Prince’s evolution as a race man took him from Minneapolis to ‘Baltimore’
Although challenged on his black card, he struck a blow for the power of black artists
Prince Rogers Nelson floated onstage at Baltimore’s Royal Farms Arena on May 10, 2015, rocking the same blacker-than-black Afro and let-me-show-you cockiness he had on the cover of his 1978 debut For You.
What had changed in the intervening decades was Prince’s evolution as a race man and his willingness to speak out on police brutality.
Like many others, Prince was moved by the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died a week after receiving spinal injuries while in police custody. Baltimore exploded in rage as a divided nation witnessed emotional protests, riots and a city crying out in pain. Prince called the sold-out benefit concert “Rally 4 Peace” and was humbled by the healing energy of the event.
“To all the families that have lost loved ones … tonight we are your servants,” he told the crowd, which included Gray’s family. Two days earlier, the singer, songwriter, producer, bandleader and multi-instrumentalist had released the protest track “Baltimore,” a song he performed that evening.
“Does anybody hear us pray?/For Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?/Peace is more than the absence of a war,” Prince sang on the emotional political statement. Yet this was no turn-the-other-cheek message. “If there ain’t no justice, then there ain’t no peace!” Prince, vocalist Eryn Allen Kane and crew proclaimed.
Trombonist Michael B. Nelson was among the musicians backing up The Purple One that evening. “I was honored to be a part of that song,” Nelson told me. “Just knowing how important ‘Baltimore’ was to Prince and to get that message out. He wanted to be part of the solution. Obviously, it was important enough for him to go to Baltimore and do a concert there.”
June 7 would have marked the 62nd birthday of Prince, who died at 57 from a fentanyl overdose at his sprawling Paisley Park complex in Chanhassen, Minnesota, in 2016 after years of battling debilitating hip pain. The funk-rock-pop superstar, who turned on the world with a string of classic works, including Dirty Mind, 1999, Purple Rain, Parade, Sign ‘O’ The Times and Diamonds and Pearls, has often been cited as the most gifted and enigmatic artist of his generation.
But he was also a fervent, albeit low-key, activist.
It’s safe to say that Prince, who declared during a live 2015 Grammys broadcast, “Like books and black lives, albums still matter,” would have plenty to say about the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police in his hometown of Minneapolis.
The nationwide disturbances that followed were dwarfed by millions of peaceful protesters worldwide taking part in unprecedented marches and gatherings against systemic racism and police brutality. Among the victims cited – Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, Alton Sterling, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor – was Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by a cop in 2016 in St. Paul, Minnesota, during a routine traffic stop after he calmly informed the officer he had a properly licensed firearm.
Indeed, conditions for black folks in the Minneapolis area have long been a tinderbox. In 2019, the Twin Cities was ranked the fourth worst place to live for African Americans by 24/7 Wall Street, based on racial disparities in income, education, health and incarceration.
For instance, the average black household in Minneapolis/St. Paul and nearby Bloomington earned $34,174, while the average white household made $78,706. Another telling stat from January: 10.3% of black people were unemployed in the Twin Cities, compared with 3.6% for whites. (The overall rate ballooned to 9.2% in April.)
Prince, a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement who gave millions to social justice organizations and helped establish #YesWeCode, a nonprofit group that pushes minority youths to pursue a career in technology, had firsthand experience of Minneapolis’ disturbing history of unfair treatment of black people. But looking back, Prince’s journey to embracing his inner race man wasn’t always predictable.
Growing up on the cities’ North Side, he was a product of this separate but unequal world fueled by racial covenants, which dictated where black people could rent or buy homes. In his posthumous 2019 memoir The Beautiful Ones, Prince recalled his earliest encounter with racism when he and other black kids in his neighborhood were bused to a predominantly white elementary school in 1967.
“I went to school with the rich kids who didn’t like having me there,” he recalled of the moment one white student called him the N-word. Prince punched the kid. “I felt I had to,” he added. “Luckily, the guy ran away crying.”
James Harris III, former keyboardist of the Prince-created outfit The Time and one-half of the Grammy-winning production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, once described to writer Steve Perry just how dire it was for young African Americans growing up in 1970s Minneapolis.
“We can’t get a job, we better make a demo tape or something and try to get up out of here,” he said. “Not that we had more talent [than the white musicians]; nothing like that. We just had more initiative, because there was nothing here for us.”
It was amid this desperate climate that Prince plotted the start of his career in 1977. The androgynous talent would go on to shake up President Ronald Reagan’s Moral Majority with his provocative lyrics that upended sexual politics (1984’s “Darling Nikki” single-handedly sparked congressional hearings and gave birth to Parental Advisory labels on albums) and toyed with what he viewed as static conventions of race. Unfortunately, those views would at times put him at odds with black peers in the music industry, fans and critics.
Prince was as much of a fan of Chick Corea, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac as he was James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan and Parliament-Funkadelic. He was sizing up the music game, which by 1980 was a largely segregated playground.
