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Interview with Dr. Ayo Yetunde on the Theology of Prince

"The Theology of Prince" is a project at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities headed by Dr. Pamela Ayo Yetunde, Assistant Professor of Pastural and Spiritual Care and Counseling and Director of Interfaith Chaplaincy. The project includes a call for essays, poetry, video, or visual art from the United Community in response to the theme. On September 27, 2017 I interviewed Dr. Yetunde about the project and her connection to Prince.

What is your connection to Prince? When did you first start listening to Prince?

I remember listening to Prince for the first time when I was in college my freshman [,] which was 1980. I can’t remember if I first heard him on the radio--WTLC was the black music station in Indianapolis-- or if I was introduced to him by my neighbor in the dorm who had a big poster of him on her wall. But when I heard his music, I was taken immediately.

Was there a first song you remember hearing?

I don’t remember the first song, but I’ll say that when listening to his recordings over the last couple of weeks I was reminded and taken back to the 80s, [saying to myself]: “Oh, I know that song. I know that song! That song. Yes. Yes. Yes!” But I don’t remember the very first song I heard.

Did you connect to spirituality in his music immediately, or was there a particular time when those themes started to really emerge for you?

Initially I would say not at all. It was more the beat. It was danceable. It was fun. It celebrated letting loose and being free. I didn’t understand anything about his spirituality until later, and I don’t remember when that was. I would probably say whenever it was that I first heard “I Would Die 4”

Yes!!!

But I don’t remember when I first heard it.

What about that song? I mean that song is what I wrote my submission for Theology of Prince about, but I’m curious what about it, for you, spoke to Prince’s spirituality?

Well I think that’s the central message I took from growing up in the United Methodist Church about who Jesus was and what he was calling us to do and why it was difficult to do that. So, I think that’s why that message struck me. I heard it, and I said “what is he talking about." [...O]f course the artistic expression of the lyric has to do with romance and how far Prince is willing to go to have this woman. But when you strip the performance and the videos and all that out of the artistic expression of the lyrics, then you see very clearly that Prince is trying to embody Jesus or is inspired by Jesus or both.

Yes, and the the way Prince transcends categories might play into an image of God comes as well.

Yeah.

So, I'm getting a good picture of how Prince has played a part in your life. I’m wondering about how the idea of the Theology of Prince at United came about. Why Theology of Prince and why now?

This idea came out of a conversation with our president, Lew Zeidner, and our community engagement and Marketing extraordinaire, Katie, about what is different at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, [and] especially what is different about our school as it relates to other schools in the [...] in Minnesota and the Twin Cities. And I blurted out: “Because we do the theology of Prince!” And though that was the first time the idea came to me and that I spoke it, I could see Katie’s eyes light up. I could see Lew taking an interest in what this idea could be.

Though I just arrived at United, [I knew I was] at a place where we do things differently. Where we can explore things that haven’t been explored before. I was also excited about being in Minnesota and what that might mean culturally, knowing that Prince was from here and knowing about his spirituality and his art. It just seemed to make sense to me that being a seminary located in the Twin Cities where Prince had his studio and parties and built communities, we could honor ourselves and him and his music all at the same time by inviting students to engage in a theological and spiritual reflection on Prince’s art, which, like you said, transcends.  He transcends.  His music transcends race, gender, and genre, and invites people to do something fun, not just the old, the dead, the heterosexual, the white ways that traditionally seminaries tend to focus their studies.

That makes a lot of sense about Minnesota and how we do things differently at United. Beyond that, do you think Prince’s legacy holds particular relevance now, in our social/political climate?

Absolutely!  Not only political but also in terms of the atmosphere, if we think about all the storms. I was just thinking about his songs “1999” and “Let’s Go Crazy” and the theme of end times or sign of times, his album Sign of the Times, [and] his song “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” [with lyrics] “before it’s too late, before they blow up my world." He was very concerned about the end of the world. In the 80s [his songs] were mostly about let’s party, we’ll party til 1999, let’s go crazy, let’s just let it all hang out, let it loose.  [Now], when we look at the storms, the hurricanes, the devastation in this country, in Puerto Rico, the Earthquakes in Mexico of great magnitude--these are things I think Prince would say we really need to pay attention to. And in his later life, he would probably say the answer to our human predicament right now is not just to have orgies [but] to serve others.  He had to grow into that. And I think his message is very relevant because it shows the evolution of a spirituality from hedonism to serving others. Add to that the escalating war of words between North Korea and the United states. Yes, there is a lot to pay attention to about the risk we are facing and the choices we have to make about how we are going to treat each other in the midst of all this.

Especially this week with North Korea and the US, listening to Prince’s apocalyptic music makes a lot of sense in kind of eery ways. Going back to what you said earlier about the difference between the dead, white guy theology associated with seminaries, I was thinking about the importance of bringing in thinkers and artists who are not traditionally considered theologians. How do you see that as being particularly relevant in your own work, especially with interfaith chaplaincy?

Well, what is a theologian? I guess that’s the first question. And I don’t think there is [...] agreement on that. In my view, anyone who is [consistently] reflecting on nature, the nature of nature, what it means to be human, what it means to exist, if there is a God, [if there is] one god or many and arriv[es] at some meaning or definitions and engag[es] conversation about these things, [is] doing the work of theologym whether they are called a theologian or not. In the United States context, typically when we talk about a theologian, we are talking about someone from a Christian background.  That’s interesting, and I can’t even get into all that. But from an inter-religious chaplaincy point of view, in a pluralistic context such as the one that we are in where chaplaincy students are being trained, it is important that we don’t consider only certain types of people to be able to reflect theologically.  Everyone can do this work.  And because everyone can do this work, it behooves us in this society and context to allow ourselves to be informed by everybody who can do this work, so that when it comes time for us to do our work, we are not only doing it from one lens or projecting only our belief systems onto others.

