When Prince died, Sheila E. was understandably devastated. After losing her dear friend and mentor, she was no longer in the mood to release her two dance-oriented albums in the works. She had more pressing issues on her mind.
The legendary drummer and singer, who broke through with the Prince-penned “Glamorous Life” in 1984 and continued to work with Prince on numerous recordings, put the uptempo projects on indefinite hold, and instead pulled out her notebook filled with her thoughts about men of color being killed by police. She also pondered the role that prescription drugs had played in Prince’s death and the controversial comments that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump had made about Mexican people. And she redirected all of her energies into her first political album, Iconic: Message 4 America, which was just released on her own Stiletto Flats Music label.
Instead of writing all-new material, Sheila recorded covers of some of her favorite political songs. On Iconic, she condemns the drug administration on her remake of Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” that includes the lyric, “You took Prince.” She remixes the national anthem as “Funky National Anthem: Message 2 America,” adding her own commentary plus excerpts of speeches by Martin Luther King.
Aside from being grateful for King’s estate allowing her to use his likeness and speech excerpts for the “Funky National Anthem” music video, Sheila says she carefully prepared her spoken-word passage for the important track. “I wanted my speech to start with ‘We the people,’” she tells Yahoo Music. “I wanted to start here, because it says a lot. If we go back to the Constitution, you look at some of the things that are written there and it says, ‘We the people’ have the power to change things in our government that are hindering our safety and happiness. Sometimes, I think a lot of people may not think like that. I wanted to start with that speech to open the album that way. We have a right as a people to change this.”
While Mayfield’s “Pusherman” tells the story of a drug-dealing character in the 1972 blaxploitation film Super Fly, Sheila adds to the original lyrics to make the song about pharmaceutical companies. “I feel the drug administration is the pusherman, especially with the over-the-counter drugs,” she explains. “That’s why I did it. I didn’t call it verbatim, but thousands of people overdose on opioids. That’s why I say they took him [Prince].”
One of the issues that has irked Sheila in recent years the most was when Trump referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers in 2015. In a fiery Facebook reply to Trump, she wrote, “I am Mexican and proud of it. Mr. Trump, how dare you call me and my proud, passionate people out. My father Pete Escovedo is a great man. Greater than you will ever be. You are an arrogant racist.”
With Trump now in office and ending DACA, Sheila is still angered by his statements and other actions. “At this point, every single day it is something ridiculous,” she gripes. “But I do have to say it started when [Trump] started talking about Mexicans and people of color and how Mexicans were rapists, murderers, and drug dealers. I was so offended by that. My grandfather came over from Mexico and made a life for himself and raised a family, and he came over here when he was like 14, 15 years old. He’s the most amazing man. How dare you say that about people and then become president? I was done.”
While Sheila has participated in marches and performed at last year’s Democratic National Convention, she also favors prayer as a peaceful form of protest. And while does vent on Iconic, the overall tone of the project is peace and unity — hence other covers like Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove/Mothership Connection” (featuring George Clinton), Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” and the Beatles’ “Come Together” (featuring Ringo Starr).
An especially cool aspect of the Iconic album is that Sheila collaborated with many artists with ties to the original works. Sheila says all of the collaborators were happy be guest on the project. “When I called Ringo, I kind of laughingly left a message saying, ‘I’d like for you to play on my song. Wait a minute. I mean, I’d like for you to play drums with me on my cover of your song.’ He called me and said, ‘I heard there’s a song you’d like for me to enhance.’ And we laughed.”
Sheila is proud of the way the album turned out and is pleased that she followed her instincts to put her other, more lighthearted projects on the back burner. “Some of the fans say, ‘We don’t want to hear about politics! Just stick to the music!’ But music is the way I express myself,” says Sheila. “So you tell me I can’t express myself? It’s OK if people don’t want to follow me or don’t like what I’m saying; everyone has their opinion. Just opt out, and that’s fine. But this is how I feel right now.”