The world is still in shock at the passing of Prince, one of the greatest musical artists in American history. Prince was an entertainer, an icon (at one point a symbol), but even more importantly, he was an explicitly political artist in how he presented himself, his music and his quest for creative independence. While his career spans almost 40 years and he has many legendary moments, a few stand out as some of the most political and poignant of his career.
The idea that we have identities that overlap (you can be black and gay and Christian and a Republican; who knew?) and interact with one another is a relatively new part of public discourse. But Prince was breaking down political barriers and binary relationships of race and gender from the start.
“[Prince was] a champion of intersectionality and not being boxed in and labeled, way before academia was talking about those sorts of things,” music and culture critic Touré—who wrote an exceptional biography of Prince, I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon, in 2013—told The Root.
Long before it was trendy, Prince pushed the envelope by pushing questions about race at a time when artists were either good girls or bad girls, crooners or pop stars. In his early days you didn’t know if Prince was black or white or both; gay or straight or bi; atheist or Christian or none of the above. “He was what we would call today ‘gender nonconforming,’” said Touré, laying out how Prince’s scantily clad performances and focus on his own slight build changed what defined “sexy” and “sexuality,” especially for black men, at the time. In the end, through these actions he forced consumers and America in general to decide whether these labels really mattered as long as your music was good.
On his 1981 album Controversy, a little-known song called “Ronnie Talk to Russia” was a plea for newly elected Republican President Ronald Reagan to prevent the Cold War from going hot. He exhorts Reagan to talk to the Russians instead of talking “at” them to solve the world’s problems: “Ronnie talk to Russia before it’s too late/Before they blow up the world/Before they blow up the world/Don’tcha/Don’t you blow up my world.”
Prince had several other major political ballads in the ’80s, especially on his Sign O’ the Times album, including tracks about AIDS, poverty and Reagan’s Star Wars defense program.
Slave to the Label
Prince’s long-running battles with Warner Bros., and record labels in general, are too heavy to detail here, but there are plenty of significant histories that are worth reading. Fiercely independent, Prince, then “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” then Prince again, demonstrated that he would not under any circumstances have his creative powers controlled by record labels. At one point he was performing with the word “slave” scrawled on his face to protest the restrictions that huge (and at that point merging) conglomerates were having on artists and their pocketbooks. Most black artists weren’t nearly that bold or confident at the time but took cues from Prince’s defiance to later break out and start their own labels and streaming outlets for music.
Prince’s sexual politics are as complex as his musical catalog, according to various interviews and actions he took over the years.
“She described him as politically conservative,” Touré said about his interviews with Susan Rogers, a sound engineer on Prince’s Purple Rain album. “She linked it to his class status. As you’re making more money, you want to make more money. You want to protect it. He was definitely on that,” he continued, detailing how Prince’s conservative religious background (Seventh-day Adventist and later Jehovah’s Witness) and upbringing affected his politics.
While Prince certainly advocated free love, he was, ironically, less open to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and issues. In a New Yorker interview in 2008, the artist reportedly suggested that homosexuality was something that God “cleaned” out at certain points in the Bible (although his representatives reportedly later said that he’d been misquoted). While Prince declared in subsequent interviews that he was primarily concerned with God’s love and being nonjudgmental, his positions on homosexuality always felt politically at odds with his early music.
Black Lives Matter
Prince, despite seeming racially and sexually ambiguous, was always very clear and political in his love for black lives. He released the tribute song “S.S.T.” in September 2005 to raise funds for Hurricane Katrina victims. It went to No. 1 on the then-fledgling iTunes charts. Most recently, Prince was active both publicly and privately in the Black Lives Matter movement. He worked with the Rev. Al Sharpton, donated money to Trayvon Martin’s family and legal fund, and threw a concert in Baltimore whose proceeds went to youth groups. He also wrote and performed the song “Baltimore,” decrying the police violence and systematic racism in the city. And finally, to make it a Black Lives Matter trifecta, he said this at the Grammys: “Like books and black lives, albums still matter.”
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.