“When you seek divine guidance be prepared for the answer.” These are words spoken by Karen Alexander known to many as Auntie Karen, founder of The Auntie Karen Foundation when she took time to speak with The MinorityEye last week.  Founded in 2001 the foundation’s primary goals are to enlighten, empower, and educate youth via the arts. The demographic focuses on youth of the African diaspora. The emphasis is not merely to do arts initiatives in Columbia, SC or even the United States, Auntie Karen has a global outreach to countries with people of color. Over the course of 17 years, it is estimated that about 20,000 youth have been positively impacted.

Previously a teacher for 6 years and later while working at Xerox Corporation, Karen Alexander was searching for her purpose. She was part of a jazz ensemble, which fed her artistic spirit but she knew “there was more I could be doing.”  From this desire of seeking more The Auntie Karen Foundation was created.  A few years after the founding the non-profit there was the need to create a major method of fundraising; hence, “Legends of …(A Salute to Black History)” concert series and weekend was started in 2004; the inaugural performer was Grammy Award-winning artist Roberta Flack.

A few years after the creation of the Legends weekend in 2006 the Master Class was added with the now late Al Jareau. Everything that is done by The Auntie Karen Foundation centers around the goals to enlighten, empower, and educate youth and this is the case with bringing in legendary talent to perform and also sit with youth during the Master Classes.  Karen Alexander advised that her inspiration came from childhood and similar legends like Nancy Wilson and Ella Fitzgerald performing at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. When referring to legendary African American talent she stated, “give flowers while they are living. This is very important.”

Earlier we mentioned that Legends weekend is intended as the annual fundraiser for The Auntie Karen Foundation but all too often the cost of the week out ways the return on investment. Meaning the Auntie Karen Foundation doesn’t always make money and sometimes loses money.  This happened in 2016 when Karen Alexander advises that there was still debt remaining in 2018.  “Everybody loves a great party.  And I love to give them one but we don’t always make money to fund the initiatives for the kids, which is my main goal”, said Karen Alexander. Giving all year will help to reach the local and global goals.  Auntie Karen and her outreach have touched 5 continents.  You can go to www.auntiekaren.org for more information about the foundation and how to support the goal to enlighten, empower, and educate youth.

The Master Class with Sheila E.

Take a legendary drummer and bring them to a high school where most students were not born before the year 2000 and see what happens. You might think that the young people wouldn’t appreciate legendary talent that takes the time to sit and talk with them. However, in the case of drummer Sheila Escovedo better known as Sheila E you would be wrong. Inside of the auditorium at W.J. Keenan High School filled with 500 students from middle to high school you could feel the excitement.  Maybe it was their parents playing Sheila E.’s popular song Glamourous Life or talking about her connection to Prince; young people were ready to see and hear her.

The opening of the program was done by performances of students from Dreher, A.C. Flora, Lower Richland and W.J. Keenan high schools. Karen Alexander introduced by Hope Jeffcoat Coordinator for the Master Class program presented a heartfelt tribute to the late John Blackwell former Prince drummer and Jaz Outen longtime photographer for The Auntie Karen Foundation.  Both were W.J. Keenan graduates.  In addition, other individuals including Al Jareau the first legend to hold a Master Class was remembered.

Following the loving tribute of those gone to soon came a tribute to Sheila E in the form of a full marching band including majorette dancers.  With a blow of a whistle, the Keenan Raider “Rubber’ Band began playing and filled the auditorium with marching and dancing feet.  A melody of Prince songs and ending with Sheila E.’s Glamourous Life had everyone on their feet (especially former Keenan Raiders).  Upon taking the stage the first order of business by Sheila E. was to invite the Rubber Band to open for her the next day at the Koger Center for her show.

Engaging students with playing the congas and telling of her journey Sheila E. was a huge hit. She didn’t merely speak to the students but invited them to the stage; like a group of students invited onto stage to play the conga drums. Of the students, one had clear skills on the congas. Not only drummers but vocalist who did part of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop”, which she played percussions.  From stories about her “playing an extra beat while practicing “What’s Going On” with the late Marvin Gaye” that she “blamed on my brother” every eye and ear were on her.  The lesson in that story was “know when not to play.”

