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The Protest Songs Of Prince

Following the tragic death of pop music legend Prince, a portrait has emerged of a humanitarian artist, who sought to find ways to uplift people who were struggling. And, while his fame was certainly not a result of sharp sociopolitical insights, he composed a number of songs that could be regarded as protest songs.

Prince recognized the importance of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. He donated money to the family of Trayvon Martin, who was killed by George Zimmerman. He made arrangements for the family of Eric Garner, who was killed by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, to attend one of his concerts in Baltimore.

As commentator Van Jones revealed on CNN, he served as an advisor for Prince, who inspired him to launch “Yes We Code” and Green For All initiatives. “Yes We Code” stemmed from Prince’s idea that maybe civil rights activists needed to do more to open up the tech industry to low-income black youth. It was set up to teach low-income black youth how to write code, and Prince funded hackathons in cities like Detroit and Philadelphia to bolster the initiative.

Green For All was a nonprofit organization launched by Jones to help people out of poverty by giving them green jobs. Prince funded this too, and even helped families in cities like Oakland put solar panels on their homes.

As a Jehovah’s Witness, Prince believed his philanthropy was between him and his god. He engaged in none of this giving for attention or glory. He believed in the importance of using his status as a pop artist to help make the world better, and did so privately.

When musical artists came together to form the supergroup USA For Africa and record the charity single, “We Are The World” to bring attention to famine, Prince refused to participate. He was aggressively hounded by media, and his security tangled with some reporters trying to get to Prince. In response to all the uproar, the single, “Hello,” was recorded. It was the B-side to “Pop Life.”

The song described harassment by the media and tried to make it clear Prince cared about hungry children. “Our record stands tall. There’s just as much hunger here at home. We’ll do what we can if y’all try and understand.” (He had donated money from his “Purple Rain” concert tour to food banks as well an inner city program for students led by Marva Collins, who was a Chicago teacher.)

Prince believed in hiring female musicians, and opening up the music industry to more women. From 1979 to 2016, he brought women like Gayle Chapman, Sheila E, Lisa Coleman, Wendy Melvoin, Vanity 6, Sheena Easton, Janelle Monae, Lianne La Havas, and others into his bands.

Of Donna Grantis, the guitarist for his all-women band 3rdEyeGirl, he told MOJO magazine in April 2014, “She can play better than anyone and she can look better while doing it. I’ve had enough of guys standing with their boots stuck on the stage. You go and see Donna, and she’ll be lying over the amplifier, playing the best solo you’ve ever heard. The feminine energy on the planet is very strong now, after being suppressed for so long.”

Now, here’s a look at some of the many protest songs, which Prince recorded.

“Peace Is More Than The Absence Of War”

Prince released “Baltimore,” a single from his last album, “HITnRUN Phase Two” (2015), which explicitly addressed the killing of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police. He sings, “Peace is more than the absence of war,” and addressed rampant gun violence. “We’re tired of the cryin’ and people dyin.’ Let’s take all the guns away.” He adds, “It’s time to hear the guitar play, guitar play. Baltimore, ever more.” And the final part of the song features the chant, “If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace.”

The theme of coming together to play music and party, as resistance to an unjust world, surfaces in much of Prince’s work. His names for his bands, The Revolution and The New Power Generation, reflect this idea that the music played together on a given album represented a departure from the dominant and unbearable social order.

On “Dirty Mind” (1980), his third album, a song called “Partyup” was an anthem for “revolutionary rock n’ roll” against war. “How you gonna make me kill somebody I don’t even know?” He sings against being drafted against a war. “All lies, no truth. Is it fair to kill the youth?” The song ends with Prince repeating, “You’re gonna have to fight your own damn war cause we don’t wanna fight no more.”

