"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called Life." And Prince did help people get through this thing called life, and fought for social change so that others might live in a better world. The 57-year-old artist passed away on Thursday at Paisley Park, his Minnesota residence. But in both life and legacy, Prince was an activist who fought passionately for justice. His powerful music has addressed police brutality, the actions of Wall Street, the intersections of race and class, and the devastating nature of war.
Although he most recently commemorated Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore police custody, Prince's activism has spanned decades. In 1995, his song "Hello" pointed out that "We're against hungry children / Our record stands tall / There's just as much hunger here at home." 2010's "Ol' Skool Company" reiterated the ongoing economic struggle: "Everybody's talkin' about hard times / Like it just started yesterday / People eye know they've been strugglin' / At least it seems that way / Fat cats on Wall Street / They got a bailout / While somebody else got 2 wait." His song "Baltimore" honored Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, and "Ronnie Talk to Russia" was a form of protest against the Cold War back in 1981. These are, of course, just a few of the songs in which Prince called for social justice.
Other artists and activists have honored Prince for his revolutionary music. Back in 2011, Dr. Cornel West told theGrio that “collaborating with Prince was one of the great blessings and honors of [his] life”:
Prince’s undeniable genius constitutes a major moment in the history of American music in general, black music in particular. And his 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.
Many Twitter users mourned Prince, and celebrated the ways in which he used his talent as a songwriter to engage in activism.
But Prince's work as an activist went beyond his music. In 2011, Prince donated $1.5 million to local New York charities. He was an early supporter of the Elevate Hope Foundation, which uses music and the arts to support children who have experienced abuse. Back in the late '90s, Prince went on a short "Love 4 One Another" charity tour to create new opportunities and resources for kids around the country.
Prince has also directly challenged the music industry throughout his career. In the '90s, he frequently appeared in public with the word "slave" written on his cheek as he became entangled in a record contract conflict. Last year, he compared record contracts to "indentured servitude" because artists didn't get to retain ownership over the work they produced. For that reason, he released his album HITnRUN Phase Two exclusively on Jay-Z's streaming service, Tidal, saying at the time, "We have to show support for artists who are trying to own things for themselves."
His career has obviously not been without controversy, but time and again, Prince showed up for justice. He worked toward black liberation and a society with fewer wars. He encouraged people to think critically about who had access to what resources, and made it clear that the personal is indeed political. The world has lost an incredibly powerful and compassionate voice, but his legacy and his music will continue the battle for social change that Prince fought throughout his career.