So many reasons why
There’s so many reasons why
I don’t belong here
But now that I am I
Without fear I am
Gonna conquer with no fear
Until I find my way back home
–Prince, “Way Back Home”
On April 21, 2016 the American musician and performer known as Prince passed away at the age of 57. Had he been able to comment on his impending exit from this world he would have surely told his fans that there was no need to be sad because he would soon be entering the “afterlife,” the one he spoke of in the intro to “Let’s Go Crazy,” and that they would all be reunited there someday for the party of their eternal lives.
Regardless of your personal spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof), one thing that every longtime fan of Prince can agree on was that he was a deeply spiritual man who wore his beliefs on his sleeve, something that was very evident in his music and lyrics. He was both spiritual and religious (for the two are not always synonymous).
Prince’s musical and lyrical explorations of spiritual themes go back as far as the 1981 album Controversy which music critic Keith Harris, writing in Blender, called “Prince’s first attempt to get you to love him for his mind, not just his body.” Many of his songs were overtly religious as with “The Cross” from the 1987 album Sign o’ The Times (which Bono of U2 posted on Instagram as a tribute). But aside from the overtly religious elements in his music, Prince also frequently explored spiritual ideas in more subtle, generalized ways. More importantly, he lived by them.
In this article let’s look at seven spiritual ideas that permeate the music and life of Prince. Regardless of your religion or whether you have one at all, these are ideas that cross ideological barriers and promote universal healing and growth, particularly when conveyed by one so widely loved and respected as he was. Even with the Christian-themed songs, those of us who aren’t Christians can still be moved by them if we just look past the surface to the more universal sentiments that lie underneath.
1. There’s more to life than pain and suffering
Prince very much believed in an afterlife. Whether you are religious or not, perhaps you too believe in some kind of existence beyond the present life even if it may not take the same form. If that’s the case then it’s hard not to be moved by the stirring, gospel-influenced intro to “Let’s Go Crazy” in which Prince addresses his listeners as a preacher would his flock:
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
A world of never ending happiness
You can always see the sun, day or night
Even if you do not believe in any kind of existence in any form after physical death, you can still interpret these words on a more abstract level. While he may be singing literally about an afterlife, you can simply ponder the ways in which the pain and suffering you experience can take on meaning and is not simply an end in itself. That meaning can be whatever you want it to be as long as it inspires you to approach life as something more than just one long cycle of meaningless suffering that finally ends with an equally meaningless death. Or you can simply imagine that a “better day” will one day arrive in this life somehow, even if you have no idea what form that might take. Focus on the feeling of hope behind the words, not the words themselves. This is simply one way that you can let yourself be moved by the religious content of Prince’s music even if you do not share his beliefs.
2. The end is coming soon so do what matters now
In addition to believing in an afterlife, Prince was also obsessed with apocalyptic themes. Or rather, since the word “apocalyptic” nowadays conjures images of zombies and Mad Max, I should say eschatological. The end of times, whether initiated by humanity’s own stupidity (as in “Ronnie, Talk to Russia”) or divinely initiated (as in “7”) was a frequent theme in Prince’s songs:
And we will see a plague and a river of blood
And every evil soul will surely die in spite of
Their 7 tears, but do not fear
4 in the distance, 12 souls from now
U and me will still be here
We will still be here
Even on his most aggressively commercial album, Purple Rain, eschatological themes are peppered all throughout. The distorted vocals at the end of “Darling Nikki,” when played backward on vinyl had this hidden message to say:
Hello, how are you?
I’m fine ’cause I know that the Lord is coming soon
Coming, coming soon
This kind of thing could easily turn off a non-Christian but there’s another way to approach it. Think of the Christian apocalypse as an allegory for the doom that inevitably awaits us all, and that always arrives sooner than we would like it to. Far from being depressing, our impending personal apocalypses liberate us to live the kind of life we want to live today, to do what matters most to us now, not later. To quote again from “Let’s Go Crazy”:
We’re all excited
But we don’t know why
Maybe it’s ’cause
We’re all gonna die
And when we do (When we do)
What’s it all for (What’s it all for)
You better live now
Before the grim reaper come knocking on your door
3. Social consciousness is a natural outgrowth of spirituality
Prince was an extremely socially and politically conscious individual. He didn’t just write and perform songs about social issues—he put his money and actions where his mouth was, and he did so quietly without bringing attention to the fact.
