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Prince: On Black Lives, Activism, & Making a Difference

Prince Photo by Allen Beaulieu
Photo by Allen Beaulieu

"Like books and black lives, albums still matter.”

Prince said that. He said that on stage at the 2015 Grammys.

When people think of Prince's legacy, many are more inclined to remember his sexy, sultry music, style, and fashion than they do his activism and philanthropy. And in all fairness to them, some of his most powerful songs or moments weren’t necessarily his most popular chart-toppers or headline-grabbers. And so, to the casual fan or observer, his activism and philanthropy — be it through his lyrics or work outside of the studio — may have gone unnoticed.

Yes, Prince was a social justice warrior. Whether it was in the studio recording songs about the cold war or police brutality, or on a Grammy stage bringing attention to the value of education or black lives, he seized every opportunity his status, platform, and lyrical genius has allowed him to.

Prince once said, “The system is broken. It's going to take the young people to fix it this time. We need new ideas, new life..." And reminding us that the system was broken, Prince himself always made certain that his own views and ideas were known.

In the song “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” from his 1987 album “Controversy,” Prince addressed nuclear war and spoke to the power of diplomacy, and in “Signs O’ The Times” he talked about poverty, violence, AIDS, and drugs. In 2004’s “Dear Mr Man,” Prince talks war, poverty, and our leaders and in 2009’s “Dreamer,” he talks about racial inequality as he channels Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

But he didn't just call out issues and problems through his music, he did his best to make sure he was a part of the solution through his deeds and actions. He put his money and efforts where his mouth was. He worked with organizations such as Green for All, a nonprofit dedicated to creating green jobs in underserved and underrepresented communities, and he helped launch and fund #YesWeCode, a nonprofit organization encouraging urban youth to pursue careers in technology. Made evident by his Grammy's quote, Prince was also a supporter of the Black Lives Matter Movement. He quietly sent money to the family of Trayvon Martin, a black teen fatally shot by George Zimmerman. News of his secret donations were only made public by Rev Al Sharpton after Prince's passing.

One of the last songs Prince recorded was “Baltimore” (2015). The song was a tribute to Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who had died under suspicious circumstances while in Baltimore Police Department custody. In it, Prince sings:

Nobody got in nobody’s way
So I guess you could say it was a good day
At least a little better than the day in Baltimore
Does anybody hear us pray
For Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?
Peace is more than the absence of war 

An anthem that lamented the tragic death of a young man, it not only expressed the anguish Baltimoreans and activists nationwide have felt much too often, but also captured the hope for justice and peace many protest and march for.

Prince’s impact was felt by many. Regardless of your race or sexuality, gender or religion, his music and style spoke to you and his activism and philanthropy spoke for you. I’ll leave you with this, the official music video to “Baltimore.” Prince does not appear in the video, and if I had to guess, that was an intentional decision. The visuals are more powerful because of it.

Join us for the opening of Prince from Minneapolis on April 5, 2019 at MoPOP.

The Prince Estate is not affiliated, associated, or connected with the ‘Prince from Minneapolis’ exhibit, nor has it endorsed, authenticated or sponsored the items on exhibit.    

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About the author

Kwapi Vengesayi is the Manager of Community Engagement at MoPOP, and a fan and student of all things Motown, Afrofuturism, and Star Trek.

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