Freddie Gray, the twenty-five-year-old black man whose death at the hands of Baltimore police touched off last spring’s urban rebellions, was arrested and beaten simply for making eye contact and running. It was a case not so much of “wrong place, wrong time” as “wrong person, wrong world.” So many neighborhoods like Gray’s resemble the creeping dystopia of Delany’s Bellona or Prince’s Minneapolis. Even more strongly than they did thirty years ago. Their residents are treated as if their skin color makes them unworthy to move and relate to the world as they please.
At the heart of uprisings like Baltimore aren’t just the indignities committed against those like Gray but the idea that people’s environments should belong to them, and that they deserve better than blight and brutality from the state.
Reenter the Purple One. In the days since his death it has come out that he secretly gave large sums of money to the family of Trayvon Martin after he was murdered by George Zimmerman. At the Grammys two months prior to Gray’s death, he had dropped a subtle hint: “Like books and black lives, albums still matter.” A radical Prince may never have been, but he was still a black man in America.
He also, by the time of Baltimore, had come to be regarded as a progenitor of Afrofuturism in music: Sun Ra, P-Funk, Alice Coltrane, Prince. The role his songs played in reimagining the black experience had already inspired the standard-bearer of Afrofuturism, Janelle Monae, to have him guest on her landmark album The Electric Lady.
When he released “Baltimore” — a song dedicated to Gray, Michael Brown, and the protesters — it was something of a convergence. Black rebellion had infused the soul and funk of two generations before. Prince was now reviving these sounds by once again paring them down. The song uses minimal instrumentation, and listeners find themselves weaving through subtle cracks of empty space, asking where they might fit. A crying guitar line, clockwork drums, and nouveau-gospel backup vocals subtly help them find their place.
The song dropped alongside an announcement that Prince would hold a “Rally 4 Peace” concert on May 10, 2015. The concert, powerful as it may have been for those in attendance, also bore the mark of another celebrity benefit, easily integrated back into mealy-mouthed notions of “tolerance” and “can’t we all get along?” Even the notion of a concert for “peace” while young people were doing battle with police in the city itself rang of equating the violence of oppressor and oppressed.
Prince himself was far less equivocal. “The system is broken,” he said in a press release. The lyrics in “Baltimore” strike a less confrontational tone, but one that leaves very little question of sides:
Nobody got in nobody’s way
So I guess you could say it was a good day
Least a little better than the day in Baltimore
Does anybody hear us pray
For Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?
Peace is more than the absence of war
The spiritual and religious overtones are unmistakable here. So is the invitation to not just imagine something different, but to place yourself within that imagined world. It’s not the most remarkable of Prince’s songs, but it certainly holds enough in common with his signature methodology that it deserves to be remembered. It’s not something that can be reduced to funk or rock or R&B or neo-soul or any of its components. It’s various straws spun into something simply golden, ultimately human beyond restrictions.
Genres, like all boundaries, are fictions. They deserve to be erased.