Photo credit: Joyce Rose-Harris

In closing, Sheila E. asked for a clean rapper (“no cursing”) to come to the stage.  During an impromptu session where she was given a beat by a 12-year-old female rapper, she had a jam session.  Prior to closing out on her famous drum set she asked the audience members to stand and tell someone near them you loved them and then give them a hug.  With electric energy, she gave us love played like the diva of the drums we know and love; and with a new generation of adoring fans looking on she donated the instruments on the stage.

Taking time with media after The Master Class Sheila E. took time to answer some questions.  In response to the question what was her most memorable experience, she responded, “Today with these kids! Especially the 12-year-old girl rapper that was impressive.  And the marching band was really great.  Going way back it was when I was 15 years old playing the gig with my dad.  That was when I knew her purpose.”  Asked what was her first instrument? She responded, “her momma’s pots and pans.”

The MinorityEye asked what challenges she faced with the foundations that she formed?  She responded, “money is always a problem but also hungry kids.  They can’t focus on anything if they are hungry, so you have to deal with that too as part of the outreach.”  And of course, it is Sheila E. so questions about Prince were asked including “something we didn’t’ know?”  “She laughed and said she beat him in basketball, which he did not like at all.  He was very competitive.” The final question was “what did she learn from Prince?”  She chuckled and said, “it was more what he learned from me and my family.  Prince had followed my career and recorded his first album in Oakland because he liked the energy.  He learned a lot about performing and the business from my dad.”

A Legendary Purple Party

 This portion is written not as a blogger-journalist but purely as a fan.  While arriving near the Koger Center the powerful sound of Keenan Raider “Rubber” Band was heard warming up.  And I became excited remembering the day before when Sheila E. invited them to open for her show.  I thought it is really going to happen, how awesome for the students.  Arriving into the Koger Center wearing earrings that had images of Prince, I encountered many Prince fans like myself.  We were ready to party like it was 2011…the last year Prince performed in Columbia, SC.

After many months of preparation, tonight was here. Sheila E. the opener for Morris Day and The Time would be hitting the stage at 8 pm.  My husband and I arrived early to look at the Silent Auction offerings and take in the atmosphere.  I a huge Sheila E. fan and him a huge Morris Day fan were both excited.  We had fun taking photos in the majestic princely chairs and talking with other like-minded fans.

Soon upon taking our seats, the program began with various formalities.  Karen Alexander explained the purpose of the night The Legends Concert was not merely a time to party or honor Prince but to ensure funds were raised to continue programs including the Young Entrepreneurs Conference and initiatives like Gordon’s Garden. Giving to The Auntie Karen Foundation on a continuing basis was encouraged.

After the formalities with the sound of a whistle the Keenan Raiders “Rubber” Band took the stage.  The majorette dancers were below dancing on the orchestra pit area and a promise was kept.  Then onto the stage came Sheila E. along with her band members and the room was electric! Going through all the various phases of her career from new to old the audience was entertained.  Even taking to playing the guitar and then climbing into the audience to play with fans.

With much heart, she gave us a Prince tribute that brought tears to all around.  Playing “Purple Rain” and singing along the audience standing and swaying together; releasing the pain still present after the death of our beloved Prince. Overcome with emotion Sheila E. said it was difficult to play songs that she helped write without Prince being here to play with her. We knew the specialness of the performance from her words. Bringing us back up she closed out with her signature song “Glamourous Life” tossing drumsticks in the air at the end.

During the intermission, the audience was able to catch their breath and gather their emotions. Next up was Morris Day and The Time. Wearing a bright yellow double-breasted suit the always extravagant & entertaining Morris Day took the stage; of course, with his valet Jerome nearby with a mirror.  Playing much-loved songs getting the audience up on their feet we danced, laughed and sang out loud.

There were songs like “Cool”, “The Walk”, and “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” my husband and all around barely stayed in their seats.  And near the end just when we thought it was over he came back for an all-out dance party, ending out with “Jungle Love”.  The goal of Friday night was to give those in attendance a Purple Party.  I can say that mission was accomplished.  I also hope that from the packed house the financial goals of The Auntie Karen Foundation were met but you can always donate anytime at www.auntiekaren.org. Congratulations to Karen Alexander, her volunteers and The Legends Of.. executive committee on a legendary week.

Joyce Rose-Harris
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