On April 21st, 2016 the world lost the pop music Mozart of our time when Prince was found dead in his Minneapolis home.
As a child of the 80s, I grew up with Prince and was a rabid fan by the time I was in junior high school. It may be a cliché to say it, but Prince’s discography really was the soundtrack to my life. His songs were the ones that I played when I was struggling to understand what girls really wanted and they were also the ones that I played every time I went through a breakup. I played his songs when I went out cruising with my friends in high school and years later his songs were the ones that I specifically asked the DJ to play at our wedding reception.
Because I could literally write a book about Prince’s music and how it’s affected my life, I’ve struggled writing this 758 word tribute to him. His musical oeuvre is so vast and covers so many genres that it’s impossible to cover it in such a small space. His inner life was complex as well, filled with thoughts and feelings both profound and at times astonishingly naïve. There’s a thousand word column to be written just on the conspiracy theories that he espoused during his lifetime.
While there are many things that set Prince apart and are note worthy, I think the one aspect of his life that has never gotten the attention that it deserves is his deep religious faith.
When he died, Prince was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness and was active in his local Kingdom Hall. He was such a devout Witness that he even embraced the Witness practice of going door to door to preach the gospel. I can’t think of another popular musician, save possibly Bono, whose religious faith has had such a profound impact on their music.
Even before “Purple Rain” made him a superstar, Prince was using his music to explore his ideas about God, sin, and eschatology. In 1981, he went so far as to include the entire Lord’s Prayer in his song “Controversy.” This was Prince’s coming out moment, where he made his first public declaration of faith. One of the lyrics of “Controversy” asks, “do I believe in God, do I believe in me?” Including the Lord’s Prayer was Prince’s answer to that question.
While Prince is well known for writing some of the most sexually explicit music of the 80’s, many don’t realize is that in his later years, he came to understand his libidinous desires as being but a reflection of his deepest desire: union with God. In the 90’s and continuing until his death, Prince wrote lyrics that focused on romantic unions that were “not just about the body, but about the mind” and his desire to connect “metaphysically” with his lovers. In the words of Ronald Rolheiser, Prince had discovered that “sex has an inner dynamic that, if followed faithfully, will lead its partners to sanctity.”
Prince’s religious transformation changed his entire life. He embraced celibacy after the heartbreak of his second failed marriage. His faith also led him to stop singing the songs from his past that he considered dirty. He even replaced all the swear words in the songs that he did sing in concert.
While most causal listeners never knew it, the truth is that Prince’s quest for God was the unstated inspiration for the vast majority of the songs he wrote during his lifetime. Sadly, many of the tributes written after his death missed how central faith was in Prince’s life and even belittled his religious music, especially his most explicitly religious songs like “The Cross.”
I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me. We live in a very secular age; an age that easily sees religions’ role in inspiring hatred and violence, but has a very hard time believing that religion can also inspire things of beauty like the song “I Would Die 4 U.”
Prince knew better. He knew that God was the source of his musical genius. As he said in one of his songs, Prince loved the God “who is love / The one who gives us the power / The one who made everything / Elephants and flowers / The one who will listen when all others will not / There will be peace for those who love God a lot.”
I hope Prince has finally found the peace that passes all understanding and that his music continues to help others find it too.
Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist and longtime Prince fan from Michigan. He’s written an Op-Ed in the Three Rivers Commercial News for over seven years and is currently finishing a suspense novel about the public mental health system. You can read more of his writing at CharlesDThomas.com.