Another song on the album, “Uptown,” also champions partying, but in this case, it’s about a place in a city free of prejudice or racism. The people in the song don’t want to be downtown. People who are downtown are “nowhere bound.” This is the part of the city that is neglected, where people feel trapped by circumstance. To be free, “everybody’s going Uptown.” This part of town is where “U can set your mind free.” The people who feel like they are victims of society can emancipate themselves in Uptown.

Widely considered one of the definitive tracks of Prince’s career, “1999” was the title track of his 1982 album. It was two years into Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and this was Prince’s response to the fear of the U.S. government setting off a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Once again, the people are partying, and this time it’s in defiance of a nuclear apocalypse. Prince sings about people running everywhere from destruction. “War is all around us, my mind says prepare 2 fight. So if I gotta die I’m gonna listen 2 my body tonight,” Prince sings. No reason to care too much. “Everybody’s got a bomb. We could all die any day.” Before that happens, “I’ll dance my life away.” A version of the song ends with the line, “Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?” repeated twice.

The issue of nuclear proliferation was also addressed explicitly with “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” on Prince’s 1981 album, “Controversy.” He urges Ronnie to talk to Russia “before its too late.” He adds, “Ronnie, if you’re dead before I get to meet ya, don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”

“Dance On” on his album, “Lovesexy” (1988), featured the lyrics, “Grenade launcher roars in a television sky. Tell me how many young brothers must die.” The impoverished characters in his song make money through violence and live under the specter of nuclear proliferation. Again, Prince implores everybody to dance on in the face of violence.

He tells the story of a young black man, who puts his bass guitar down and picks up an Uzi gun. The man has turned to crime to survive. “It’s time 4 new education. The former rules don’t apply. We need a power structure that breeds production instead of jacks who vandalize. Detroit – what’s happenin’?”

On his 1990 album, “Graffiti Dance,” there are two anthems — the “New Power Generation” and “Graffiti Bridge.” The “New Power Generation” is a statement of revolution against war. “Lay down your funky weapon,” Prince sings. Make love and music, not war.

“We Are The New Power Generation”

“We r the new power generation, we want 2 change the world,” Prince declares. “The only thing that’s in our way is u. Your old fashioned music, your old ideas. We’re sick and tired of u telling us what 2 do.”

It’s a song for the ruling class and political elites, who have nothing but contempt for the younger generations, who believe there must be a better way. “Pardon me 4 thinking,” Prince says, “But there’s something under my hair. I bet u thought the lights were on but no one’s living there. U Think that if u tell enough lies they will see the truth? I hope they bury your old ideas the same time they bury u.” He implores, “Love is there if you’d just open up 2 it,” and, “If you’d just believe, your whole world would change.”

Graffiti Bridge by Prince. Source: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2221778

Graffiti Bridge by Prince. Source: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2221778

On the same album, “Graffiti Bridge” is a utopian place people search for. It can be found through loving another, someone who makes you feel happy or laugh when you want to cry. It’s also a place, where one realizes there is a future that is “worth fighting 4.” No longer do you want to give up. You believe “everything will be alright,” even while still faced with a struggle.

“Walk Don’t Walk” on “Diamonds and Pearls” (1992) has a message similar to “New Power Generation.” Prince lists off all the things society dislikes about certain groups of people. For example, how they can walk with a “confident stride” and upset society. Even if a person only talks when they are asked to speak, society still won’t listen to certain groups of people. They will only be happy if those people “walk away and be a fool.” So, Prince tells those faced with hate to walk on any side they like. He says the sun will shine upon them if they keep walking their own way. In other words, have self-esteem, and don’t let the oppression you have internalized take away pride in your self.

His album, “The Gold Experience” (1995), featured “We March,” one of the more explicit songs about rising up and throwing off the chains that hold people down. It commented on environmental racism and the prejudice of money lenders.

“If this is the same avenue my ancestors fought 2 liberate, how come I can’t buy a piece of it even if my credit’s straight?” Prince asked. “If all the water’s dirty and I wanna lay the pipe, my dammy. The river that I drink from, will it be the same as your mammy?” It also features a verse about not degrading women by calling them “bitches.”

