Solange Knowles, Questlove Among Musicians Celebrating Prince, David Bowie At Yale Conference

Questlove, Solange Knowles to celebrate Prince, David Bowie at Yale later this month

If you attend only one, free multidisciplinary conference celebrating the legacies of David Bowie and Prince this year, make it this one: "Blackstar Rising & the Purple Reign" at Yale University in New Haven from Jan. 25 to 28.

VIP speakers include musicians Questlove, Solange Knowles, Kimbra, saxophonist Donny McCaslin and percussionist Sheila E.; acclaimed documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker; critics Greil Marcus, Greg Tate, Ann Powers, Alan Light and Michaelangelo Matos; and many other scholars and thinkers.

Rock band TV On The Radio performs on Saturday at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7) at the new Stephen A. Schwarzman Center, 168 Grove St.; check  the website for free ticket availability.

Blackstar Rising arrives one year after the passing of Bowie, one of the most versatile and iconic pop stars of the last 50 years. His final album, "Blackstar," was released on Jan. 8, 2016 (his 69th birthday); Bowie died two days later, after an extended, private battle with cancer.

Prince — similarly versatile, equally iconic — died suddenly on April 21, 2016, at age 57, at his Paisley Park home near Minneapolis, of a reported fentanyl overdose. Unlike Bowie, there was no final musical statement, nothing to comfort fans in the ensuing weeks and months, just a vault of unreleased recordings that will likely trickle out over time.

Soon after Bowie's death, curator and conference organizer Daphne A. Brooks — professor of African American Studies, American Studies, Theater Studies and Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale — starting planning a tribute conference.

"It's been a yearlong journey," Brooks says. "Like so many people, I was devastated by Bowie's passing. ... It threw me for such a loop, not knowing how devastating 2016 was going to be in every way."

Brooks, one of the world's leading popular music scholars, came to Yale in 2014, after teaching at Princeton University for 13 years. At Princeton, she organized a similar conference for James Brown, featuring appearances by Questlove, Public Enemy's Chuck D and JB band members Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis, in 2007.

"It was a wonderful, organic event," Brooks says. "I thought, 'I'm going to do something like that again, I just don't know what it's going to be.'"

Following Lady Gaga's controversial Bowie tribute at the 2016 Grammy Awards, Brooks shared her vision with Susan Cahan, Yale's dean for the arts, who suggested Brooks use the new Schwarzman Center, which is scheduled for completion by the spring of 2020.

"They were really generous with their funding," Brooks says. "They said, 'Think big: You should have a concert.' I thought, 'This is amazing.'"

At that point, Brooks floated an idea: Let's invite Prince to the conference.

"You know how that ends," Brooks says.

From the end of April (when Prince died) to the beginning of summer, Brooks scrambled to reimagine the event as being for and about both musicians.

"Who are the best thinkers and writers on the past 50 years of popular music working today, people whose voices I love and whose ideas I admire? Let's bring them together," Brooks says.

When we spoke, Brooks was still scrambling; many of the invited VIPs, including Questlove, Solange, McCaslin, Sheila E., Pennebaker and TV On the Radio, still hadn't signed contracts.

Questlove and Kimbra are featured guests for the kickoff event on Wednesday night, a "critical deejay" discussion of favorite Prince and Bowie tracks (Schwarzman Center; doors open at 7:45 p.m.). Following a Thursday afternoon screening of his 1973 Bowie concert film "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" (Whitney Humanities Center, 4:30 p.m.), Pennebaker participates in Q&A session with Yale professor Charles Musser.

A keynote conversation between Brooks and Solange Knowles, whose 2016 "A Seat at the Table" topped a number of critics' year-end lists of best pop albums, takes place during "Everybody Still Wants To Fly: Activism from Prince to Solange," a Thursday-night round-table discussion (Yale Law School Levinson Auditorium, 9 p.m.), with critic Alan Light, musician Kandia Crazy Horse and artist Sherae Rimpsey.

All-day Friday and Saturday conference sessions start with conversations about the concept of utopia by critic Greil Marcus and black/queer/feminist theorist Kara Keeling, an associate professor of Cinema Arts at USC.

"Greil has been a mentor to me over the years," Brooks says. "We're weirdly from the same town in California and went to practically all of the same schools, including UC Berkeley. He can talk about anything, really, but some might be surprised to hear him speak about Prince in particular."

Keeling, Brooks adds, "writes about utopia as well, as an academic and activist. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to have the both of them in conversation with each other about the different ways utopian possibilities would manifest themselves in these figures?'"

Other conference sessions at Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St.: spirituality and "(im)mortal imaginaries" (Friday, 10:30 a.m.); traversing cities and borders (Friday, 2:15 p.m.); 1970s funk (Friday, 3:45 p.m.); art and film (Saturday, 9 a.m.); sonic experimentation (Saturday, 10:30 a.m.); theater, performance and spectacle (Saturday, 1:30 p.m.); race, gender and sexuality (Saturday, 3 p.m.); and several other roundtable and "critical karaoke" sessions.

McCaslin, a jazz musician whose terrific band backed Bowie on "Blackstar," and percussionist Sheila E., who worked extensively with Prince throughout the 1980s, engage in a roundtable conversation about artistic collaboration (Friday, 8:30 p.m.) at William L. Harkness Hall, 100 Wall St.

From the beginning, Brooks wanted "Blackstar Rising" to happen as close as possible to the anniversary of Bowie's passing. As it happens, the conference also takes place one week after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump.

"What I'm hearing from so many people is that this is cathartic, this is necessary," Brooks says. "It's a different way to come together, to think about solidarity and inclusion, to think about what's possible through the arts.

"If we think about both Bowie and Prince and their evolution, running along the axis of the rise of right-wing movements in this country and globally, to think about how they evolved with their aesthetic practices in context of what was happening, in terms of governmentality, that's heartening. It's really amazing to imagine what's possible through popular music culture in times of trial."

Blackstar Rising & the Purple Reign: Celebrating the Legacies of David Bowie and Prince takes place at Yale University in New Haven on Jan. 25 to 28. All events are free and open to the community. Tickets are not required unless otherwise noted. Visit the conference website for the full schedule of events.

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