Sheila E. Talks Politically Charged 'Iconic' Album & Memories of Prince

Rob Shanahan
Sheila E.

Earlier this month, musician extraordinaire Sheila E. revamped close collaborator (and past fiancé) Prince's "America," and released it on what would have been the music legend's 59th birthday. The remake of the 1985 track off the Purple One's Around the World in a Day album will appear on Sheila E.'s forthcoming covers album Iconic, which will also feature appearances from Ringo Starr and Sly & the Family Stone's Fred Stone.

Given the country's political climate under the leadership of controversial president Donald Trump, Iconic was the result of the musician aborting her dance record and opting for a timely project that calls back to her Oakland roots, where she listened to the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, as the Black Panther Party movement gained momentum. 

During a recent visit to Billboard, the "Glamorous Life" singer and percussionist discusses Iconic, her memories of Prince and how he spent his birthdays. 

Let's begin with "America," which you released this month. What emotional state were you in when you decided to do this Iconic covers album?

I wanted to do an album about things that I normally don't speak about. About a year ago, I put a folder together of music I wanted to write called Politically Correct. So it was something I wanted to do anyway, but I was doing a dance record initially -- and then after Prince passed, the first song we wrote was "Girl Meets Boy," and I started writing about things at that time that I felt.

So for the Iconic project, you know, the state that the country is in... I'm doing these songs based on the lyrical content, which, when I grew up in the '60s and the '70s, these songs were pretty amazing. They're relevant. So I wanted to do "Come Together," The Beatles song with Ringo Starr, which we did, and the only one that wasn't written [that long] ago was "America." But it means something. It was important for me to do that song, because I'd been playing it all year. After Prince's passing, we had put it in the shelf and we had thought about doing it and adding one of his other songs in the middle, which is called "Free." So it was just important to what's happening in our country. 

Was there a specific event going on in America in the past few months that really triggered the project?

Well, after Prince had passed, we ended up playing a lot of shows in honor of him and keeping his legacy going, which is his music. I think what had happened was the things that were said by, at the time, Trump [who was] running before he became president. The things that were being said about people of color, about Mexicans -- and I had posted a picture of my grandfather, who was born in Saltillo, Mexico and came here when he was 15 to live a better life and work really hard. He was a hard worker, he wasn't a racist or a rapist or a murderer or a drug dealer. and so I was offended by the things that were being said about people, and that it was okay [for Trump] to say that, which it wasn't.

And then the division that's happening -- I feel that we are moving backwards and not moving forward. There's so much hate now. With Trump running for office and the bullying, and the things that have been said, the tweeting through social media, is disturbing. I just felt like enough is enough.

I knew that it would take me a year to write the album that I wanted to write. And this felt like the right time to just go back to the songs I listened to growing up. This means something now. Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman," about dope and drugs, this means something right now. Sly and the Family Stone, "Everyday People," Marvin Gaye, "Inner City Blues" and Trouble Man, Stevie Wonder, "Jesus Children of America." I grew up listening to this music, and most of the artists, I played with. So I felt the need to do it now. 

What do you recall of the climate in Oakland, California, where you grew up, when you were listening to these songs that you selected for the album?

When I was younger, during that time, the Black Panther Party was strong and I remember later on, in my late teens, playing for one of their fundraisers; one of their spots where they opened up in the 'hood, to open it up for the community, so that they could give the people food and stuff like that. We played outside. So it was that time for me where Hispanic people kind of didn't belong. It was either black or white, so you had to choose what side to be on.

[Political activist] Angela Davis became a friend which is great because next week, she's coming in to speak on the record as well. So we have Angela Davis and we have [civil rights activist] Dolores Huerta, who has stood for so much for the people and for the Farm Workers Union. She's done a lot, so it was also important to get some of the speeches and things that have been said, or things said by activists now, to pull everybody together. I feel like we're living those times again.

Looking back on conversations with Prince, did you ever talk about politics?

Oh, all the time. He didn't like politics. He didn't like a lot of it, but we talked about it all the time. It's the reason why he wrote "America." That was '85 when it was released. He wrote it during the time of [President Ronald] Reagan and when our country went to war with Libya. That's his response to what was happening then, which is still legitimate and relevant today. 

June 7th marked what would've been his 59th birthday. What do you remember about the way he would celebrate his life's anniversary?

It's almost like he celebrated every day like we do as artists. We don't take it for granted what we have, and what we're able to do. So it's not like he celebrated on one day. We would have parties all the time. He always had a good time, and I think he just enjoyed and celebrated life the way that he did, in his own way. 

Did you ever feel like he was aware of getting older, or was he very much like "every day is all the same?"

Yeah, numbers didn't matter to him at all. As a matter of fact, I can't remember the actual [date or] where we were, but my mom and dad were around and [Prince] said we were going to jam [and invited them to] come to the house. He said, "Make sure you bring Moms and Pops." So I called them and said, "Mom, Prince wants you to come at this time." Sometimes, she wouldn't come because [Prince's parties were] late. I said "Well, we're going to be there around midnight. She's like, "Midnight!?!"

She ends up coming, and she looked at Prince and said, "Do you know how old you are? Why would you want to start a party at midnight?" And he just busted out laughing. He thought it was really funny, because she was like, "I'm hanging, but you didn't even start the party until midnight." It was really funny. 

Many artists continue to honor Prince throughout their performances. What are your thoughts on his actual band The Revolution going on tour to celebrate his music as well?

I don't know, I haven't talked to them. I don't know if they're celebrating his music or not. I have no idea what they're doing. We all have been doing our own thing. 

How have you continued to bring Prince's spirit into your own music?

Well, because we never really stopped working. We would take a break once in a great while. We started working together in 1977, so up until his passing, we were always recording and playing shows, out on tour all the time. If I took a break for a second, he'd call me on tour, or I'd hang out and play.

The thing is, being around him and playing his music -- and the things we have recorded throughout the years, and playing together -- has always pretty much been in my show. I've never stopped playing what we've created together.

Is there a certain artist today that gets you excited about music when you listen to them?

Always my dad's [Pete Escovedo's] music. I have to really think about it. Because for me, it's the music, it's the talent of the person and then the entertainment part of it. It's all one whole package. 

I think one of the hardest working people that I have seen work -- because I was her musical director a couple of times -- is Beyoncé. She works her butt off, and it seems that people think we just walk into a situation, we just play [together], go bye bye and go home. They don't understand the hard work that happens behind the scenes. Beyoncé works really hard, but new artists? Bruno Mars and I have had the conversation about doing something together.

What do you like about Bruno's artistry?

He's a musician, first and foremost. He's a good songwriter and a good entertainer. All those elements together is appealing. 

Going back to your collaborations with Ringo Starr as well as Fred Stone of Sly and the Family Stone, you've known these people for some time and they've come to help support your project -- but what's different about working with them now versus back then?

I think it's really exciting for me. What's different now is, it's my record. I've worked with them on their projects, but this is now my record, and it's pretty cool to have them be involved in it. We get to jam and play with other artists -- sometimes either at award shows or maybe [other] events -- but to be able to record and do something like this is pretty amazing. [Smiles.] It's iconic.