Prince. His name alone conjures the sensations of sex, the rhapsody of rock ‘n’ roll, and for some of us of a particular generation, the romanticism of the white ruffled blouse.
But the contemporary Prince has metamorphosed—or should we say, rebirthed—himself into an artist far from the racially, sexually, and culturally provocative one we knew and came to love in the 80s and 90s, thanks to his religious conversion as a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001.
As a rabid Prince fan and inquisitor, award-winning author and TV personality Touré took on the task of interviewing Prince’s former band members, girlfriends, and religious scholars to produce I Would Die U: Why Prince Became an Icon, an homage to the musical genius’ life and legacy.
As a preview to the biography’s release on March 19th, Touré took some time out to ask our Prince questions—from the artist’s disdain of the Digital Age to how his religious views have affected his music to which songs cemented his name into the stuff of legends.
What compelled you to do a Prince biography now?
Skip Gates asked me to do a series of lectures at Harvard about culture, and I was moved to write about Prince because I thought there wasn’t enough serious, thoughtful writing about him. Prince had an extraordinarily important role in pop culture, and I wanted to wrestle with the complexity of his music and his life.
Did Prince know you were writing a book on him? What was his reaction?
As far as I know, he doesn’t know!
Can you briefly share a few surprising revelations about Prince that came out of your interviews?
I spent a lot of time with musicologists and Bible scholars who pointed out the gospel tropes in his music and the way that his childhood faith informs his music. He grew up a Seventh-Day Adventist, and when you look at his music through that lens, it appears very different. For one thing, it’s what they call an end-time faith, one that believes the apocalypse is always around the corner. So that would begin to explain why Prince is so focused on the apocalypse in his music (“1999,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” all the dawn references) and why in his music he speaks of death as something he’s looking forward to.
Prince performs live at the Fabulous Forum in California, 1985. (Getty)
Considering his artistry has really challenged social, sexual, and pop cultural mores, what do you think drove him to a traditional organized religion?
For two years he argued with Larry Graham about Jehovah’s Witnesses and then he decided Larry was right and he became one.
Some hardcore fans share the sentiment that his conversion, or as he calls it, his “realization” that he was meant to be a Jehovah’s Witness hampered his creativity as a musician. What do you think?
I don’t think so. He’s still making some interesting music, but he’s older and it’s nearly impossible for an artist over 45 to make compelling popular music. It just never happens. Everyone, no matter how great a songwriter you are, eventually loses their ability to connect with the people. For most people this happens in their mid-to-late 40s.
Prince has off and on made headlines for his contempt of the Internet and how it’s changed the music industry. Can you give insight into this and where his contempt comes from? Is it purely financial, or does he feel it violates his artistic philosophy?
I’m not sure why he’s been this way late in his career. It’s an interesting shift because he wa an early Internet adopter who, back in the CompuServ days, would go online and have what we’d now call chats and speak directly to fans. He used the early net to connect with fans in ways that no one did then but many do now.
If you could name three of Prince’s songs that represent him best as a musical genius/icon, which would they be and why?
Hard to narrow to three! “Sister” is an interesting dip into either his bizarre sexual past or his genius at myth making. “Uptown” is perhaps his racial justice manifesto in that it’s all about his desire to break out of demographic labels. And “Adore” is one of his songs that combines the spiritual and the profane: He describes having passionate sex as angels watch and weep. That’s typical of the way he combines sex and spirituality into one world. They’re not separate for him. He’s very serious about religion and spirituality, and he articulates a very classic vision of God and Jesus and how to live a spiritual life but he includes sex in that life almost as a way of worshipping God.
In light of the fact that he’s undergone multiple artistic transformations, do you anticipate another musical metamorphosis in the future? What should we expect from Prince?
You never know what Prince will do next.