Author: Janett Walker
Prince Rogers Nelson was born on the 7 June 1958. We all know Prince was one of the most talented musicians of his time, he was a rare composer who could perform at a professional level on virtually all the instruments he required for a set and a considerable number of his recordings feature him in all the performing roles. For his debut album he played 27 different instruments himself.
But the thing that people don’t know quite so well is that he was an activist and had Black people and their struggles at the heart of what he did, wrote, sang and said.
Born in Minneapolis to a singing mother, Mattie Baker and jazz player father John Nelson, Prince was just 15 years old when he turned down his first offer of a recording deal as they would not allow him to produce his records, which was the control he wanted. This is what eventually led to his conflict with Warner Bros, his battle with the internet and streaming issues and his lifelong need to have artistic control over what he created.
Prince was very aware of how Black people were treated in the music industry as a result of racism and segregation. Looking back over the American Music Awards, as recently as 1985, whilst Prince stole the show the award titles make for more than interesting reading, with categories like –
- Favourite Black Single; When Doves Cry, Prince (up against Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got To Do With It and Billy Ocean’s Caribbean Queen)
- Favourite Black Soul/R&B album – Purple Rain, Prince and The Revolution (up against Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson)
- Favourite Black Pop album – Prince and The Revolution (up against Lionel Richie and Thriller)
With his musical talent, good looks and knockout performances, Prince had the ability to cross over to White audiences and his work became popular in the White community. This was a huge achievement in itself however, sadly this led to the eventual whitewashing of Prince over the years. To this day, many still perceive Prince as Biracial of “mainly white origin”. Aware of the racism that existed (and still exists today – you need only to watch Leigh Anne Pinnock’s Race, Pop & Power BBC documentary) Prince was steadfastly determined not to be typecast and to fight back against the industry that did not recognise an equal place for him and others like him within it. His driving force was the fact that Black artists were paid less as a result of the racist segregation they were subjected to.
In addition to his fight against racism, looking back, it’s arguable that he was an early runner for the evasion of conventional gender definitions which speaks to us so clearly now in the trans-aware movement. He would often obscure his own sexuality and embrace traditionally feminine fashion by wearing bikinis and high heels (the latter both on and off stage). He was also known for the strong female presence in his bands and his support for women in the music industry throughout his career. From giving Chaka Khan her biggest hit “I Feel For You” to the now infamous alleged incident with Sinead O’Connor and the hit song “Nothing Compares to You” which Prince wrote and everything in between including Sheenah Eastern, his all women band 3rdEyeGirl, The Bangles, Celine Dion, Madonna and TLC.
He first signed with Warner Bros at the age of just 19. The record company agreed to give him creative control for three albums and allow him to retain his publishing rights – the exact control Prince wanted and needed. By the 1990s however, he walked away from millions of dollars as he could no longer work within the controls Warner Bros were placing on him, which he felt limited his artistic creation and control of his musical output. In 1994 he began appearing publicly with the word “Slave” written on his face. This was a clear act of activism, partly in battle for other black artists, including Shaka Khan and Sly & The Family Stone and partly in reference to those who were enslaved during the Transatlantic enslavement of millions of Africans. He was prepared to take Warner Bros on saying “if you don’t own your masters, your masters will own you” (Rolling Stones interview 1996). Warner Bros a massive machine in the racialised terms of the music industry, which stretches back as long as white executives have recorded Black artists (if you’ve watched Ma Rainey, you’ll understand just how deep-rooted this is), had not expected this and were completely thrown by Prince’s determination to do everything in his power to be released from the confines of his contract with them.
Even the controversy around his view of the internet, the streaming of his music and his long trail of lawsuits suing anyone who so much as thought about breaching his copyright works, needs to be looked at closely. Whilst he was famous for having said “the internet is over” as a hope for revenue-generation music, at the time he was completely right in his assertion that whilst Apple were doing very well, musicians were not getting rich from digital sales. But prior to the events leading up to him shunning pretty much all streaming services in the late 1990s, Prince was considered to be a genuine internet hero:
“It is with great pleasure and admiration that we present The Webby Lifetime Achievement Award to Prince, who has forever altered the landscape of online musical distribution as the first major artist to release an entire album — 1997’s Crystal Ball — exclusively on the web. Prince’s leadership online has transformed the entertainment industry and reshaped the relationship between artist and fan.”
Way before the likes of iTunes and Spotify, Prince used the internet to premiere his new music, challenge distribution practices and connect with his fans. Effectively, in his determination not to be abused by the system, he bypassed the Warner Bros executives and got his music out his way – ahead of the game many might say or a businesswise revolutionary others might argue. Either way, without his subsequent precedent-setting scepticism towards streaming (which many will remember led to no one being able to access his music online through the usual popular routes when he died) artists like Taylor Swift and Adele might have been less inclined to take stands against Spotify, whom they saw as cannibalising sales and paid streams with their ad-supported service.
Prince’s entire history with the Internet can be understood in terms of a great artist experimenting with available technology to retain control of his music and artistic vision, trying to maintain a separation between live performance and recordings, and achieving a business model that rewards artists, Black artists in particular whom for years had been exploited, for their work and talent.
And it’s important to understand all of this in the context of the racism, which has already mentioned, he fought against throughout his lifetime. Blackness and the struggle of Black people were in the notes of so many of the songs he wrote and sang, with race and social justice woven throughout. Songs like Reparation, Baby, The Rainbow Children, Dear Mr Man, Uptown, We March, Walk Don’t Walk, We Are the New Power Generation, Act of God and America to name but a few – look them up, listen to their lyrics. And it almost goes without saying that his musicianship, song writing and the way in which he performed were all steeped in many traditions of black music and rooted in his experiences as a Black man.
His activism didn’t just live in his songs and performances though; lesser known facts centre around acts of him donating money to the family of Trayvon Martin and making arrangements for the family of Eric Garner to attend one of his concerts. Or the fact that he was the inspiration for the initiation of the Yes We Code project which was set up to teach low income Black youths how to write code as he felt civil rights activists needed to do more to open up the tech industry to them and he funded hackathons in Detroit and Philadelphia to bolster the project. He donated money from his Purple Rain concert tour to food banks and inner city programmes for Black youths. His most well-known activist act is undoubtedly the writing of the song Baltimore, after the murder of Freddie Gray there in 2015 and his subsequent Rally 4 Peace as Baltimore erupted in flames. His rally helped calm the city’s unrest and was compared to James Brown’s calming of the unrests in 1968 after Martin Luther King Jr was murdered.
Prince was an exceptional musical genius. Fact. He was also portrayed as a controversial character, sullen, weird, strange, crazy and he was the butt of many jokes and slights when he refused to use the name Prince and for writing ‘Slave’ on his face. The reality was he loved his Black people and his Black community. His political stances, challenges to record executives and general defiance about his work, wasn’t about enriching himself, it was about trying to pave the way for the next generation with an overarching focus on African-American empowerment.