How Prince Communicated through Symbols

What’s particularly surprising about Prince’s adoption of a symbol as his identity is the fact that he had a love affair with words — and yet he eschewed words by choosing an unpronounceable symbol as his name.

Arlene Oak, associate professor in material culture and design studies at University of Alberta, notes that in Prince’s 1999 interview with Larry King, King invoked Cassius Clay’s name change to Mohammed Ali when asking Prince about his decision.

“But Ali at least chose words that could be spoken,” Oak notes. Meanwhile, longtime Prince keyboardist Morris Hayes (in an interview with Minneapolis Public Radio’s “The Current” radio station), recalled asking Prince what, amongst his wide-ranging talents, he thought he was the best at.

“Prince said it was his lyrics,” recalls Oak of the interview, “and that he most thought of himself as a poet.”

“For a man who saw himself as so identified with ‘the word’ – his own and those of scripture – to change his name to not-a-word indicates a desire to go beyond what can be known, to turn away from language in a way that is thrilling in its desire to reject the status quo,” Oak says.

If you take the long view of Prince’s life, you’ll notice that he, along with members of elite groups throughout history, often used symbols and objects to distinguish himself — just as kings and clergymen and lords and knights had donned robes or badges or crowns to differentiate themselves.

Prince seemed to enjoy turning any outing, from tennis matches to basketball games, into a ceremonial occasion by his choice of dress and objects he carried. Especially in his later years, he could be seen wearing black leather gloves (gloves have long been used as a sign of status) decorated with the Love Symbol stitched in gold. His gloved hands would often carry a silver walking stick that also resembles a rod or wand, an ancient symbol that can “represent the potency of the phallus or the accusatory pointed finger,” according to author David Fontana (The New Secret Language of Symbols, Watkins Media, 2010). Practically speaking, a walking stick could be used as a weapon — as well as support for a world traveler like Prince.

Along with the objects he carried, Prince used clothing to communicate. Near the end of his life, he wore a tunic printed with the phases of the moon — new, waxing, full, waning, new — across the chest. The phases of the moon “symbolize the eternal cycle of becoming, dissolution and recreation,” according to Fontana.

And don’t even get me started on the symbols Prince used in his music! That the subject alone could be a book. Notably, on the Love Symbol album, Prince wrote a song called “7” — a number that signifies the unification of heaven (represented by the number 3) and earth (4), and one that means both completion and perfection.

“There are seven heavens, seven Christian virtues, seven deadly sins,” Fontana writes, adding that seven is the perfect number “in Classical and Judeo-Christian tradition.”

In 2009, Prince named an album after the Lotus, a flower that sprouts from the mud at the bottom of a lake and rises to bloom on the surface and which is a symbol of “the process of creation and spiritual ascent,” according to Fontana. In other words, the album LotusFlow3r could be seen as representing the path from ignorance to enlightenment.

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