That’s the importance of it: everyone can do this work. But we’ve thought of this work as only being done by men in ivory towers, who have had a certain kind of spiritual formation in a certain kind of religion, who are reading and writing about it. And for some reason I don’t know why that’s the only thing that’s been considered theology. Why isn’t writing music as valid as writing an article or an essay? Why isn’t playing the guitar in a certain way that strikes a particular chord within your body and embodying spirituality as valid as hearing a sermon and being moved by it? When Prine starts a song “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to get through this thing called life…”[...] that is a sermon within a song. Because he hasn’t been considered widely as contributing to theological discourse, that’s why I think this initiative that we’re doing is important.

I agree! Thinking about what you said about body in Prince's work and embodying spirituality, that can be really dangerous to some of the older ideas about what theology is. It sort of complicates it.

Yes, because we’ve talked about the dualisms of body = bad,  soul = good. You take somebody like Prince and the way he wove spirituality and sexuality into his songs and his art: heck yeah that is dangerous. But it’s only dangerous to people who believe there’s a split and that the body is bad and the way the body functions is bad.

As you mention bringing in different voices, “non-traditional theologians”, are there any other artists or thinkers who have been ignored or not included in this theological conversation who you could see doing another contest, project, or initiative with?

Oh, I am glad you asked that question. So yes, but I want to be clear before I say this:  I don’t have the intention to work on these projects.

(Laughter) Yes, yes, yes.

So there are quite a few. If we just focused on Minnesota, [...] we could do the theology of Krista Tippet. We could do the theology of Bob Dylan, who was born here. We could do the theology of Bobby McFerrin. Who knows, we could probably do the theology of the Coen Brothers.

That would be fun, and unsettling.

(Laughter) Right!? And maybe Garrison Keillor too! But if we go beyond Minnesota [and] were to focus on music, I think a lot of people know about the spirituality within the group U2, but I don’t think the work has been done around making it explicit in the ways that we are doing with the Theology of Prince. [...] One thing I would like to work on is the theology of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Yes!!! That’s amazing.

You with me! (Laughter). Yes, I would love to do that. And gosh, there are so many others. There are dancers. There are rappers that we are aware of. There’s no end really to doing this kind of work. And [for] anybody who wants to offer something like [Theology of Prince], and offer leadership on any of these projects, I’d be happy to support them in doing that because we are only and always going to study the same old theology if we don’t put something new out there. Like womanist theologians are doing, for example.

There are gears turning in my head, for sure.  Do you have any final thoughts?

For people who might have a concern about whether United is trying to be radically different by excluding some of our foundational voices in theology, I want to say that that is not our attempt. The attempt is to [include] what is present before us. I know obviously Prince died recently, but in a way his music is still alive to us. There are people who worked with him [still alive], [and people] who started a foundation to continue his charitable giving. People are still having celebrations and tributes and honoring him in different ways. The point is to say, I think United wants to honor a foundation and also be about the present [with] what is contemporary, what is now, and have them both in conversation with one another. The point is to be in conversation with the past and present with an eye toward the future.

We can see [...] the atmosphere is changing. There is climate change. And if we go back to the ancient scriptures, we see stories of people relating to nature and people understanding God in part based on their experiences of understanding nature. I don’t think that’s gonna change. I think that as nature or the atmosphere or the climate becomes more unbearable [and] destructive, that is going to heighten or intensify our need for meaning.  Questions will come up: “Why is this happening to us?” “Why did this happen to me; I’m a good person” “Why was my whole community destroyed?” “Why are we going to live without basic necessities for half a year” “I left New Orleans, went back, why did it happen again?” “Why is Haiti always in the eye of the storm?” [As we answer these questions], are we always going to go back to the past [...] or are there answers here? And I from what we are trying to do at United,which is educate theologians, what are the answers that we are going to provide when people ask us those questions and what will those answers be based on?

Submissions for Theology of Prince are open to the public. You can submit your work here.

Pamela Ayo Yetunde is Assistant Professor of Pastoral and Spiritual Care and Counseling at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. She came to United in 2017. She received her Th.D. from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, where she specialized in pastoral counseling. Her research and scholarship focus on Object Relations Theory and psychotherapy, Buddhist psychology, Womanist Theology, Christian-Buddhist spiritual transitional stages, Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde as a spiritual and psychological resource, and chaplain formation.  Yetunde has published a number of blog and magazine articles and has written journal articles (to be published in 2017).  Yetunde lives in Minnesota with her spouse. She is an interfaith Buddhist practitioner.

Max Brumberg-Kraus is originally from Providence, RI, but moved to the midwest to attend Beloit College, WI as an undergrad.  There, he majored in Theatre Performance and Classical Civilizations with a minor in Critical Identity Studies, and was the Artistic Director of Beloit Independent Theatre Experience (BITE). He moved to St. Paul in July 2016, where he continues to pursue his artistic goals as a performer, playwright, and poet.  Max is the Digital Content Specialist at United, where he is also pursuing an MA with a concentration in Theology and the Arts.

Submit Work to Theology of Prince

Max Brumberg-Kraus

Max Brumberg-Kraus is originally from Providence, RI., but moved to the midwest when he attended Beloit College, WI as an undergrad. There, he majored in Theatre Performance and Classical Civilizations with a minor in Critical Identity Studies, and was the Artistic Director of Beloit Independent Theatre Experience (BITE). He moved to St. Paul in July 2016, where he continues to pursue his artistic goals as a performer, playwright, and poet. Max is the Digital Content Specialist at United, where he is also pursuing an MA in Theology and the Arts.

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