In the chorus, Prince urges people to “find a rhyme” that has reason and will free the mind from “angry thoughts, the racist kind.” If we all wanna change, get in line. “We’re kickin’ down the door,” and “All is what we’re marchin’ 4.” Later, Prince adds, “We ain’t got no time 4 excuses, the promised land belongs 2 all/We can march in peace but U best watch your back if another leader falls.”

“Compassion,” which appeared on the album, “20Ten” (2010), is about the need for compassion and love in the world. “When ego, fear, and judgment become the rule of law, watch the polar ice caps heat up, melt down, and thaw.” He also sings, “In the high-seated lawless, no love can be found,” and “whatever skin you’re in,” it is important for us all to be friends.

“Art Official Age,” his album released in 2014 with his all-girl band, 3rdEyeGirl, built on this theme of marching and partying together to free the people with the song, “Art Official Cage.” The title is a play on “artificial cage” and it is about breaking out of the prisons in one’s life. “What should I expect if I’m not willing 2 fight?” Prince asks. There’s no reason to tolerate being treated like a second-class person anymore.

Freedom Ain’t Free, They Lock You In A Cell If You Try To Be

Prince composed several songs, which inspired by the most pressing social and political issues of the time. “Act Of God,” which appeared on his album, “20Ten” (2010), is an incredible protest song against banks and other financial institutions.

As he describes, “Dirty fat banker sold a house today, sold in auction wants the family out the way. Kick them on the street, cause he couldn’t pay the tax. Call it an act of God.” He calls out the tax dollars used to build a plane to drop bombs, “supposedly to keep us all safe from Saddam.” In the chorus, he says, “I got news for you. Freedom ain’t free. They lock you in a cell if you try to be.” It is Prince’s way of confronting the callous indifference toward systems responsible for poverty and war.

“Annie Christian” on “Controversy” uses a foil character to confront the evils of the world. It mentions the assassination of John Lennon. It highlights murder in Atlanta. It references the FBI’s Abscam sting against corrupt politicians. The immorality inspired Prince to craft a devilish character, who lurks in the city among the population.

For his 1985 album, “Around the World In a Day,” Prince produced a song called “America,” which starkly depicted income inequality. “Aristocrats on a mountain climb,” Prince states. Meanwhile, “little sister” makes “minimum wage” while “living in a 1-room jungle-monkey cage.”  “She may not be in the in the black, but she’s happy she ain’t in the red.”

The chorus draws from “America, the Beautiful” and pleas to keep the children free. It is also one more song where the threat of nuclear weapons looms. In Reagan’s Cold War America, they make kids say the pledge of allegiance. “Boom, boom, boom, boom. The bomb go boom. Teacher, why won’t Jimmy pledge allegiance?”

“Sign O’ The Times” is a well-known title track on his 1987 album. It features stories of characters impacted by the War on Drugs and drug addiction. “Sister killed her baby cause she couldn’t afford 2 feed it, and we’re sending people 2 the moon,” Prince sings. The threat of nuclear war remained prevalent, and on this song, Prince wonders, as he surveys communities in poverty, “If a night falls and a bomb falls, will anybody see the dawn?”

On his 1991 album, “Diamonds and Pearls,” Prince sings about corruption by the almighty dollar on “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night.” A man trying to make ends meet has a gambling problem. The same man is later offered a “cool investment.” He is told he won’t lose. “All he finds are snakes in every color, every nationality and size.” His attempts at getting rich quick and achieving the American Dream are all for naught.

The song shifts to a commentary about war. “Hey now, maybe we can find a good reason 2 send a child off 2 war. So what if we’re controllin’ all the oil, is it worth a child dying 4?” Prince asks. “Anything is better than the picture of the child in a cloud of gas. And you think you got it bad.”

