave her, learning as many others have that he is not much for small talk. “He didn’t even say hello,” she recalled. “The first words out of his mouth were, ‘What is your answer?’” 

Smith-Akinsanya pressed him again wondering if there was anything he could tell her about the job. And again, he responded with, “That’s a detail.” Then Prince went quiet. Knowing that she had to come up with an answer, Smith-Akinsanya said, “OK. I’ll do it.” 

Prince hung up without another word, and 20 minutes later Smith-Akinsanya received another call welcoming her to PRN Productions. “That is how I came to work for Prince.”

Giving Prince his roses

Basically, Smith-Akinsanya did whatever Prince needed her to: marketing, communications, promotions, whatever. “I just started doing stuff.” Officially, she was on staff for about two and a half years. 

Like so many others, she discovered that her boss brought skills out of her that she never knew she had. “Whatever you want to call it, Prince had the ability to touch you. To make the best come out of you. That was a real thing.” 

As time went on, Smith-Akinsanya started to wonder why Minneapolis hadn’t done anything to permanently honor Prince and his significance to both the City of Lakes and the North Star State. “I was always looking over my shoulder thinking that somebody’s got to do something, right?” But no one ever did. 

“No disrespect to Spot,” she said, “but the Target dog has a bronze statue.” As does Mary Tyler Moore who, while also alive, “has a statue based only on a fictional television show” set in Minneapolis. 

“That’s all fine,” Smith-Akinsanya mused, “but why not Prince? Who’s done more to make us cool. Why not honor and protect his legacy? That always annoyed me.”    

So in 2015 she paid a visit to Mayor Betsy Hodges, who agreed with Smith-Akinsanya’s assertion that Minneapolis must find a way to give Prince his roses. She started to kick around some ideas with Prince, remembering the one thing he didn’t want was a statue. “He was afraid they’d mess up his face.”

One idea included a park, where people might be able to sit on a bench and listen to music that Prince programmed straight from Paisley Park. “We even thought he could come over the intercom and start talking to whoever’s there,” Smith-Akinsanya said giggling. “You know, have some fun with it—freak people out a little bit.” 

Prince liked that idea as well as some others, but then, as Smith-Akinsanya put it, “Dylan happened.” At the corner of Hennepin and 5th, seemingly overnight a large mural of Bob Dylan appeared on the side of what’s known as the “15 building.” 

Smith-Akinsanya explained that conversations with Prince were often short. “You had to sort of deduce what he might be thinking, what he might want.” But there was no question that the Dylan mural caught his attention.

Smith-Akinsanya thought, “Yeah, maybe a mural is the way to go—the way to make this city shine purple. So Prince could see it with his own eyes.” 

But then, on the morning of April 21, 2016, the world learned that Prince Rogers Nelson was gone.

Next week: Part Two – Overcoming hurdles to bring the Prince mural into fruition.