The late rock star was spiritually conflicted about his legacy. That authenticity drew some unlikely fans.
Speculation about how Prince died has gotten so intense that even the DEA has joined the investigation into his death. Many will undoubtedly be skeptical of the tabloid accusations. So far though, no one is disputing the stories about Prince’s spiritual transformation from a profane sexual libertine to the man who once gave a four-hour Biblical lecture to singer Bilal, rapper Common and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots.
Thompson shared a story with NPR’s Terry Gross that captures the dynamic tension between who Prince had been and who he had become. “We’re at Paisley Park (Prince’s home/studio complex), and maybe I let the s-word slip,” Thompson said, referencing a commonly used expletive. “And he was like ‘yeah, that’ll be a dollar’.”
At that point, Prince grabbed one of those water jugs that some people use to save coins and bills. He was using it as a “cuss jar.”
“Actually, you’re rich,” Thompson said Prince said to him. “That’s $20. No cursing.”
“Cursing?” Thompson said he replied. “Wait. You’re the one that taught me how to curse.”
As Prince fans know, his earlier work contained enough profanity and explicit sexual references that it drew the ire of Tipper Gore, ex-wife of former U.S. Senator and Vice-President Al Gore. Ms. Gore, who had purchased Purple Rain for her then 11-year-old daughter, was outraged by some of its content and launched a crusade to mandate warning labels for albums with adult-oriented material. Thompson said that Prince seemed bothered by the idea that his music had influenced Thompson to use profanity.
“I saw the look on his face,” the hip-hop drummer recalled. In Thompson’s opinion, this discomfort – guilt, maybe? – motivated Prince to become the secret philanthropist that only a few knew him to be. “Saving schools,” Thompson said. “I mean, people to this day not knowing where this $3 million check came from. That was all him. I felt like maybe in the last 20 years of his life he felt the need to over-compensate or pay forward – that maybe he damaged some of us who grew up listening to his music.”
Political commentator Van Jones also knew about Prince’s quiet charity. He said the artist supported Green For All, an organization that creates environmentally sound jobs in poor communities. Prince also supported #YesWeCode, which teaches inner-city youth about technology. “The truth is that you’re either here to enlighten or discourage,” he told an MTV interviewer in 1999. By this time, Prince had begun Bible studies with legendary bassist Larry Graham, who is a Jehovah’s Witness.
Graham’s initial fame came from his stint with Sly and the Family Stone and then his own band Graham Central Station. By 1999, Prince had recruited him to join his New Power Generation band. He and Prince grew so close that Graham began calling him “baby brother.” “Larry has been so kind as to help me with a lot of things that I didn’t have quite a firm grip on,” Prince told a Dutch television interviewer in 1999. “There’s a lot of temptation out in the world. And it can confuse you and get you wrapped up in something that keeps you from the truth, but with a loving brother like that by your side you usually do alright.”
“Kudos to Larry Graham for reaching out,” said David Thomas of Take 6, a long-time Prince fan. “And to other people who reached out when they sensed there was a struggle there, and actually became brothers in Christ that reached out to Prince.” Thomas told Message that Take 6 and Prince crossed paths several times through the years. One of their most memorable encounters for Thomas was when the group was in Los Angeles to perform with Stevie Wonder for the 2001 broadcast “America: A Tribute to Heroes.”
Prince, who has cited Wonder as a role model, invited Take 6 and Wonder to join him later at his club Glam Slam in L.A. “If Prince invites me to his club, I’m going,” Thomas said. When he and his wife Marla got there, they were ushered into the VIP area at the side of the stage. Prince was already on stage, playing guitar and jamming with his band.
“As soon as he sees that I walked in, he immediately switches over to start playing ‘Mary, Don’t You Weep’,” Thomas recalled. “It was a seamless transition. And he was playing it more in a blues style.” The whole band joined in as Prince played and sang the Take 6 staple. It was confirmation for Thomas that Prince was a fan. Anyone who has been to a Take 6 concert in recent years has seen the section where the group, widely known for its gospel repertoire, pays tribute to their secular musical influences. That’s when Thomas, who sings the fourth tenor part in the sextet, goes to the piano and sings a Prince song.
Thomas first heard Prince as a child, but he had to hide his interest in the artist. “My parents didn’t let me listen to that kind of music,” he said. So he would go out and buy Prince albums without their knowledge. At first, Thomas was drawn to the uniqueness of the rhythm of Prince’s arrangements, the melody of the songs and the raw passion of his performances.
As he got older, he and his friends began to discuss the challenge of reconciling Prince’s explicit lyrics with their Christian faith. “What I found in Prince’s music is sort of a duality,” Thomas said. “There are times when he is speaking profoundly Christian messages in some songs, and there’s some times when he’s not. That kind of resonated with me as well. There are times when I feel more connected in the Spirit, and there are times when I don’t, when I’m struggling.
“Kudos to Larry Graham for reaching out,” said David Thomas of Take 6, a long-time Prince fan. “And to other people who reached out when they sensed there was a struggle there.”
“And it’s very strange to me that when we see people struggling that we tend to judge, versus trying to figure out what they’re struggling with.”
While many are uncomfortable with or even offended by the raw nature of Prince’s older material, Thomas believes that Christian music should strive for that level of authenticity. He pointed to the imprecatory psalms, also known as the “cursing psalms”, as examples of harsh, real feelings being expressed in a spiritual context.
- “Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the grave.”Psalm 55:15
- “O God, break the teeth in their mouths.” Psalm 58:6
“I was raised in a Christian family,” Thomas said. “Everybody’s not always happy. Things are not always honkey-dorey just because you’re a Christian.”
During the Dutch television interview, Prince was asked what he considers his “destination” to be, since he once said that the more songs he writes, the closer he gets to it. His answer reflected an awareness of, and appreciation for, the dynamics of his own spiritual journey. “I would say complete oneness with the Spirit of God,” Prince said. “And a knowledge of the truth.”
Paisley Prince art by Michelle Paccione/Shutterstock