Why Prince is a Powerful Example of Artistic Activism Favorite 

Practitioner: 

Date: 

Apr 21 2016

Location: 

Everywhere

From calling out poverty in his lyrics to his support of coding, the legendary artist pushed the world to care about more than music.

With the sudden, tragic passing of Prince on Thursday, people are taking to social media to reminisce about the many moments when his Purple Badness rocked the world: Prince riding his motorcycle along the shores of Lake Minnetonka in Purple Rain—OK, let’s keep it real: All of Purple Rain. His epic 2007 Super Bowl performance, when it rained while he belted out “Purple Rain.” That time in 1983 when he performed with both Michael Jackson and James Brown (yes, that really happened).

“Few artists have influenced the sound and trajectory of popular music more distinctly, or touched quite so many people with their talent,” President Obama wrote on Facebook, summing up the sentiments of so many.

Yet, along with being a musician, Prince is also being remembered for his social activism.

Back in 1981, The New York Times called Prince “the most controversial contemporary rock star precisely because he challenges sexual and racial stereotypes.” Along with his androgynous appearance, he challenged American complacency with songs against war, poverty, and police brutality and supported an effort to get low-income black and brown youths prepared for the tech jobs of the future.

Even while posing shirtless with his lips parted on the cover of his 1981 album Controversy, Prince was tackling the Cold War and fears of nuclear annihilation with the track “Ronnie, Talk to Russia.” “Ronnie talk to Russia before it’s too late / Before they blow up the world," he sang. In 1987, “Sign o’ the Times” addressed HIV, drug addiction, and poverty. “A sister killed her baby ’cause she couldn’t afford to feed it / And yet we’re sending people to the moon,” he sang. In 2014, his track “Marz” turned the spotlight on child poverty in the black community. “Lost my job at Mickey D’s / 4 giving away 2 much food 4 free / But I couldn’t watch another black child go 2 school / With nothing to eat,” he sang.

There was the subtle shout-out to the Black Lives Matter movement at last year’s Grammy Awards. “Like books and black lives, albums still matter,” he said. Then, in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, he released a poignant protest song, “Baltimore,” that addressed unrest in that city and in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown’s death in 2014.

“Does anybody hear us pray / For Michael Brown or Freddie Gray? / Peace is more than the absence of war,” Prince sang. The song ends with the chant, “If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace.”

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