But he did not identify himself as being political. “I consider myself more of a spiritual person than I do political,” he once said in an interview with Tavis Smiley, meaning that for him his activism and humanitarianism were natural outgrowths of his spirituality.
While spirituality, for some, can at times become a self-indulgent pursuit of mystical experience, for Prince his social consciousness was a profound and inseparable component of his spirituality. After all, regardless of the specific sub-traditions he was a member of (Seventh Day Adventist, Jehovah’s Witness), Prince was basically Christian. And proactive compassion for others, regardless of who they are and where they’re from, was one of the most central teachings of the figure we call Christ, something that sadly seems almost ironic nowadays.
Roughly speaking, most people are generally divided into one of two camps: those who believe that history is doomed to keep repeating itself and those who believe that however difficult it may be, change and growth are possible. Prince, until the very end of his life, was a staunch believer in the real possibility of change through compassionate action. His songs are replete with hopeful lyrics about a better tomorrow that’s available to us if we only take compassionate action today. On the album 20Ten, in the song “Compassion,” he calls the quality of compassion “the only gold that’s so worth stashing.”
This belief in the power of compassion takes its ultimate form in the song “I Would Die 4 U” which has been interpreted as being either a straightforward song from the POV of Jesus or a song about Prince’s own messianic ego. I prefer to interpret it as a song about the Christ-like potential that we all have within us. We all have the capacity, whether we’re aware of it or not, of being compassionate in so complete a way as to even be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of giving up our lives for others—as Christ did and as did many other elevated beings throughout history.
4. Greed is the root of all evil
Although the commercial success of his music made him wealthy, Prince himself never let himself become mesmerized by money’s allure and he frequently attacked the hollowness of the pursuit of wealth in songs like “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night”:
Money don’t matter 2 night
It sure didn’t matter yesterday
Just when u think u’ve got more than enough
That’s when it all up and flies away
That’s when u find out that u’re better off
Makin ‘ sure your soul’s alright
Cuz money didn’t matter yesterday
And it sure don’t matter 2 night
Prince went to great lengths to make it clear that although he happened to have a lot of money, he didn’t think too highly of that fact and it wasn’t the reason he created music. In fact, he once said in a Los Angeles Times interview, “If I knew the things I know now before, I wouldn’t be in the music industry.” Time and again in his songs he criticized greed and called out those he felt were most guilty of it whether it was corporate America in general or the music industry in particular that tried to control his art. In “Face Down” he mocks the music industry’s assumption that he was in it for the money.
Ain’t that a bitch? Thinkin’ all along that he wanted to be rich
Never respected the root of all evil and he still don’t to this day
And he didn’t just sing about it. He actively rebelled against the industry’s greed through public acts of protest. Although his use of the moniker “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” or an unpronounceable symbol for his name was, at the time, portrayed as the eccentricities of a big ego, they were actually acts of rebellion against his record label for the way it sought to control his work, tried to tell him to “keep your place,” and to dictate what he was allowed to sing about and what he wasn’t (he famously appeared in public with the word “slave” on his cheek in protest). And as noted in princple #3 above, he gave away staggering amounts of his money on a regular basis without any ballyhoo.
Although in recent years certain new age spiritual movements have tried to rationalize materialism as being in harmony with the will of the universe, there’s a reason that all the major old religions of the world have always cautioned against this. Jesus, for instance, never said it was impossible for a rich man to enter “heaven,” but he did famously say how hard it was. If he had thought it advisable to pursue wealth and spirituality at the same time he might have led by example, but he disavowed materialism and that certainly says something.
