A Purple Pilgrim’s Progress: Erica Thompson

Author Erica Thompson

By day, Erica Thompson works as a features reporter at the Columbus Dispatch in Columbus, Ohio. By night (and weekends, and seemingly every spare moment), Erica labors on her passion project, a book about Prince’s spiritual journey entitled, “Willing to Do the Work: The Spiritual Mission of Prince.”

In this month of spiritual seeking through our theme of “Love God,” a valediction that Prince used frequently, I had to talk with Erica. Anyone who’s invested huge swaths of time in an effort to understand the spiritual journey of an often inscrutable artist could certainly shine a light on the path ahead. Might Erica provide us with some shortcuts on the spiritual path of Living Like Prince? Advice on what to bring on our journey? Read on as this purple pilgrim shares tales of her progress.

(Laura) When were you first introduced to Prince’s music?

(Erica) It goes back to being a junior in high school and watching “Purple Rain” and getting inspired — and getting my mind blown. I knew who he (Prince) was because my mom played him in the house … I went out and picked out (what was then) his latest album, (2001’s) “The Rainbow Children,” and that was my entry point.

In college, I started out as an English major and a flute performance major (editor’s note: shades of Lizzo!) … I had a biography class in undergrad, and that’s when I started to think that I wanted to put together his spiritual life … When I went to get my master’s in journalism, I decided I would do something on him. Other students were doing things like a historical analysis on newspapers and I’m doing Prince’s spiritual journey. When I turned in my thesis it was 40 pages long, and I decided, I want to turn this into a book. Ten years later, I’m still doing it — and it’s 400 pages!

You’ve worked on this for 10 years! You were writing it during Prince’s lifetime, then?

I wanted to finish the book and I wanted him to see it. And I thought I would get to know what he’d think about it. In 2013, I spoke with Omarr (Prince’s younger half brother) and he said he thought Prince would really like it, that he would tell Prince about it and maybe he would call me. That never happened.

Sometimes I get clues along the way that it’s happening how it’s supposed to happen. After he passed, more people have opened up to talk to me. I have done so much more research. If I had published the book before he passed, I wouldn’t have understood some of the religious systems he was into other than Christianity. Of course I wanted to interview him for this book, but now I’m seeing it wasn’t meant to be for me, and the reason was for me to focus on my interpretation. I don’t think my interpretation is the only correct one, but my goal is to show people and have them make up their minds.

What have you learned from your research that has been most impactful to you personally?

Two things have been especially impactful. The first is how to approach spirituality. I was raised as a Christian and a lot of Christians are raised not to explore other religions because they don’t want to put any other gods before their God. I was naïve before this project because I thought it would be a simple Christian “born again” story. But seeing how Prince pursued so many other spiritual systems encouraged me to do the same. It made me feel you can have your core belief and call yourself a Christian, and still feel like it’s okay to explore chakras or the third eye and still know that I have a Christian foundation.

Second, the perception that some have, and I think is true, is that a lot of his spiritual songs had coded messages for black people. Some people look at his songs as Negro spirituals … He’s communicating to black people that way with messages of spiritual liberation and economic liberation. It affects me personally as I’m a black person and I know Prince is talking to me and he’s encouraging me because we have a common experience. For example, “Beautiful Loved and Blessed” says, we’ve faced so much oppression in this country and we’ve internalized so many beliefs about us to say we are inferior — and Prince is saying `No, you’re not inferior.’ It’s an encouragement about the power and intelligence that black people have.

If a Prince fan (editor’s note: who shall remain nameless) asked what three things she should pack for a spiritual journey, what would you tell her to bring?

Number one would be the Bible, and I say that because that’s Prince’s foundation. He grew up going to Christian-based churches. Going through his lyrics, there are so many that point to scripture, which is the bedrock for him.

Second, I would pack a notebook because I think Prince would want us to write for ourselves. He’d want us to write how we’re inspired and channel things for ourselves and explore things for ourselves. I think Prince wants us to have agency. He wants us to empower ourselves.

The third thing is music. You could approach that in different ways. Someone I interviewed said, “If you want to know about Prince, listen to his music.” You could take “The Gold Experience” or “Emancipation” if you wanted to get into his Eastern spirituality side. Or “The Rainbow Children” to get into his Jehovah’s Witness doctrine. Or whatever of his music inspires you.

Do you have any advice for us as we aspire to be spiritual seekers like Prince this month?

One of the aims of my book is to inspire people to examine their own spiritual journeys. We can relate to a lot of what he went through, but of course he took a unique path, and I don’t know if the average person studies as much as he did. But it’s not like Prince did something no one else could do: We just have to be willing to do the work.

Thank you, Erica! You can follow Erica’s journey at www.apurpledayindecember.com.

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