There’s no doubt about it: Prince was a prodigy whose songs and style helped to cement his status as both a music and cultural icon.
But the late legend also stood for so much more.
Prince, who passed away on Thursday, was an activist and advocate for many social issues — and although he didn’t speak out about matters of politics in public often, he didn’t really need to. Prince was political because blackness is inherently political.
Here are 7 ways that Prince showed his political power, and how his art and activism were closely connected:
1. Prince used his songs to speak on serious social issues.
Prince called out President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policies and America’s involvement in the Cold War in his 1981 song, “Ronnie Talk To Russia.” He also invited political commentator and philosopher Dr. Cornell West to be featured on his 2004 track titled, “Dear Mr. Man,” in which Prince called out systems of power in America and the disparaging affects they have on marginalized people.
“Might not be in the back of the bus but it sure feel just the same / ain’t nothing fair about welfare / ain’t no assistance in AIDS / we ain’t that affirmative about your actions until the people get paid,” Prince sang.
2. Prince highlighted issues of race and supported the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Prince mentions Dr. Martin Luther King in his 2009 song “Dreamer.” “I was born and raised on the same plantation / In the united states of the red, white and blue / I never knew that I was different / Till Dr. King was on the balcony / Lying in a bloody pool,” the lyrics read.
Years before that song’s debut, Prince released a track in 1995 titled “We March,” which spoke about the need for organized protest against racism: “Now’s the time to find a rhyme/ that’s got a reason and frees the mind / From angry thoughts, the racist kind/ If we all wanna a change then come on get in line,” Prince sang.
“Like books and black lives, albums still matter.”Prince
The song was released exactly two decades before the Black Lives Matter movement issued a widespread call for racial justice and equality. In fact, BLM was a movement that deeply inspired Prince and moved him to make a riveting and notable remark about race just last year:
“Like books and black lives, albums still matter,” Prince said in a resounding address to the world on the 2015 Grammy stage. His declaration later became one of his most memorable political moments in recent years.
3. Prince paid significant tribute to Baltimore.
Just three months later, Prince released his song “Baltimore,” which was a touching tribute to the city that dealt with the death of Freddie Gray, a black 18-year-old resident who died from spinal cord injuries he sustained while in the custody of the Baltimore police following his arrest. The song also mentioned Michael Brown, another black teen who was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.
“Does anybody hear us pray/ for Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?” Prince sang in a piece which touched on the civil unrest that unfolded in the city immediately following Gray’s death.
4. Prince showed endless support to black America’s youth.
To show his appreciation for Baltimore and its residents, Prince hosted a free “Rally 4 Peace” benefit concert that attracted thousands of attendees. While on stage, he praised Baltimore’s black youth who he believed to be strong agents of change capable of mending American’s broken system. “It’s going to take the young people to fix it this time,” he said in the song’s music video. “We need new ideas, new life.”
Prince said he wanted the concert to be a “catalyst for pause and reflection following the outpouring of violence that has gripped Baltimore and areas throughout the U.S.,” according to The Baltimore Sun. Meanwhile, proceeds from the performance went to various local youth-based charities in the city. He also later donated $1 million to the Harlem Children’s Zone, a non-profit organization that helps poverty-stricken families in Harlem, New York.
5. Prince loved his blackness and he loved black people.
Prince embodied the best of black excellency and he advocated for the well-being of black folks everywhere. An even more touching account of Prince’s involvement in the black community came from Rev. Al Sharpton who told MSNBC that Prince once reached out to him in effort to extend his help to Travyon Martin’s family following the police killing of the 17-year-old teen in 2012.
“Prince called me and sent some funds that I gave to the family for him, and never wanted recognition for it,” Sharpton said. “He was one that didn’t want to make a lot about about his humanitarian and activist involvements, but he was very much involved in what was going on in the country.”
6. Prince relentlessly pushed back against the music industry.
Prince was the ultimate rule breaker and he successfully crafted his own space in an industry notoriously known to comprise the work of artists for its own capital gain. He constantly fought against that and wanted to take back control of his work and even protested by writing the word “SLAVE” on his cheek during a public performance. It was a bold demonstration for a black artist at that time, which drew deep symbolism to America’s racial past. He later changed his name to that of a symbol following a dispute with his record label Warner Brothers in 1993. In a press release, Prince explained:
Prince is the name my mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote… I merely became a pawn that was used to make more money for Warner Bros.
7. Prince stands as a powerful symbol of advocacy and individuality.
Prince reinvented what it means to be an artist and, more specifically, he redefined what it means to be a black male musician in America. Plus, he did it all while unapologetically rocking dope hairstyles — from his iconic press-and-curl to a dynamic picked-out fro.
Ultimately, his impressive catalogue of work embodies the power of fusing art with activism.
“Prince’s undeniable genius constitutes a major moment in the history of American music in general, black music in particular,” Dr. West previously told theGrio. “And his political evolution, which is grounded in a spirituality, but also connected to fundamental concern and care for poor and working people, positions him as an exemplary freedom fighter…how rare it is that you see the best of both musical genius and freedom fighter in that way.”
May his purple reign forever.