This month an epic musical celebration featuring the music of Prince, from his former backing band, The New Power Generation, comes to London.
Keyboardist Morris Hayes, who was in the NPG for more than 20 years and served as Prince’s musical director for much of that time, put the band back together for the official Prince Tribute concert in October 2016. After that historic night, they decided to reunite to bring a smaller version of the performance honouring their former band leader on the road. The group’s lead vocal is supplied by singer-songwriter and America’s Got Talent 2019 quarter-finalist, MacKenzie Green. “With the exception of me,” he says, “this is Prince’s band. We have Sonny Thompson on bass – this is the guy who taught Prince to play guitar. Morris Hayes was with Prince for over 20 years, and Prince called Tony M the baddest pen in the mid-west. So, it’s not a tribute. It’s them saying thank you to their brother and honouring his music. It’s a really healing thing when you come out to these shows, I’ve heard that time and time again from different audiences, and I just know that if you love Prince’s music, you’ll love the show.” Sam Bennett put in a call to California to discover more.
Your day’s just beginning – how’s it going?
We had a really late night, so yeah, I’m just getting started… but it’s going good. You?
I’ve had a very grownup day; I’ve done an HIV self-test because it’s HIV Testing Week, and I’ve applied for a postal vote for the UK general election because I’m going to be out of the country when it happens.
You’ve been very productive.
You’ll be voting yourself next year, won’t you?
Next year… I’m looking forward to that.
Make some changes...
You’re in LA right now, your home, what’s it like?
Busy, very warm – that’s a great thing. I grew up on the East Coast, and it’s a very different lifestyle out here. While busy, it’s also a little more laid-back.
You grew up in a small Virginia town – what music did your upbringing consist of?
I was raised Southern Baptist, so initially all the music I listened to was very religious, very spiritual – gospel music. After that I was exposed to a lot of old-school music: Stevie Wonder; Earth, Wind & Fire; The Jackson Five; and of course, Prince.
Were you a happy kid?
Now that is an interesting question. I’d like to think so, as happy as a kid could be – I played a lot with my friends and my brothers. I’ve always been very introverted so I was always off to the corner with my notebooks, writing music or poetry – but yeah, I think I was pretty happy.
This year you reached the quarter-finals of America’s Got Talent – how was that journey?
It was a really great experience. I’d never done television before so I really wanted to take on that challenge, and see as an artist how I would feel under the pressure – the lights and everything like that. Everyone there was very gracious with helping me through the process, teaching me and allowing me to find my way as. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
You auditioned with ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ by Prince. You’re also lead vocalist of New Power Generation which is a celebration of his music – is that gig a dream come true?
That’s kind of an understatement. It’s something I’ll never get over. I’m really, truly, genuinely a fan of everyone in the band – from Tony M [rapper who Prince featured on early Prince and the New Power Generation releases] to Damon Dickson [percussion, original NPG member] to Sonny T [bass, original NPG member]. Being up there with them, holding onto that mic for dear life, trying not to ruin this great man’s songs, is something I’m so honoured to be a part of. As a fan, I feel like I get to say thank you in a way that no one else ever will.
Your bandmates played with Prince, they knew him, do they tell you stories about him?
Oh my God, all the time, I don’t even have to ask. They were his brothers – they are his brothers. If we’re just sitting around – if it’s dinner or a dull moment in rehearsal – someone’s going to start a story. What I’ve learnt to do is just keep my mouth shut. It’s the best way to hear gems. I’ve definitely been privy to some pretty incredible stories that I don’t think I would have heard anywhere else.
So you never got to meet him?
They say not to meet your heroes though, don’t they?
They do – but he’s one I would have broken that rule for.
Did you see him live?
I did not. My relationship with Prince is pretty funny. I wasn’t even allowed to listen to him when I was a kid, my mother thought he was too risqué, so I used to have to sneak to listen to him. I wasn’t even allowed to go to concerts until I was a full-grown adult paying my own bills, so the idea of going to see him was not on the table. Then it was just one of those things where life gets busy; I was a struggling musician, working, and just never got to make it happen. It’s definitely a life regret.
When you perform, you don a bit of nail varnish. Is that a nod to his androgyny or an expression of your own?
I think it’s a bit of both. I consider Prince one of my five masters, and one thing that he taught me early on was to be myself and that if authenticity is not the core of your artistry, you’re not really making art. Throughout this journey with the band I’ve been really stepping into my own as an artist and finding myself. One day I was like ‘you know what, let me try this, see how it feels’… and it feels really good.
He used to perform in heels, have you tried that?
I don’t think I have the ankle strength for it. If you take into account the physicality, the moves he was doing, the jumping, the splitting – it’s a wonder he didn’t break a bone every show. Would I try it? Probably not at a show because I don’t want to ever come off like I’m even attempting to impersonate him, but maybe I’ll get bold enough to try it in my private time.
Are you still finding time to write your own music?
Absolutely. The other great thing about [NPG] is I get so inspired every show; seeing the way his music affected the world is a well of inspiration. So I often find myself with my notebook, writing. Actually, I was fortunate enough to just open up my own studio here in LA.
NPG come to the UK this month, which hits can people expect and is it hard choosing which ones to leave out?
That is probably the hardest part of this entire thing. Morris Hayes speaks about when they did the big reunion after Prince’s passing: they played for five hours and still there were people that came up after like ‘well, you didn’t play this one, you didn’t play that one’. He has so much music so it‘s really hard to pick and choose. We do our best, there are certain songs you have to play – you have to play ‘Purple Rain’. We try and make it a good balance and I think this tour is going to represent that for sure. You’re going to hear some of the hits but also some deep cuts you might not have heard him perform live, or songs he didn’t perform live that often. We’re trying to bring a lot more of the NPG’s catalogue into this tour this time around as well.
Do your bandmates tell you the reasons why certain songs weren’t done live that often?
The way they explain it to me is that if he tried something and didn’t feel it translated live as well as it did on the record, he just wasn’t that keen to keep playing it live. He was a perfectionist, but who really understands the mind of Prince?
The lyrics to ‘New Power Generation’ itself, remain really relevant – what do they mean to you right now?
Being American right now, it sounds like a rally cry. It’s a call to action, it’s a call to revolution, it’s a call to stand up and fight for what you know is right. I think everyone in the band embodies that, and I think I try and embody that in my life as well.
If you weren’t singing the songs of Prince, whose songs would you like to be singing?
MacKenzie’s. I’m loving this journey, I never want it to stop, but like I said, it’s inspiring me more and more to be more and more of myself, and to really delve into what that is. I pray and hope that one day I’ll have the opportunity to share my heart and my music in the same capacity.
Photography by Peter Lodder