The Artist Formerly Known As Risque Rock Star Had Spiritual Questions
Editor’s Note: The story of Prince Rodgers Nelson is a baffling example of contradiction. When he died unexpectedly last week, the news resurrected old questions: how does someone who grew up in a conservative Christian denomination and later practice a surprisingly devout lifestyle turn out like him? Considering the continuum of religious experience, it should not be a surprise says writer David Person, who is working on the next article about Prince. He’s looking for first-hand anecdotes. Got any? Write us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
L.A. Reid, chairman and CEO of Epic Records, told what may be the most compelling story about Prince, the rock/funk legend who died on April 21. Reid was being interviewed the next day on CBS’s This Morning show when he referenced the artist’s 1984 hit “Let’s Go Crazy,” which has this line: “And if the elevator tries to bring you down/Go crazy, punch a higher floor.”
Reid then recounted what he said was a portion of a private conversation he and Prince had. “You know what the elevator is right?” Reid said Prince asked him. “The elevator is the devil.” Reid said he found it “haunting” that Prince was found dead in an elevator in his own home. And for many, that is the highlight of Reid’s story. But they may be missing a more interesting insight into the controversial artist who was born Prince Rodgers Nelson.
Here are the opening lines to “Let’s Go Crazy”: “Dearly beloved/We are gathered here today/To get through this thing called life/Electric word life/It means forever and that’s a mighty long time/But I’m here to tell you/There’s something else/The after world/A world of never ending happiness/You can always see the sun, day or night.”
Was Prince, in his own way, exploring existential, spiritual, perhaps even religious ideas, in the song? And if the elevator in the song symbolized the devil trying to bring a person down, could the advice to “go crazy, punch a higher floor” also been a spiritual suggestion? It seems more likely than not, especially in light of Prince’s more obvious explorations of political, spiritual and even overtly Christian themes over the course of his 39 studio albums. The rock star who made his name with such sexually-charged hits as 1979’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and 1980’s “Darling Nickki” later released the socially-conscious, electro-funk hit “Sign O’ The Times” and the overtly Christian rock anthem “The Cross,” both in 1987 – as well as 2004’s “Cinnamon Girl,” a politically-charged defense of Muslims, and 2015’s “Baltimore,” a tribute to Freddy Gray, the man who died in police custody.
“Prince’s music was informed by his spirituality, but most important, his religion,” said Dr. Darrell Ezell, director for Interfaith Action and the Center for Religion, Culture, and Foreign Affairs at Claremont Lincoln University. “A lot of people thought that Prince personified party, that Prince personified celebration. But Prince was transformation.”
Some have called him a “modern day Mozart,” a comparison that must rankle classical music purists. But for most, it was not just his prolific proficiency as a songwriter or virtuoso guitar solos that defined Prince. It also was his unabashed sexuality, unapologetic androgyny and occasional blasphemy that made him a star.
Prince grew up a religious child. He was raised Seventh-day Adventist and would attend the Glendale SDA Church with his grandmother. His dramatic, provocative transformation into a risqué sex symbol must have been a shock to many who knew him back then. His conversion to the Jehovah’s Witness faith must have been just as surprising to the legions of fans who had embraced his joyful flaunting of religious and societal traditions. The Associated Press was the first news outlet to report Prince’s newfound faith in 2001, which he had revealed in an interview with Gotham magazine.
“He often mentioned in his writings and even interviews that he struggled with comprehending and understanding the world, and the two worlds that exist, the sacred and the secular.”
“When I look at the violence, I wonder where the parents are, but also where is God in their lives?” Prince told Gotham. “A kid is an open computer ready for programming. Some weird relationships happen, smoking too early and sex.” But as early as 1987, it was clear that Prince had more on his artistic mind than sex.
“With that song ‘Sign O’ the Times’ in particular, the brother was calling out major issues taking place in the world in 1987,” Ezell told Message. “Sign O’ The Times,” first verse: “In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name/By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same/At home there are seventeen-year-old boys and their idea of fun/Is being in a gang called ‘The Disciples’/High on crack and totin’ a machine gun.”
Ezell believes that Prince had been looking for spiritual answers for years and his art reflected this. “He often mentioned in his writings and even interviews that he struggled with comprehending and understanding the world,” Ezell said. “And the two worlds that exist, the sacred and the secular. So how do you co-exist in the middle, and make both audiences feel ok in doing so?
“I think that what Prince did was he incorporated his religious convictions into the secular, pop music world.” Longtime Prince guitarist Dez Dickerson suggested something similar to Touré, author of the 2013 book “I Would Die 4 U.”
“There’s maybe three Prince personas,” Dickerson told Touré. “One of them is a very calculated marketing mind. That’s where the ’embodying pure sex’ thing comes from. Another of them is ‘I’m gonna be the baddest musician there ever was.’ “And then there’s the guy who really is thoughtful and introspective and holds religious considerations close to his heart and ponders those questions sincerely and genuinely and deeply. And those are the three guys who, over the years, have vied for the microphone.”