Prince‘s conversion to the Jehovah’s Witness religion actually started, in a roundabout way, with Sly & the Family Stone. Well, that’s not entirely accurate: It started with Graham Central Station, the funk group started by Sly and the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham after his tenure in that band.
“I was on tour with Sinbad, Graham Central Station, Earth Wind & Fire and Teena Marie,” Graham explained in 2013. “We did a show in Tennessee and we were playing the amphitheater and Prince was playing the big arena there in Nashville. He heard I was in town and invited me to one of his famous after-shows.”
The pair struck up a friendship; the younger musician grew up listening to Graham Central Station and Sly & the Family Stone. Prince invited Graham onto his next tour, and things blossomed from there. Graham, who converted to the Jehovah’s Witness faith in 1975, became Prince’s de facto instructor in the religion. “He had all of these questions that he would ask me,” Graham explained. “And we had Bible study pretty much before and after our show.”
Looking Back on EW’s Final Interview with Prince in His Home
Prince was raised a Seventh-Day Adventist in Minneapolis frequently attending services with his grandmother at Glendale Church, a historically African-American congregation in the city. “Both of his parents believed in the strict faith as did Bernadette Anderson, who took him in after he left home,” Touré writes in his book about Prince, I Would Die 4 U. Religion informed every part of his life: He told PBS that he informed his mother an angel told him he would no longer suffer from the epileptic seizures that plagued his early childhood.
Decades later, it took two years from Graham’s initial work with Prince before the Purple One converted. News of Prince’s conversion circulated in 2001 (the Associated Press was the first large outlet to report it, apparently based off an interview Prince gave to Gotham magazine), but people seemed to have a hard time believing the man who wrote songs like “Jack U Off” and “Sexy MF” was now a devout Jehovah’s Witness until October of 2003.
On Oct. 5, 2003, a couple in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, opened their door at 2 p.m. to find Prince standing on their doorstep, Bible in hand. Needless to say, they were shocked. Compounding their surprise: They were Jewish, it was Yom Kippur and the Vikings were playing.
“My first thought is, ‘Cool, cool, cool. He wants to use my house for a set,'” the woman, identified only as Rochelle, recalled to the paper. “Then they [Prince was accompanied by Graham on this particular outing] start in on this Jehovah’s Witnesses stuff.”
“They stayed for about 25 minutes,” Rochelle continued. “Left us a pamphlet.”
Prince became increasingly open about his faith, discussing it in interviews with both secular and Jehovah’s Witness publications. “I don’t really see it as a conversion,” he told The New Yorker in 2008. “It’s like Morpheus and Neo in The Matrix.” It informed his music as well, including 2001’s The Rainbow Children.
Rumors circulated in the late ’00s that Prince’s faith was keeping him from a needed double-hip replacement surgery (Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beliefs prohibit them from receiving blood transfusions), and many pointed to his use of a cane as evidence the singer was ailing. However, Prince had been carrying a cane since the early 1990s and various interviewers described him as relatively agile in person.
Meanwhile, his faith kept him from at least one activity other than swearing and drinking. “I don’t vote,” he told Tavis Smiley in 2009. “I’ve don’t have (SIC) nothing to do with it. I’ve got no dog in that race. The reason why is that I’m one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And we’ve never voted President Obama is a very smart individual and he seems like he means well. Prophecy is what we all have to go by now.”
In 2015, engineer and producer Joshua Welton told Entertainment Weekly that Prince was living a “God-focused life,” recounting how the first time the pair met, “we just stood in the kitchen and talked about Scripture for two hours.”
In I Would Die 4 U, Touré recounts a conversation with Prince guitarist Dez Dickerson. “There’s maybe three Prince personas. One of them is a very calculated marketing mind. That’s where the ’embodying pure sex’ thing comes from. Another of them is ‘I’m gonna be the baddest musician there ever was.'”
“And then there’s the guy who really is thoughtful and introspective and holds religious considerations close to his heart and ponders those questions sincerely and genuinely and deeply. And those are the three guys who, over the years, have vied for the microphone.”