Why Prince Is a Powerful Example of Artistic Activism

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 theaftermath 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.”

The Minnesota-based artist was also the inspiration behind and a key supporter of “Yes We Code,” an initiative launched last July to teach computer science to 100,000 students from backgrounds underrepresented in the tech world. The program has its roots in a conversation that activist Van Jones had with Prince about race after Trayvon Martin's death.

“Every time you see a black kid wearing a hoodie, you say: There’s a thug. If you see a white kid wearing hoodie, you say: There’s Mark Zuckerberg,” Jones said to Prince,according to USA Today. “I said, ‘That’s because of racism.’ And Prince said, ‘Maybe so, or maybe you civil rights guys haven’t created enough Mark Zuckerbergs.’ ” 

In 2011, Cornel West explained to The Grio that Prince’s “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.”

Last Friday Prince posted a now-poignant message on Twitter that has since been retweeted nearly 33,000 times. “I am #transformed,” he wrote. With so many remembrances of how much Prince cared about human rights and justice issues being shared on social media, perhaps the rest of us will be transformed too. 

This article originally appeared on TakePart. Reprinted with permission.

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