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Opinion Prince helped me overcome a religious upbringing that shunned secular music

Guests dance to Prince music as a slide show flashes images of the artist above the stage during a memorial dance party at the First Avenue nightclub on April 21, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Prince, 57, was pronounced dead shortly after being found unresponsive at Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, Minnesota near Minneapolis. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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Someone named Prince died yesterday.

I know, because it was the only thing going through my Facebook and Twitter feeds. My friends and colleagues shared their favorite memories of Prince from their childhood, stories about family and personal journeys and race and identity. Even President Barack Obama released a statement on Facebook, writing that “nobody’s spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative.” It seems to be a shared national moment of mourning and reminiscence.

But I can’t share in these memories. I don’t have any. I’d never heard any of Prince’s songs; I didn’t even know what his voice sounds like.

That’s because I was raised in a part of America where Prince might as well have never existed. I’m referring to a spiritual geography rather than a physical location – a kind of conservative American Christianity that eschews what it calls “secular culture.” This term refers to popular movies, music, literature, edgy fashion, and certain cultural trends, painting them all with a broad brush as morally decadent and potentially corrupting influences on the lives of the godly.

[Raunchy Prince was actually a conservative Christian who reportedly opposed gay marriage]

In the church youth group I attended in my small, deeply religious Texas town, we were told stories about the teenager who converted to Christianity and decided to exchange all of his secular music CDs for Christian ones. That was good, but not good enough, we were told – it’s better to destroy the old CDs, otherwise you’re just putting filth back into circulation. We also heard cautionary tales about children who had started listening to secular music. It was the first step on a downward spiral, the teachers said. Next will be swearing, then drugs, and then maybe even atheism. Music had the power to steal your soul.

In my home, we rarely listened to music, but if we did it was always Christian music, with two major exceptions – Christmas carols and John Denver. I remember once hearing someone mention “Madonna,” and at home, I repeated the name. I was subsequently interrogated as to how I had learned about it. I felt guilty. I learned not to talk about people like Madonna. Eventually I learned how to shut out the popular culture around me – the songs that played in shopping malls, the band names that appeared on people’s t-shirts.

It’s a kind of inoculation that’s hard to explain to outsiders. When I moved away from Texas and enrolled in a large public high school in southern California, I displayed such total ignorance of basic elements of American popular culture that I was asked, with some frequency, if I had grown up in a foreign country. I hadn’t.

I remember the first time someone asked me what kind of music I liked. The question stumped me; I had no idea how to answer. Of course, the expected response is something like “alternative rock” or “R & B” or “jazz.” But I had never heard of the concept of different genres of music. I certainly did not know the names of such genres, and I had never listened to them, except as they had wafted near me in elevators and shopping malls. I owned exactly one CD at this time, a little-known Christian artist. But I did take piano lessons. So after a long, awkward silence, I managed to stammer, “Piano music.” I was 15.

By the end of high school, I had learned that there was such a designation as “contemporary Christian music,” so I began to give that as my answer to this inexplicably common and yet difficult question, “What kind of music do you like?”  It seemed to satisfy those who asked, though I didn’t understand why people asked in the first place.

It was, perhaps surprisingly, in China where I first began to challenge the belief that culture was bad, and that ignorance of it was virtue. When I was 19, I attended a Christian study abroad program based in a southern Chinese city. Our program director taught us how to be effective culture-crossers, rather than “ugly Americans,” by carefully observing what Chinese people did and trying to learn why. He encouraged us to listen to Chinese pop music and study the lyrics. That way, we could learn what Chinese people cared about and to have something to talk about with them (“hey, have you listened to the latest Jay Chou album?”).

I asked Chinese friends to introduce me to music they liked. None of it was Christian, of course – it was usually about love, or family, or about China itself, and sometimes it was just for fun. This non-Christian music hadn’t turned my Chinese friends into evil, amoral people. They were good and kind and caring, and they thought deeply about the world and their place in it.

[My wife and I white evangelicals. Here’s why we chose to give birth to black triplets]

When I came back to the United States, I retained this new habit of trying to understand people who were different from me without judging them. I did something I had never done before – driving in my car, I tuned the radio to a non-Christian station. I listened, really listened for the first time, to the music that was playing. I heard Staind, Breaking Benjamin, Linkin Park, The Fray, Rihanna, Beyonce, and Hinder. Some of the lyrics moved me to tears. Some made me feel like dancing. Others made me feel like I could conquer the world.

Sometimes I feel like I’m a cultural anthropologist in a documentary about a foreign culture. Asking about someone’s musical preferences is easy small-talk, but it also opens a window into who they are. It’s a social ritual I finally understand.

And now, I think, I also understand the appeal of Prince.

Mining my social media feeds, I could see that my peers were mourning an artist who spoke to them, who told them about love and power and humanity.

“Anything beautiful is worth hurting for,” wrote one friend of mine, quoting Prince. A woman who runs her own small business and writes her own music, she added, “I wrote this quote on my chalkboard wall years ago, and today it takes on new meaning. I’m blessed to have been touched by this great man’s music for most of my life.”

Another friend posted about the joy Prince had brought her. “I taught myself to dance around my dorm room listening to ‘Kiss,’” she wrote. This is someone I admire, who filed dispatches from Nepal in the wake of the deadly April 2015 earthquake there, a person who helps further the cause of press freedom around the world. “So infectious, so unabashedly fun.”

A friend from my high school in California posted pictures of beautiful purple blossoms. “Purples for the Purple One,” she wrote. This friend’s job is to beautify the city of New York; she does it out of her pure love for flowers. A journalist friend of African heritage posted on Twitter, “I remember being a kid and my dad explaining to me capitalism, the importance of ownership and black political resistance using Prince.”

These friends of mine who loved Prince are not evil. They are neither shallow nor morally corrupt. They are, to the contrary, among the many everyday, good-hearted Americans who together make up the fabric of our beautiful, hopeful, and complex society. And Prince made their lives better.

So yesterday I opened up YouTube and searched for “Prince.” The first video I watched was of an interview he gave with George Lopez. He was wearing head-to-toe red velour, with matching four-inch red velour heels. His eyebrows were impeccably plucked. But his demeanor didn’t seem to match his outfit — he spoke in a soft, almost fragile-sounding voice, hands folded politely on his lap.

Then I clicked on “Purple Rain.”

An electric guitar solo issued forth from this man like a revelation from heaven. In a teal and yellow suit, Prince sang and crooned and – did he just scream? — on a purple-lit stage in the pouring rain at Super Bowl XLI, the music washing over the tens of thousands of gathered penitents. He held the crowd in his hands. When he called them to sing, they sang, like the faithful gathered together after the Day of Judgment, singing songs of praise forevermore as one. My eyes welled up, thinking that he would never again make a stage his own.

Memorials for music icon Prince are growing, one day after his death. (Video: McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

I don’t know what his funeral is going to be like, but I hope it’s like that.

I’m flying back to Texas today to see family. And I know exactly how I will spend the long hours on the airplane, phone in hand and earbuds in place. Thirty-one years is far too long to have gone without Prince in my life.

 Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine

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