Possibly one of Prince’s most contentious songs is “The Avalanche” on his 2002 album, “One Nite Alone.” He characterizes Abraham Lincoln as a “racist” and suggests the Thirteenth Amendment is the only thing that prevented blacks from being born into slavery because he contends Lincoln wasn’t in favor of setting people free. Prince references the Wounded Knee massacre, and how nobody in government wants to take responsibility for the atrocity against Native Americans. The “avalanche” is the “responsibility” coming down the mountain and landing upon them.

“We Don’t Need No Race. Sexuality Is All We Need”

It was Prince’s “Purple Rain,” which prompted Tipper Gore, wife of Al Gore, to go before Congress and complain about the lewd nature of the album’s lyrics. She founded the Parents’ Music Resource Center, and her campaign paved the way for “parental advisory” stickers on albums.

Prince faced down the stigma in society against being open about one’s sexuality. Though written before Tipper testified to Congress, “Sexuality” on “Controversy” is a powerful anthem about sexuality being all one needs to be free. The pride in one’s sexuality is combined with the need for revolution, for organizing. “We don’t need no segregation. We don’t need no race.” He declares, “Sexuality is all we ever need.”

One of the verses in the song laments the fact that kids are taught by parents that “love is bad.” He challenges the notion that children cuss, fight, and engage in promiscuous behavior because of television. Children “imitate their atmosphere.” And, “if they’re in the company of tourists, alcohol, and U.S. history, what’s to be expected is 3 minus 3. Absolutely nothing.”

Dealing with the theme of technology, “My Computer” on the album, “Emancipation” (1996), features Prince, as he surfs the Internet looking for someone to talk to who will help him believe there can be a better world or a better life. All he sees on television is “another murder on the news.”

“I can’t take no more. Evil Incorporated, blowing up bombs and thangs,” Prince sings. Throughout the song, he searches for human connection, and even when he connects, it does not satisfy his loneliness. The world is far, far more networked than it was in the 1990s, but even when he recorded the song, it was evident to Prince how a person might turn to technology to free themselves from surrounding misery and despair.

LotusFlow3r by Prince. Source: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21376444

LotusFlow3r by Prince. Source: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21376444

On Lotusflow3r (2009), Prince cleverly uses the process of uploading and downloading to make strong political statements in his song, “Colonized Mind.” For example, “Upload: the master race idea, genetically disposed 2 rule the world. Download a future full of isolated, full of isolated boys and girls.”

“Upload: a 2-party system, the lesser of 2 dangers, illusion of choice. Download: a veiled form of fascism. Nothing really ever changes. U never had a voice.”

The chorus describes how humankind’s history is filled with “colonized minds.” The one in power makes laws the colonized are expected to obey. Without god, or morality, “it’s just the blind leading the blind.” In other words, there is no emancipation or liberation.

“Dreamer” on the same album is a stark statement on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and what it means to dream of a society, where everyone is created equal. Prince says he never knew he was different until King was “on the balcony lying in a bloody pool. He “expected so much more from a loving society.”

“Twenty-first century, oh what a shame that race still matters,” Prince laments. “A race 2 what and where we going? We are in the same boat, but eye’m the only one rowin.” He asks if you’ve ever clutched the steering wheel tight “prayin’ that the police sirens pass you by at night.”

Finally, on “PLECTRUMELECTRUM” (2014), issues of race and class manifest themselves on “MARZ.” The opening lyrics are about losing one’s job at McDonalds for giving away “too much food for free.” But the character in the song “couldn’t watch another black child go to school with nothing to eat.”

“We never own the streets that we kept defending,” Prince sings. “The money we got we just end up spending, with nothing to save and not a thing for lending. You’re never really happy. Just good at pretending.” If a rocket ship did not cost more than a car, a brother might blast off and go to Marz.

Rest In Power, Prince.

World Trade Center, September 11, 2001. Photo by nostri-imago on Flickr
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."