When I first laid ears on Prince, back in the 1980s, I was a rebellious teenager thrilled with the shock value of his music, a thrill that was only enhanced by the fact that my parents disapproved. I would never have expected that Prince would become one of my spiritual teachers. But life takes unexpected twists and turns, and more than 30 years later, I found myself moving with my husband and two sons to Chanhassen, Minnesota, for my husband’s new job.
What I didn’t realize was that three miles from our house, my musical idol was living out the final days of his illustrious life. After Prince died unexpectedly on April 21, 2016, author Alex Hahn and I decided to take a look at what made Prince what he was. Together, we wrote The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988. As I dove headlong into research about Prince’s life and work, I had a revelation. Among the hundreds of songs he wrote for the dozens of albums he released in a prolific 38-year career, many of them carry spiritual messages.
Here’s what I’ve learned from studying Prince’s life and music:
Be a friendly neighbor
In the 1980s, Prince rose to worldwide fame, in the process achieving arguably the greatest run of creativity in the history of pop music. After the success of his 1984 smash album and movie Purple Rain, Prince did something unexpected: Instead of decamping to a major cultural capital like New York or Los Angeles, or buying boats and mansions, Prince chose to invest the proceeds from Purple Rain into building a sprawling studio and recording complex in Chanhassen. He called it “Paisley Park.” In doing so, Prince invested his newfound riches in two things he held dear: his music and his home state.
Prince was a loyal Minnesotan and good neighbor who gave many locals the opportunity to work at the highest levels of their profession, whether that was costume design or sound engineering. Paisley Park provided space for everything Prince needed to make music, videos and movies, but it wasn’t only Prince’s place: Paisley Park was designed to be a gathering place for the creative community and it attracted stars like Madonna and Stevie Wonder, who recorded there.
Prince offered fans an unprecedented level of access to a star of his stature by opening the doors of Paisley Park for spontaneous performances and DJ dance parties. Lucky fans who responded to a last-minute invitation on social media might find themselves in an exclusive group of 40 or 50, listening enrapt as Prince played a marathon set of live music.
Unlike Prince, I didn’t have superstar cache or my own live music venue. But through his example, I learned to extend myself in other ways. In the name of book research, I went out dancing at Paisley Park, browsed at Prince’s favorite record store and attended concerts at a jazz club where they marked his former table with a purple flower. The people I met at Prince-related events were remarkably open and welcoming, and I quickly adopted the same attitude. Friendships formed naturally as I would bump into familiar faces at concerts or gallery openings.
One of God’s gifts is community and connection, and I marveled at the richness and diversity of my new friends, who were of all races, ages and creeds, and held jobs ranging from corporate executives to musicians, nurses and academics. We shared one thing in common: We were always up for seeing a show. Jumping up and down together and singing along, I knew we were in harmony and in sync. I had learned from Prince to be open to new people and new experiences.
If God gave you a gift, share it
Longtime Prince keyboardist Morris Hayes said that Prince once told him, “Everything is finished in my head, so all I got to do is execute it.” Yes, Prince was a musical genius who heard music in his head, but here’s the truth: He had a choice about what to do with that music. He could have ignored it or procrastinated until the melody slipped his mind. Instead, when inspiration struck, he threw himself into his work, never wasting the opportunity he’d been given. Prince often composed and recorded for 20 hours a day in a flurry of nonstop creativity.
Conversely, Prince also gave other musicians the chance to shine. When he created the band The Time, he placed his friend Morris Day in the spotlight as the front man in the world’s baddest funk band. Then when he created the band The Family, he gave then-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin and Minnesota native Paul Peterson the same opportunity. In his later years, Prince lifted up aspiring artists and behind the scenes, helped them be the best they could be. He found joy in seeing other artists be successful.
God endowed each of us with our own unique gifts. For the sake of being accepted or keeping ourselves safe from criticism or ridicule, some choose to minimize or hide their gifts. But if we, like Prince, let our gifts guide us, we can achieve the life God intended for us. Prince showed me that by sharing my gifts, I too could find myself laughing in the proverbial purple rain.
What seems weird might be holy
Prince was someone who was unapologetically himself, even when that meant enduring criticism by people who dismissed him as “weird.” When we encounter a person who seems strange or unconventional, our first reaction is often to push them away. Weird isn’t for us. Weird is something that must be kept at a safe distance. Before we know it, “weird” becomes a wall that we build around our hearts.
Prince was a good example of how we should all look for the positive in others and the special gifts they have. Prince was open to bringing people into his band who weren’t necessarily stars, or even widely known. Instead, he offered work to local Minnesotans who he saw performing at small clubs and in later years, musicians he discovered on YouTube. Many people who worked for him were otherwise ordinary people who were good at what they did professionally – and were willing to stretch and try new things when Prince would challenge them. Prince would see something special in someone and try to cultivate that talent.
I wanted to be like that, too. Now, when I encounter someone new, I never judge them. I simply treat them as someone whose story I have not yet heard, and I make an effort to reach out and to listen and pay attention, because we are all vessels of God.