As for Prince, he just happened to become wealthy by doing what he would have done anyway, making music. Wealth itself was not the goal in mind and he never let himself be blinded by it. But since he had it, he used it for good. A lot of good.
5. Creativity is a sacred, healing force
I’m pretty certain that even if Prince hadn’t been able to make a dime from his music, he would have still created it while doing something else to make ends meet. It’s evident not just in his music but in the entire way he approached his art and career that he saw creativity as a sacred force. And for him, this wasn’t just an abstract thought or a nice, figurative expression. It was literal, and I think that one of the reasons he was so prolific was that when he wrote and played music it brought him closer to his God. Consider these words from “Future Soul Song”:
I had a dream last night
That I was singing and the sound of my voice
Seemed to come from every mountain top
Like it had no choice
And when my voice rose, so did the sun
When the trees sang the harmony as one
Every living soul sang the most beautiful
Melody ever sung
For Prince music was obviously the main vessel for his creativity. But by “creativity” I mean it in the broadest sense. It’s not just those things we traditionally call the arts (music, writing, painting, etc.) but any act in which you are bringing something into being that was not there before. And that could be pretty much anything—a company, organization, a friendship, even the words you speak and the actions you take. Every single day is an act of creativity in the way you choose to live it. And if you were to look at all possible words and actions as a kind of cosmic alphabet, then Prince would implore you, as he does in “Alphabet Street,” to “put the right letters together and make a better day.”
In other words, the idea that creativity is sacred doesn’t just begin and end with itself. It means we should use our creativity to make the world a better place.
6. Sensuality is not antithetical to spirituality
While some people found Prince’s twin obsessions for God and sex to be somewhat discomfiting or even contradictory, His Royal Purpleness did not see these two areas of life as being at war with another. Indeed, a major component of his music and philosophy was about bringing these two areas together into an integrated, harmonious whole. He saw the sexual impulse as being analogous to the longing to become closer to God.
But for people who wish to apply this belief in their own lives, it is not enough to just indulge in licentious behavior and then claim that it’s okay since “it’s spiritual.” A truly healthy integration of sexuality and spirituality takes effort and introspection. And the answers are not always clear. Prince himself was not always able to reconcile his carnal inclinations with his spiritual ones, as when he pulled the Black Album from being released in 1987 for being too dark and raunchy after reportedly having a religious vision in a dream. But there were also many times, on albums like Lovesexy for example, that he was able to find just the right balance:
Anyone that’s ever touched it
They don’t want anything else (no they don’t)
And I got 2 tell the world
I just can’t keep it to myself
All in life becomes easier
No question is unresolved
And I’m not afraid
Is he talking about God or sex? How can the desire for one be channeled into the other in way that lifts both? Questions worth pondering as you listen.
7. Unconditional love is the greatest truth
In the end, I like to think of Prince, both his music and his life overall, not so much as having been about religion or even spirituality per se as having been about love—not romantic or sexual love (though he was obviously a big fan of those too) but unconditional, human love. The kind that transcends gender, race or religion, that is not limited to one’s family, social circle, community or nation, and the kind that we are most in need of cultivating if we are not only to survive our self-made crises but to grow and evolve.
This vision of love is reflected in many beautiful lyrics that permeate his work, but for me one of the most powerful, definitive statements about it is in the song “Diamonds and Pearls” from the 1991 album of the same title, where he again stresses that wealth is not the answer. Neither is ideology or dogma. Only love is.
Which one of us is right
If we always fight
Why can’t we just let love decide (let love decide)
Am I the weaker man
Because I understand
That love must be the master plan (love is the master plan)
If I gave you diamonds and pearls
Would you be a happy boy or a girl
If I could I would give you the world
All I can do is just offer you my love
More than Prince’s religion, more than his politics, more than his adoration for human sexuality, even more than his astounding musical genius, I hope it is this transcendent, all-embracing vision of love that we will remember him most for.