The Religion of Prince by Todne Thomas
We are gathered here today
to get through this thing
called life.” – “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince
On April 21, 2016, music icon Prince Rogers Nelson died at the age of 57. A creative genius, disciplined musician, charismatic performer, and prolific songwriter who fused rock, R&B, soul, and funk, Prince engineered a career that spanned four decades. Prince is widely lauded for his considerable musical talent. Prince is also notorious for his public performance of an overtly sensual sexuality that defined gender conventions. Prince’s concerts and music were vital contemplative spaces that illustrated the socially constructed character of gender and sexuality as well as the myriad embodied and performative hybridities that gender and sexuality can entail. For Prince to debut an overtly gender-transgressing sexuality in the 1980s as an African American man was incredibly significant. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the emergence of Neoconservatism and the Christian Right that attributed black poverty in the United States to black cultural deficiencies and a pathologized rather than institutional racism. Family values, and more specifically a corrective heteropatriarchy, were proposed as a way to end what was a perceived to be an onslaught of black welfare queens, absentee dads, and broken families. Prince’s performance of an embodied black sexuality that did not conform to a hypermasculinized black masculinity or a respectable black patriarchy was a defiant rejection of the intersectional hegemonies that sought to discipline black sexuality. Even amidst the controversial perspectives voiced by Prince after he became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2011 that have been associated with anti-gay and anti-bisexual rhetoric (which in their own right merit analysis), the transgressive legacy of Prince’s career remains. His music and performance contained not only a confident pulse and an arrogant swagger but also a soulful rebuke of the constriction of sexuality—a counter-church if you will with “Purple Rain” as a hymn that airs the ambivalences, contradictions, and challenges that shape the affective and material contexts of black intimacies.
In addition to the ways in which Prince’s music located itself against the grain of conservative religio-political formation that constituted and demoralized blackness as nonheteronormative, is the aesthetics of Prince’s music and its religious and spiritual implications. In Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering by Rosemarie Freeney Harding, Harding writes of the broad registers of an indigenous black folk religion.
The meaning of religion for Black folks, they insist, is in the heart of our history, our trauma and our hope. It is what makes us indigenous to this place, to modernity. As [Charles] Long puts it, Black religion is the way have oriented ourselves—over the centuries in these Americas and extending back before our arrival on these shores—to “mash out a meaning” of life in the midst of tremendous suffering and pain. Religion, in this sense, is not simply a doctrine of faith or the methods and practices of church; rather, it is all the ways we remind ourselves of who we really are, in spite of who the temporal powers may say we are….Black religion then, is not only in the music, the drama, the communion, and the interpretation of text within the walls of the physical church; it is also in the orientation of Black people to so-called secular culture. Black religion is Otis Redding and D’Angelo as much as Mahalia Jackson and Mary Mary; it is hip-hop as holy dance; and root work as much as the laying on of hands. [Harding 2015, 118].
Black religion then constitutes an interpretive grid by which black people make sense of their place in the world, construct meaningful, hopeful, and even sensuous identities for themselves against hegemonic colonial narratives that confine blackness to abjection or the underside of morality and power. Whether in the moan of a woman rocked by the Holy Spirit or the ecstasy of a sexual moan sung by Prince followed by a pronouncement in “D.M.S.R.,” “Girl it ain’t no sin to strip down to your underwear,” both embodied performances aid a “beloved” in “get[ting] through this thing called life.” The throaty screams of Prince’s singing catapulted in tenor tones somewhere into a universe of the future is call for a radical immanence. In a time in which #BlackLivesMatter activists invoke black matter, bodies, and immediacy, in a way that I argue unseats a hegemonic Christian emphasis of ascetic suppression of the body and emphasis of a future messianic salvation, Prince is a priest of a black religion of here and now, of a this-lifeness that beckons us to contemplate how we love, inhabit, and move our flesh.