Hundreds of the Purple faithful — clad in purple shirts, purple pants, purple dresses, purple sneakers, even purple hair, filled the District’s historic Howard Theatre on Sunday to celebrate the life, the music and the artistry of Prince.
A line of violet snaked around the theater as fans of the iconic musician, who was found dead Thursday at age 57, waited for the doors to open for the Prince Purple Day Party. Many had heard about the event on WKYS-FM (93.9) or WMMJ-FM (Majic 102.3), local radio stations that teamed up to host the tribute.
Area bars, restaurants and nightclubs kept the influential artist’s music in heavy rotation throughout the weekend, but the Howard memorial was one of the largest gatherings.
“My sister heard about this, and I knew we had to come down,” said Donna Lewis, 60, of Bowie, Md., while standing in line with her sister Sheila Vaughn. “I wasn’t really into him like she was — until I came home from college and saw ‘Purple Rain.’ That was it.”
Although the 1984 cult classic and soundtrack hooked her, Lewis said her favorite Prince song was actually “Adore,” a ballad from the 1987 “Sign O’ the Times” album.
“The song was love. It embodied love,” she said. “It just touched me.”
Lewis wasn’t alone. When DJ Trini dropped the slow jam minutes after his set began, the crowd swooned and began singing along.
Not a song went by without a cheer, followed by loud, at times off-key, singing. Tonya Kirksey, 49, knew every song the DJ played, and when “I Would Die 4 U” came on, she had the famous hand dance down pat.
She was proud to say she last saw Prince in concert at the Verizon Center a few years ago. Kirksey had followed the artist since she was 14, never losing interest in his work, even in the early years when few, if any, mainstream radio stations played his music.
“He always remained in touch with the people, and his music continued to reflect that,” said Kirksey, a native of Fort Washington, Md. “I just wanted to be here to share the memories of him and all that he meant to people.”
Sunday’s tribute drew a crowd of people old enough to have seen Prince in concert at the height of his “Purple Rain” fame in the early ’80s and those who were still in grade school at the time.
Maria Coor, 37, was only 6 when she first heard “When Doves Cry,” but the lead single off the “Purple Rain” soundtrack left an impression. Coor was so enamored by Prince that she brought her 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, decked out in purple, to Sunday’s tribute.
“There aren’t a lot of artists who are fearless like Prince,” she said. “He didn’t care if people thought he was this or thought he was that. He was who he was, and was proud of that.”
D. Kevin McNeir, 56, remembered the first time he saw Prince in concert — in 1982. It was at the Masonic temple in Detroit, where McNeir is originally from, and the album “1999” had just come out, he said. McNeir caught the purple trifecta — Prince, Vanity 6 and Morris Day and the Time.
“It was an epic concert,” he said. “What impressed me about Prince was he knew that sexuality and spirituality are inextricably linked, and that came through in his music. But he was also a humanitarian and advocated for equality. All of that is a part of his legacy.”
District resident Cecelia Smith-Bud, 56, agreed that a key part of Prince’s legacy is what he did for the community outside of his music.
“He was a charitable man and an artist,” she said. “This is a great way to celebrate what he was about: community.”
As the party went on at the Howard, DJ Gemini from WKYS kept the early classics in rotation, never straying too far from the popular hits. Halfway through the tribute, people continued to line up down the street for a chance to dance, to sing, to revel in Prince.