In 1993, at the height of his fame, after selling millions of albums, collecting a closetful of Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy awards, and establishing himself as one of the all-time greats of rock ’n’ roll, Prince did an odd thing: He changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph.
Changing one’s name, of course, has a long and venerable history, going back at least as far as biblical times, and often reflects inner or outer turmoil, such as when Abram and Jacob became Abraham and Israel. In Prince’s case, replacing his name with what he called the “love symbol” — something approximating a union of the symbols for male and female, but not quite — was meant as a protest against the executives at his label, Warner Records, with whom he was struggling for creative and financial control of his career. Imagine you were one of those record label honchos — how infuriating it would be for your biggest star and cash cow to refuse to allow his recordings to bear his name, or any name! Prince — or at this point, “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince” — even began writing the word “slave” on his cheek whenever going out in public.
For the man born Prince Rogers Nelson, this was ultimately an act of self-emancipation; indeed, he titled an album “Emancipation” in 1996. A year earlier, his offshoot band, the New Power Generation, released an album called “Exodus.” Also in 1996, Prince released an album called “Chaos and Disorder,” a loose translation of two key words in the second verse of the Bible — “the earth was tohu v’vohu” — probably a good description of what it felt like to be sitting in a marketing meeting at Warner trying to figure out how to promote the star’s next album without using the name “Prince.”
A decade after his name change, in 2003, Prince found himself at the center of a quieter but no less unusual episode. On Erev Yom Kippur, a Minneapolis woman answered her doorbell to find two gentlemen standing in her doorway: her hometown’s most famous son — whom she recognized instantly — along with Larry Graham, former bassist for Sly and the Family Stone — whom she didn’t recognize. The two offered her pamphlets and asked if they could come inside to talk about the Bible. Prince, it turned out, had become a Jehovah’s Witness.
Prince was no stranger to the Jewish part of town. When he originally put together his band the Revolution — the group that accompanied him on his breakthrough album and subsequent film, “Purple Rain,” which celebrates its 30th anniversary this summer — he made a conscious decision to have a multiracial outfit featuring both men and women. Having come up through the ranks of Minneapolis’s thriving funk scene, Prince’s ultimate musical goal was always to be a mainstream pop star and not to be consigned to rhythm and blues. The distinguishing characteristic of his music, what probably accounted for its mass appeal, was precisely that it incorporated many styles not often associated with black music, including new wave, heavy metal, synth-pop, psychedelia and even classical — into what came to be called “the Minneapolis sound.”