Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman were childhood friends, lovers and founding members of Prince’s Revolution band. If Prince had a musical family, they were it. So when the pair tried to put together a Revolution tour in 2000, they were hopeful, they told Minneapolis’ Star Tribune in 2004, that their former bandleader would say yes. He didn’t. “He declined because of my homosexuality and the fact I’m half-Jewish,” said Melvoin. She was told he wanted her to give a press conference denouncing her homosexuality and announcing that she was converting to Jehovah. “I was like: I guess we’ll never hear from him again.”
But just six years later, she stood beside Prince onstage in London, playing for millions of viewers at an awards show. In matching white suits, Melvoin and Prince hammered shoulder to shoulder on their guitars, him lustily singing “Purple Rain.” Coleman was on piano. The early acceptance of the gay couple — and then the rejection and acceptance all over again — is an example of the puzzling contradiction that Prince acted out in his attitudes toward sexuality and religion.
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For almost 40 years, Prince has been the embodiment of brazen sexuality, crooning about the many positions with which he would please himself, and you. His music has been a celebration of the paganistic pursuit of pleasure.
Yet, Prince was no pagan, not exactly. And during the last decade or so, if he knocked on your door, he was more likely to tell you about God than invite you out to party. Fifteen years ago, when he committed himself to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Prince’s fans were confused: How do you reconcile your hedonic icon in a rubber thong with a faith that doesn’t just frown upon gay marriage but, say former members, prohibits oral and anal sex?
Like everything else in his life, Prince did the divine his own way, and as much as sex and pleasure, God and retribution have been a constant in the landscape of Prince’s music.
“When I first met him he believed in God, but after that there was a time when it seemed like he didn’t believe in anything,” says his friend and collaborator, Sheila E. “But then he became a Witness, and I felt, for him, that believing in something was better than nothing.”
Prince was raised in a chaotic home, but his parents were members of the Seventh Day Adventists, another socially conservative Christian group. “When you’re talking about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists, they share a lot of the same core beliefs,” says Professor Sally Barringer Gordon, who teaches religion and law at the University of Pennsylvania. “That we are working toward the end of time, that salvation is the key effort for every human being, and that bringing souls to God is the most important thing.”
By the early ’80s, with the release of three consecutive albums — Dirty Mind, Controversy and 1999 — adherence to the faith of his childhood seemed to be behind him. Prince wore makeup and heels and performed in unbuttoned blouses. His lyrics pushed the boundaries of gender and sexual propriety. His song “Darling Nikki” was so raunchy that it inspired Tipper Gore to start Parents Music Resource Center, a Washington, D.C.-based group that lobbied for greater oversight of the music industry.
Still, Prince kept God in the picture. “Controversy” includes The Lord’s Prayer, and “1999” narrates a judgment day where life is just a party, but parties weren’t meant to last. “He created a cosmology and a spiritual outlook that made sense to him,” says Touré, author of the Prince biography I Would Die 4 U. “His way of explaining that great blessing to himself was that he was blessed by God, he was anointed. His work and his creative life was proof of God and God working through him.”
Prince was introduced to the faith by Larry Graham, the bassist for Sly & The Family Stone. (Michael Jackson, Venus and Serena Williams, and The Notorious B.I.G. were all raised as Witnesses.) He described this transition of faith to me when I interviewed him in 2008 for The New Yorker as less a conversion and more of a realization, like Neo in The Matrix. “The more he said, the more I realized the truth,” said Prince.
While in Prince’s telling this new religious commitment was simply a question of hearing the truth, the years leading up to it were tumultuous. He changed his name to a symbol. He married for the first time in early 1996. His son, Boy Gregory, was born eight months later, but died within a week from a rare disease. He was divorced in 1999 and he remarried in 2001.
At the end of 2001, Prince released his 24th album, The Rainbow Children, recounting an apocalyptic/utopian sort of happening. In its review, Rolling Stone referred to Prince as the “Freak in the Pulpit.” He cut a number of songs from his repertoire that he deemed too explicit, and even stopped swearing. Paisley Park, which always had been dry, felt to many more like a junior-high dance than the sex-drenched den of sin from years past.
For many in the Witness community, having the Freak in the Pulpit as their most high-profile member was bizarre. “I wouldn’t have been allowed to listen to Prince as a kid because he was so sexually charged,” says Gregorio Smith, who made a documentary critical of the church in 2014, called Truth Be Told. “I remember learning the lyrics verbatim to ‘When Doves Cry,’ but only listening at school. I knew I couldn’t sing those lyrics out loud at home.”
It seemed to Prince that the Jehovah’s Witness faith helped explain the growing social injustice around him. When Mark Brown interviewed Prince in 2004 for the Rocky Mountain News, Prince told Brown he was interested in spirituality and answers, not strange ceremonies or theories. “I’m very practical,” said Prince. “You go Trekkie on me, I got to go.”
When he left, Prince gave him a pamphlet and told him to call day or night. “It was a little uncomfortable for me, but it was very important to him,” says Brown. “He got pretty intense.”
For Prince, the emphasis on evangelizing forced him to open up to a degree that he hadn’t before. He went door to door in Los Angeles and Minneapolis, handing out pamphlets on salvation. “Sometimes people act surprised,” he told me. “But mostly they’re really cool.”
“It helped him with communicating with people more, reaching out and being connected,” says Sheila E. “It opened him up to the world.”
One of the core beliefs of the Witnesses is the purity of the human body, and rumors swirled that it was a religious refusal of medical treatment that led to Prince’s death. But Witnesses do accept many medical treatments, and there has not been enough information from officials to substantiate those suggestions.
When I interviewed Prince, he told me he was against gay marriage. In his library, standing over the Bible, he said, “God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.'”
The reaction to that statement from fans, and particularly the gay community, was angry and distressed. This wasn’t the Prince they knew and loved. But for better or worse, he always was truthful about what he believed. Even when that changed.
Claire Hoffman’s first book, Greetings From Utopia Park, comes out in June.
This article originally appeared in the May 7 issue of Billboard.