There is no funeral for a man like Prince. In the black church tradition, you don’t die; you go home. Prince Rogers Nelson went home on April 21, 2016, having redefined almost every facet of spirituality and sex during his 57-year journey. He blended things that were seen as being puritanical odds and made music at the lines that divide us.
Since his childhood, Prince seemed destined to be a spiritual seer. “I never spoken about this before,” Prince unveiled to Tavis Smiley in 2009, “but I was born epileptic. I used to have seizures when I was young. My mother and father didn’t know what to do or how to handle it, but they did the best they could with what little they had. My mother told me one day I walked in and told her, ‘Mom, I’m not going to be sick anymore.’ And she said why, and I said, ‘Because an angel told me to.’ Now, I don’t remember saying it; that’s just what she told me.”
Prince’s jazz musician father and childhood Seventh Day Adventist faith uniquely connected the spirit and the body. Prince was raised on Sabbath rest, the avoidance of meat, and a militant dedication to producing the exact sound his mind fathomed; and he was taught these things in an unrelenting fashion. “In his harshness, he wanted me to excel,” said Prince of his father in the same Smiley interview. “He used to say things like, don’t ever get a girl pregnant. Don’t ever get married. Don’t this, don’t that. When he [would] say these things, I didn’t know what to take from it. So I would create my own universe.”
That universe disrupted the black church’s respectable attempt to reclaim black dignity at the expense of black sexual freedom. In the black church, abstinence is not good enough. You must deny sexual desire. The sexual agency that was commodified in slavery became more shameful than the act of sexual exploitation. Chains that once constrained the body were replaced with more implicit restraint devices. Stockings for legs, girdles for butts and thighs, slips for hips, and high necklines for cleavage. A man’s sense of masculinity was roped as tightly as their ties.
Prince’s genderqueer presentation ripped off these restraints and then reinvented them. His crop tops, buttless pants, and platform heels boldly proclaimed that black people have the same right to sexual liberation as people like David Bowie. Prince told us our black bodies were not for white consumption or heteronormative acceptance. Prince’s universe was a sexual utopia for our pleasure and our pleasure alone.
But he was no prodigal son, and“Darling Nikki” was more than just another obvious reaction to strict religious upbringing. Prince was seeking something the black church never truly acknowledged or explained: the innate desire for an orgasmic experience of intimacy and spiritual redemption. That desire seemed to spark Prince’s frenetic plea, “Come back Nikki, come back!” as well as the last hope he backmasked. “I’m fine, ‘cause I know that the Lord is coming soon, coming, coming soon.”
Prince found comfort in the apocalypse, and the spiritual oneness of the Divine fully reconciling with man. In Prince’s most popular spiritual song, “The Cross,” he allows himself to feel the depths of human deprivation and the heights of apocalyptic nirvana. “Black day, stormy night. No love, no hope in sight. Don’t cry, he’s coming. Don’t die without knowing the cross.” Prince’s ability to write across the full range of spirituality from isolation to oneness fueled each musical iteration of himself.
When Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001 from the mentoring of influential bassist Larry Graham, Prince released Rainbow Children, his first under his reclaimed moniker. The album that should have announced his second coming was panned by major publications like Rolling Stone for being more dogmatic than musical. From now on, Prince’s lovers would have to get used to a new spiritual focus, as he explained in the funky strut “1 + 1 + 1 is 3.” He also chronicled the Garden of Eden story in the spacey jazz cut, “Rainbow Children.” In the following years, Prince’s spirituality looked a lot like the spirituality of his black church elders. He had an outward, confrontational approach in discussing homosexuality, politics, or youth.
But Prince truly came home when his faith emerged as more introspective and thoughtful. Looking back on his career with Tavis Smiley, Prince remarked that his early sexual expression was triggered by a need that went beyond sex. “I ended up dealing with a lot of things, getting teased a lot at school. Early in my career, I tried to compensate for that by being as flashy as I could and noisy as I could.” Even in his yearning, he found a spiritual component that completed, as opposed to competing with, his sexual yearnings.
Prince once said that “If I didn’t make music, I’d die.” And it is true that his music is almost as old as his life. In the 37 years of his professional artistry, Prince’s music helped us imagine not only an ascent into the sacred union of sex and the spirit but an arrival at its apex.