“Prince was just too nasty for me. I grew up in the church,” she said.
My first inclination was to defend the musical icon I loved so much.
“Well, you know he wrote 1,000s of songs—over 40 albums, and only a relatively small portion of those could be considered ’nasty.’”
“Well, all the ones I ever heard were nasty,” she said, dismissing my point.
“Awww. I feel so sorry for you,” I responded, making sure she tasted every bit of my derision.
I find it fascinating when people, particularly religious folks, try to thwart the honor due an artist because of what they perceive to be “bad” about the artist’s work. They cast judgment on those of us, also of faith, who choose to celebrate these artists for their amazing genius by accusing of us of “worship” or “idolatry.” In the case of Prince, while the overwhelming response from most people—including those who identify as people of faith—to his sudden death has been both grief at the loss and celebration of the work, there has also been a contingent who, on Facebook posts and memes dripping with shade, have chosen to emphasize the overt sexuality in some of Prince’s work in an attempt to reduce the man and what he contributed to the world through music to just sex.
How terribly revealing of the people doing this, and in typical Prince fashion, he had a comeback for those who decided on casting the first stone: “I don’t really care what people say about me because it is usually a reflection of who they are.”
Over the course of Prince’s legendary career, there was a clear transformation that extended well beyond his innovations musically. Yes, a good portion of his repertoire explored sex—even nasty, freaky sex. But it wasn’t necessarily reflective of his entire body of work. In fact, what was more evident in Prince’s music was his ever evolving spiritual journey, a journey that included his sensuality–and maybe even came about because of it–but certainly wasn’t the totality of his work.
Prince Rogers Nelson was born and raised in a home where his mother was a member of the Seventh Day Adventist church (a socially conservative denomination of Christianity that worships on Saturdays instead of Sunday). Early in his career, he played around with merging themes of sex and spirituality in his music. A huge contradiction, some would argue.
On his blockbuster 1984 album, Purple Rain, there was the explicit song called “Darling Nikki.” “I knew a girl named Nikki/I guess you could say she was a sex fiend/I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine,” Prince sang. A few tracks later in “The Ladder,” the seeker in Prince showed up proclaiming, “Everybody’s looking 4 the ladder/Everybody wants salvation of the soul/The steps u take are no easy road/But the reward is great/4 Those who want 2 go.” Those who weren’t so hung up on his alleged nastiness could clearly see Prince wrestling with both the sacred and the profane in his music.
In spite of his penchant for singing about sex, to whom Prince attributed his success was never in question. In an interview with CNN’s Larry King in 1999, Prince was clear about the source.
“I like to believe that my inspiration comes from God,” he said. “I’ve always known God is my creator. Without Him, nothing works.”
According to a recent Billboard story, even during the height of his more overtly sexual work, “Prince [still] kept God in the picture. ‘Controversy’ includes The Lord’s Prayer, and ‘1999’ narrates a judgment day where life is just a party, but parties weren’t meant to last. ‘He created a cosmology and a spiritual outlook that made sense to him,’ explained Touré, author of the Prince biography I Would Die 4 U.”
Prince was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness in 2003 and from that point until his death he made the study of scripture a lifelong endeavor. He was a member of the Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in St. Louis Park, Minnesota and often “engaged regularly in door-to-door ministry” as members are known to do. During this time, Prince’s music also shifted. In the 2006 song, “Beautiful, Loved, and Blessed,” Prince sings, “When you found me/I was just a piece of clay/I was formless/you gave me a new name/With the breath of life I now live abundant/All I needed was the potter’s hand/And the blood on Calvary (that’s right).” In this piece, he clearly references Jesus and flexes his knowledge of scripture, in this case Jeremiah 18. And still, while Prince’s music often reflected his spiritual journey, he could also never entirely shake his sensuality.
I mean, God made Prince sexy after all.
In spite of the dedication to his faith, though, Prince definitely still seemed to wrestle with its doctrines. After becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, Prince made a conscious decision to stop singing some of his more explicit tunes and stopped cursing. However, he struggled to come to terms with his stance on homosexuality–first rejecting it, then accepting it, then rejecting and accepting it again. Nevertheless, his spiritual evolution also appeared to make him more vocal when it came to social issues.
Since his death, there have been numerous accounts of Prince “living his faith” through his philanthropy. In my hometown of Louisville, KY, it has come to light that Prince donated $12,000 to a library that was likely going to close in one of the inner-city neighborhoods. In the latter part of his life he also used his platform to speak out for the marginalized and disenfranchised. Last year, he held a free “Rally for Peace” concert in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s death and the uprisings that followed. Prince also clearly supported the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement in bringing justice to those who’d been killed by police officers.
In a 2004 interview with Tavis Smiley, Prince seemed to deeply appreciate his true fans, the ones who rode with him through his “many changes” and allowed him “to grow.” They gave him space to “tackle some serious subjects” later in his life, Prince said.
Still, it’s unfortunate that many people do not make the distinction between a religious conversion and a spiritual transformation. They don’t realize that those two things are not necessarily synonymous. Of course they can be, and for Prince they were, but for many they are not.
The inability to see the difference–between religion and spirituality–is a dangerous position to have. It’s how all Christians become right-wing hypocrites and all Muslims become terrorists in far too many people’s view. It’s imperative that we make the distinction between someone who simply subscribes to the tenets of a particularly faith tradition and someone who actually lives those tenets daily. And by all indications, Prince was the latter.
Prince was far from perfect. He wasn’t a person who towed some arbitrary, cherry-picked line of morality. But he was someone who, evidently, was transformed daily—and for the better—by his beliefs. Most importantly for those who loved his art, though, Prince was someone who was completely unafraid to allow his spiritual beliefs to inform his music.
In his 57 years of life, Prince remained authentic, even when it wasn’t the “mainstream” thing to do. And yet his beliefs could not totally quench the sensuality that launched him to superstardom in the first place. Prince found a way to wrestle with these issues while still remaining true to the God-given music that filled his mind and soul.
While some in society, particularly legalists across all religious traditions, may attempt to categorize Prince’s faith journey as one big contradiction, in truth, this duality represents the way many of us choose to reconcile our spirit with our flesh, our beliefs with our desires. Any person coming to faith—any faith, really—knows that these beautiful contradictions are a critical part of one’s spiritual evolution. Prince just made it real to us through his music and the way he lived his life.