|Prince accepted a standing ovation as he strolled out carrying a cane and rocking an Afro to present the 2015 Grammy for album of the year. Then he stole the show with a line that reminded everyone he was more than just a pop superstar; he was a black activist. “Albums still matter”, he said. “Like books and black lives, albums still matter. Tonight and always”.|
In the wake of his death Thursday at 57, radio stations played his biggest hits and fans came together to grieve. But beyond the chart-toppers and dance parties, the legacy of Prince Rogers Nelson grew to include political stances, challenges to record execs and an overarching focus on African-American empowerment.
At the Grammys in Los Angeles, Prince was referring to the Black Lives Matter Movement that was galvanized by the 2014 police killing of an unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
But Prince didn’t stop there. After protests rocked Baltimore over the death of a black man who suffered a spinal injury while riding in a police van, Prince stepped in and performed a tribute song named for the city that included the line, “Does anybody hear us pray for Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?”
“This song shined a new light”, said Pastor Charles Ewing, Brown’s uncle. “A lot of his music had messages”.
It wasn’t the first time Prince connected his music to the fight for racial justice. He told The Associated Press in 2004 that he had chastised music industry bosses over rap and R&B that promoted sex, drugs and violence. “What you won’t show your kids, don’t show ours”, he said at the time.
About a decade earlier, he publicly feuded with record label Warner Bros and appeared with the word “slave” scrawled on his cheek.
Music journalist Kelley L. Carter said she thinks Prince saw racial inequality in that dispute and others, including his beef with music streaming services over artist pay that has left fans scrambling to find their favorite Prince songs. She said his defiance wasn’t about enriching himself, but about “trying to pave the way for the next generation.”
Carter, senior entertainment writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated, a website about race, sports and culture, wrote recently about meeting Prince last year at his Paisley Park compound in suburban Minneapolis, where he threw a party for black journalists in town for a convention.
She said the conversation turned to the reported $400 million deal that brought the Beatles catalog to iTunes. Prince said he hadn’t been offered nearly as much, and when someone asked whether he thought he was being lowballed because he was black, Carter wrote, “He shot us all a ‘what-do-you-think?’ kind of look.”
Apple Inc didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Prince signed on instead with Tidal, the music streaming service backed by Jay Z, telling Rolling Stone last year: “Once we have our own resources, we can provide what we need for ourselves. Jay Z spent $100 million of his own money to build his own service. We have to show support for artists who are trying to own things for themselves”.
On his own, Prince was a revolutionary recording artist and one-man band.
But the nearly-40 year career that ended with his death Thursday was hardly a private party. The other half of his musical legacy were his many collaborations and contributions, whether joining Stevie Wonder on stage in Paris for a spontaneous jam of “Superstition” or writing such future hits as “I Feel for You” and “Manic Monday” and giving them to other artists.
In an industry where collaborations with other artists and credits are negotiated as heavily as world treaties, Prince followed only one credo when it came to working with others: the love of the music.
“Oh yes, he loved helping other people”, said his friend and former fiancee Sheila E., “and helping people by saying, ‘Hey, here’s a song you might want to do or like, I think this fits you, or you know come into the studio and see if we can work together’”.
In recent years, he boosted singer-songwriters such as Judith Hill, Lianne La Havas, Esperanza Spalding and Liv Warfield, and recorded singers like Rita Ora. Kendrick Lamar was among the many who traveled to Paisley Park for his famous late-night jams.
Among the countless tributes to Prince over the past few days were stories of his generosity and inspiration. On her Facebook page, Erykah Badu shared a litany of memories “That time Prince was your rhythm guitarist then sent you the picture. The time Prince was so gracious to come to your club in the hood of South Dallas and play for 4 hours into the night …The time you recorded ‘Today — the earth song’ at Paisley Park. All the times y’all shot pool and argued over religion”.
Ken Ehrlich, the veteran producer of the Grammy Awards, told The Associated Press about luring Prince to the 2004 ceremony, where he would memorably team up with Beyonce on “Purple Rain” and “Baby, I’m a Star”.
“I had asked him on several occasions before. I had never had much success,” Ehrlich said. But as soon as he heard he would perform with Beyonce, Prince replied, “I’ll do it”, the producer said.
Prince called him and asked that they meet at a rehearsal hall in Los Angeles.
The crowd at Atlanta’s Fox Theater was on its feet screaming. Prince had already taken an encore, but he’d only played for just over an hour and he hadn’t even played “Purple Rain”.
This show could not be over.
He walked back onstage toward his purple grand piano and began singing:
“I, I will be king”.
“And you, you will be queen”.
This wasn’t a Prince song, this was “Heroes”. It was a low-key memorial from one icon who changed music with inventiveness and daring sexuality to another — David Bowie, who died in January.
After one more encore, about 80 minutes of total music, Prince left the stage to prepare for his second show.
This would be the last night he ever performed.
There aren’t many musicians who could pull together a night of music the way Prince did this one — both spontaneous and meticulously planned. He announced his shows just eight days before he was to play. Tickets went on sale the next day, with the cheapest costing well over $100, with fees. To prevent scalping, fans could only buy two and had to pick them up in person at the theater on the day of the show.
Still, the two shows in the 4,600 seat theater sold out almost instantly.
The day he was to play, an email went out; Prince had the flu, he had to postpone. He eventually rescheduled for a week later, April 14.
An announcement in the theater explained that “The Artist” insisted no photos or video be taken, and black tie-clad enforcers were scattered throughout the theater.
The show, just Prince and a piano, was intimate and playful, with candelabras on the sides of the stage and a massive screen of ever changing kaleidoscopic projections at the back.
His second show turned out to have a different set list, one that included “Purple Rain”.
But when Prince walked off the stage of that early show after three encores, the crowd screamed for more. Even when the house lights came on, they continued to chant “Purple Rain”, over and over in hopes he might have a fourth encore in him.
He never returned. (AP)
By Greg Moore