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Prince's Childhood Friend Gives Emotional Tribute: 'He Inspired Us to Be Ourselves'

04/21/2016 AT 08:00 PM EDT

Prince Rogers Nelson was an inspiration to his community long before he became an international pop star.

Danae Curtis, 39, first met the artist in grade school in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and remembers Prince as a pillar of the young African-American community during a time of racial tensions.

"We first met when I was in kindergarten, back when his name was Roger. This was 1980. He was the oldest member of the biracial group that I was in and I was the youngest," a tearful Curtis told PEOPLE from First Ave. Minneapolis, where scores of fans have gathered in the rain to pay tribute to their local hero who died Thursday at 57.

"He inspired me to get good grades and to be the first black captain of the basketball team at Hopkins High School. When I was transferred, he told me to 'represent' for [the biracial people], to be what he called a raspberry beret."



Curtis explained that "raspberry beret" – the future title of a track off his 1985 album Around the World in a Day – has its roots in Prince's early advocacy for the African-American community.


"In Hopkins there is a raspberry festival every year and we were the first people of color to be sent to desegregate that school district," she said. "We were scared to go to the suburbs – it was scary back then."

Prince used the term raspberry beret to describe "someone who stands up and is proud of being different." Listening to the song years later, Curtis understood the lyrics were about "being poor and thrift shopping and going against the grain. That's what he did before becoming a musician and he inspired us to be ourselves."

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The oldest member of her biracial support group, Curtis said Prince "was totally different and walked to the beat of his own drummer." Back then, interracial kids in Minnesota "were almost like lepers" in a predominantly white community, but Prince's proud individuality inspired his group mates. "He just motivated us and he encouraged us to be proud of who we were wherever we had to go or be who we were and to be proud," she said.

Curtis believes his experience as a light skinned black person growing up in Minnesota played a large role in the music he would go on to make.

"This was way before music. It was like the hibernation period and the words and the music came from a very deep place of being biracial back in the seventies in Minnesota," she said. "People think of Prince and Purple Rain but there was something way before Purple Rain and there was something that gave him the words and emotions to write and be who he was. Those were his roots."

Curtis is now a youth counselor and substitute teacher, but she said she and the singer "stayed in touch from afar" over the years as part of a poetry collective he contributed to under various stage names.

"He touched so many people and he did a lot for the people who lived here," she added. "He was our champion."

Reporting by Raye Gleekel
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