How Prince Convinced My Middle School Self To Change My Name To A Symbol: BUST True Story

by Kerri Lowe

I used to watch a lot of VH1 when I was a kid. If it was Pop Up Video, the music videos would play and have fun facts about the song and artist pop up on the screen. If it wasn’t, there’d just be the artist, standing on a mountain and singing, or in front of a green screen in space, or on stage, writhing on the floor and electrifying the audience, like Prince so often did.

I remember when I first saw Prince’s “When Doves Cry” video. It was the first song I heard that had a chorus that spoke directly on the affects of family on our personalities. “Maybe I’m just too demanding, Maybe I’m just like my father too bold,” Prince sang before moving onto the fault in his mother (“She’s never satisfied”) that he projected onto his love interest. It was an unusual love song that took on the pain of realizing that your parents will give you traits you wish you didn’t have. The truth that everyone must learn, we are so often not the self-directed individuals we think we are. It was incredibly human, and unlike anything I’d heard from the realm of pop.

This song found me long before I had any articulated thoughts about family that I could turn into a song, or an essay, or a poem, like I would later. I didn’t know that writing would become a place where I found myself rather than a tool one used once they had been found. I didn’t know why this song about family hit me different than the others, but it did.

Later, in middle school, I remembered something from my days of watching Pop Up Video — there was this musician named Prince, and one day, he decided that he would use a symbol for his name rather than letters, so he became the unpronounceable symbol, or, what the media turned into, “The Artist formerly known as Prince.” This tickled my twelve-year-old funny bone so immensely that I had to try it on myself. I got to work on creating a symbol that would replace my given name, “Kerri.”

I started experimenting with variations on the letter “K” and came up with something that felt to me like the mix between a K and a star. Something I could draw easily, but would be distinctive. I convinced a handful of teachers to accept it instead my name on the top of my papers — “like Prince,” I told them. Each time I wrote it, I felt gleefully powerful.

PrinceSymbol 1024x768

Middle school was entirely about power and creative freedom for me. I never wanted to be “on top” necessarily, I just wanted to be able to do whatever I wanted when I wanted to do it. “If I finish my work, can I go write a script for the next school TV show?” “If I have to do a group project, can they do the math and I’ll cover the presentation?” “If we organize an assembly to pump everyone up for end-of-year testing can my ‘partner in crime’ Chandler and I host it?” “Is that brown duct tape? Can I put it on my shoe? Awesome!”

I found that being a good student was the quickest way to be able to do what I wanted, from the scale of perfectly reasonable request to totally bizarre (like writing parody Christmas Carols and convincing the teachers to let us perform them around at different classes). As long as I made good grades and didn’t hurt anyone, I got almost everything I asked for.

But using a symbol instead of my name! That was the big one. That was the victory that stayed with me. At any moment, I could create a new identity for myself, just by saying it was so. What I used to do with a #2 pencil, I now do with creating a logo or a website. I am who I decide to be, whether that’s Kerri, “The Student Formerly Known as Kerri,” KAYLO (which stands for Keep All Young Loves Open and is my name when I perform spoken word poetry), or something else. Maybe even taking my fiancé’s last name to become Kerri Van Kirk later this year, we’ll see.

When I moved to New York at 18 and unexpectedly started writing songs while in acting school, most of them were about family. This shocked me. I never considered myself particularly attached to or preoccupied with families. I thought I was all about acting, about transforming my identity, not finding groundedness in where I came from.

The Love symbol was simultaneously a mark of individuality and a mark of the collective experience. We are born out of the male and the female union, which makes us at once ourselves, the people that we came from, and connected to every other human born on this planet. He captured that in all of his work.


Prince was an artist that lived by example — that showed me that you can be out there, even outrageous in your choices and explorations, but that you can do that and also write about things as elemental as family dynamics. Being an artist means that the outward trappings of your identity might change, but as long as you’re creating from an honest inner place, you’ll continue to resonate. I come nowhere close to the outlandishness of a Prince performance, but his work has opened me up to the power of identity. To naming yourself — claiming yourself — and saying the things that other people don’t say. I may just start pulling out that symbol again. I see now that it was not only a show of middle school bravado, but a mark of my personal power to choose, the reality of where I came from, and how we’re all connected beyond words and labels. Unpronounceable. RIP Prince, and thank you.

More from BUST

7 Ways Prince Was An Ally To Women

Prince Has Passed Away At Age 57

Vanity, Prince’s ‘Nasty Girl,’ Dies At Age 57

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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