“The way Ernie Isley [the Isley Brothers] and Eddie Hazel [Funkadelic] were treated in the early ’70s became a racialized orthodoxy by the ’80s,” said Vernon Reid, the Grammy-winning lead guitarist of the groundbreaking black rock band Living Colour. “Thus a Shuggie Otis or Ronny Drayton get no recognition at all. Prince opened the door enough of a crack that myself, Tom Morello, Dave Fiuczynski, Jef Lee Johnson, Tosin Abasi, Bibi McGill, Greg Howe, Kat Dyson and others to at least have careers.”
But that would come later. After making a respectable splash with his first two releases, Prince turned down the R&B, stripped to his underwear and became a guitar-slinging rock rebel.
Radio programmers had no idea what to do with him. Prince’s critically acclaimed Dirty Mind (1980) was too white for black stations and too black for white stations. His multicultural band, which would soon morph into The Revolution, purposely included white, African American and gay musicians.
Everything changed with the 1983 single “Little Red Corvette.” Suddenly Prince was an MTV darling. His mammoth, Oscar-winning 1984 follow-up Purple Rain became a chart-topping, box-office spectacle. Prince was now riding shotgun with Michael Jackson in the new age of the Crossover Negro.
Prince and his team had long been obsessed with not being placed in Warner Bros.’ Black Music division.
“Don’t make me black,” Prince once told Warner Bros. Vice president Lenny Waronker, who detailed the jolting conversation in a 2004 Minneapolis Star Tribune oral history detailing the performer’s rise. “He said, ‘My idols are all over the place.’ He named an array that was so deep in terms of scope of music that for an 18-year-old kid to say what he said was amazing.”
Others weren’t as impressed. “He doesn’t want to be black,” Rick James said of Prince in a 1983 interview with Blues & Soul. “My job is to keep reality over this little science fiction creep. And if he doesn’t like what I’m saying, he can kiss my a–. He’s so far out of touch with what’s really happening, it makes me angry.”
Prince’s team didn’t help matters. They continued to push the dubious claim that he was biracial. In reality, his father, a jazz musician, and mother, a social worker, were both African American. The Purple Rain tour was the hottest ticket in the country in 1985. Yet black Los Angeles radio stations boycotted Warner Bros. after claiming that they received little promotional material and tickets for giveaways for a series of Prince shows compared with white pop and rock stations.
To many, the artist who created the raw funk of “Sexy Dancer,” “Head,” “Controversy,” “D.M.S.R.,” “Erotic City” and The Time was abandoning his black base. They had no idea he secretly donated $90,000 to film the video for the 1986 Kurtis Blow-produced, all-star single “King Holiday,” which celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday becoming a national holiday.
That same year, Greg Tate called out Prince in a Village Voice piece on the artist’s second film, 1986’s Under the Cherry Moon. After spending much of the movie chasing after a white love interest, the lead character, Christopher Tracy (played by Prince), is haunted by a paralyzing nightmare: a dark-skinned black woman. “It was like watching Prince tell them, ‘Y’all ain’t s— to me,” Tate quoted a black moviegoer.
Yet, as hip-hop and new jack swing came to dominate the musical and cultural landscape, black was again beautiful and Prince reveled in it. His bands and public stances were getting blacker. By the mid-’90s, Prince had changed his name to an unpronounceable Love Symbol sign following a nasty feud with Warner Bros. over artistic freedom and ownership of his masters. He scribbled “slave” on his face.
Critics said he was out to lunch, but Prince was building a platform propelled by his own black reawakening as he became the most prominent advocate for artists’ rights. In 1997, when he was presented the Key of Life award by Stevie Wonder at the NAACP Image Awards, he opened up about what it meant to receive the honor from his hero.
“I’ve been trying to round up all the award shows from the ’70s to show my wife how Stevie Wonder used to wipe out everybody,” he mused. “You know when people would come up and thank him for not putting out a record [so others could have a chance to win]. I can’t tell you what it did for me as a black person.”
His 1998 acoustic gem “Don’t Play Me” went even further: “I’m the wrong color and I play guitar,” before jabbing, “Maybe how u call us n—–s ain’t the same.” In 2000, he released a B-side cover of the Staple Singers’ 1970 reparations anthem “When Will We B Paid?”
More than a decade later, Prince would retain ownership of his recording masters, aiming straight for the label owners who stole from his black musical influences. “When I meet with a label now, they already know they’re not going to be owning anything,” he told Rolling Stone in 2004. “Maybe at one time they could get Little Richard for a new car and a bucket of chicken. We don’t roll like that no more.”
It’s fitting that just west of the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, where George Floyd’s death sparked a revolution, Prince came of age in the black middle-class and working-class area known as Old South Side. Minneapolis was a source of pride for the singer. But Prince still fought to improve the lives and future of his people.
“The system is broken,” he said to the Baltimore crowd in 2015. “It’s going to take young people to fix it. We need new ideas, new life. Most of all, we need new piece. And the kind of piece I’m talking about is spelled ‘P-I-E-C-E.’ Next time I come to Baltimore, I want to stay in a hotel owned by one of you. I want to play in a building owned and operated by one of you – I’m talking to the young people now.”
That’s real power to the people.