Why Prince deserves props for his political activism

OPINION - While better known as a musical genius for pioneering the Minneapolis Sound, Prince's social consciousness has been a recurring theme of his music from the beginning...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

With more rewards and accolades, than anyone before or after

21st century, oh what a shame, what a shame

Race, race still matters

A race to what, and where we going?

We in the same boat, but I’m the only one rowing

Last time I checked, you were sleeping, but you can call me a dreamer too…
-Prince, “Dreamer” (2009)

Politics and art are indistinguishable in the cultural consciousness of the African Diaspora. Art about “secular” ideas are inherently tied to spiritual concepts, and social commentary is embedded in the fabric of the artistic commentary on our experiences. In the black art tradition, the very nature of how we interpret the experiences around us is inherently political — and the artist is its agent.

Enter Prince.

As an artist of undeniable talent and musical curiosity, Prince has flirted with virtually every genre of music, bending its arc until something new emerges. Last month, Prince announced an unprecedented 21 Night Stand at The Forum in Inglewood, California as part of his “Welcome 2 America” tour. Though he has branched out to include several concerts in the Bay Area, the semi-residence at the Forum apparently represents more than just an ode to the Old School. It seems to represent something more.

On more than one occasion, Prince has shared with crowds of screaming fans that he wants to help save the Forum from its relative obscurity and underutilization. “I’ve seen a lot of great performers here,” he said, among the cheers. “I saw Michael Jackson here — not just Michael, but all the Jacksons. Earth, Wind and Fire. Morris Day and The Time…Prince and the Revolution.”

Is saving the Forum personal? I imagine it is — as is saving any home to some of the greatest moments not just in music; but also in sports. That’s the beauty of our artistic tradition — “secular” moments are inherently spiritual. Public moments intentionally personal.

While better known as a musical genius for pioneering the Minneapolis Sound, Prince’s social consciousness has been a recurring theme of his music from the beginning. On his 1981 Controversy album was “Ronnie Talk to Russia,” where he repeats, “Ronnie Talk to Russia before it’s too late” so many times that even as I child I was want to explore why Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy seemed wrapped in a cloak of violence and a contentious “Cold War,” rather than any real expression of diplomacy.

On the B-Side of 1995’s Pop Life, was “Hello,” on which Prince offered a challenging, “We’re against hungry children, our record stands tall, but there’s just as much hunger here at home.” This was the natural precursor to the more recent commentary in 2010’s Ol’ Skool Company, a track on which he declares, “The people I know, they been strugglin’, at least it seems that way. Fat cats on Wall Street, they got a bailout. Why somebody else got to wait. 700 billion, but my old neighborhood, ain’t nothin’ changed but the date.”

Like any artist, the political consciousness of Prince’s music has evolved along with his experiences; but even when he was slapping a bass, there has always been an undercurrent of rebellion. Think 1997’s “Days of Wild,” where behind a funky bass riff is the chant, “Free the Slave”— a nod to a fight with his record company, which led Prince to abandon his name for a while and write “S.L.A.V.E.” on his cheek. Then there was The Rainbow Children (2001), a full collection of songs that spoke to the need for social consciousness, and the forum he held in 2002 at Paisley Park during a “Celebration,” during which Tavis Smiley moderated a panel of thought leaders that included Dr. Michael Eric Dyson and Dr. Cornel West. Perhaps the most intentional Prince has been with regard to his political musings was in 2004, in “Dear Mr. Man,” (Musicology), in which he deliberately questions the social contradictions that leave so many poor and communities of color in conditions of crisis: “Who said that 2 kill is a sin, then started every single war that Ur people been in? Who said that water is a precious commodity, then dropped a big old black oil slick in the deep blue sea?”

“Prince’s undeniable genius constitutes a major moment in the history of American music in general, black music in particular,” Dr. Cornel West 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.”

To “free the slave” is a concept that has been consistent throughout the black liberation struggle — one that has applied not just to physical bondage, but emotional and intellectual forms of oppression as well. This may explain why Prince’s music has become increasingly political as he has struggled to maintain a space of independence in an entertainment industry that thrives on the ownership of an artist’s creativity.

“He’s a very unique person,” said Dr. West. “Collaborating with Prince was one of the great blessings and honors of my life.”

Given this track record, no one should be surprised by the many social causes that have caught Prince’s attention. In the 1990s, Prince founded the Love4OneAnother Foundation, and was one of the early supporters of Sheila E.’s Elevate Hope Foundation, which — through music — helps high-risk children recover from histories of sexual and other forms of abuse.

In the first leg of this Welcome 2 America tour alone, Prince has donated $1 million to the Harlem Children’s Zone and more than $500,000 to arts programs in New York and North Carolina.

Though many of them are unknown to the general public, the contributions that Prince has made as an artist and philanthropist toward the goal of elevating human rights and social justice place him firmly among the small, but powerful cadre of artists who have used their platform to engage the social consciousness of a generation, or as in Prince’s case, multiple generations.

Just as his musical prowess has inspired generations of free-spirited artists to forge independence — so too should his engagement in a cultural critique inspire more artists to become participants in the social justice movement.