Prince, the activist: The times he blasted Wall Street, Freddie Gray's death, "enslavement" to Warner Bros. and the corrupt status quo

Prince wasn't known for political activism, but when he did his message came across in a way only he could deliver

Published April 21, 2016 7:50PM (EDT)

Prince   (AP/Rtnroth)
Prince (AP/Rtnroth)

Legendary musician Prince Rogers Nelson died at his home on Thursday at age 57.

Known simply as Prince, the singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter established himself as one of the most successful pop stars in U.S. history, releasing dozens of albums worth of material in a wide variety of styles and genres.

While Prince was renowned for challenging gender norms, he was not particularly well-known for dabbling in politics. Every once in a while, however, he did speak out. Here are some of his most political, and historic, moments.


At the 2015 Grammys, Prince subtly expressed public support for the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement. While defending the importance of albums, he stressed, "Albums, like books and black lives, still matter."

An uprising broke out in Baltimore, Maryland in April 2015, in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died in police custody after he was arrested for “running while black.”

Gray's spinal cord was severed 80 percent at the neck, an injury some have argued was caused by a police “rough ride” — when officers deliberately swerve and rapidly accelerate and decelerate their car in order to disturb detainees in the back seat.

Prince wrote the song "Baltimore" to honor the memory of Gray and other unarmed black Americans killed by police.

The music video released for the track closed with a quote from Prince: "The system is broken. It's going to take the young people to fix it this time. We need new ideas, new life..."

"Ol' Skool Company"

In March 2009, during the throes of the Great Recession, Prince premiered the song "Ol' Skool Company" on NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

"The fat cats on Wall Street, they got a bailout. Think it was AIG," Prince sang in the single, referring to the insurance company American International Group Inc., which was bailed out by the government amid an enormous scandal, with a hefty price tag of $182 billion tax dollars.

"Everybody's talking about hard times, like it just started yesterday," he says in the studio recording of the song.

"People I know they have been struggling, at least it seems that way. Fat cats on Wall Street, they got a bailout, while somebody else got to wait."

"$700 billion but my old neighborhood, ain't nothing changed but the date."

In the past year, with the meteoric rise of self-declared democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, who has harshly criticized Wall Street and its role in the 2008 to 2009 economic crisis, these kinds of comments may not seem surprising. But Prince's remarks predated even the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement.

"Ronnie Talk to Russia" and "Hello"

This was by no means the only time Prince addressed politics with his music.

In a piece for theGrio on Prince's political activism, writer Monique W. Morris detailed the outspoken political statements Prince made in his songs.

In “Ronnie Talk to Russia,” a song on the aptly titled 1981 album "Controversy," Prince repeatedly sings "Ronnie, talk to Russia before it’s too late," imploring the U.S. president to resort to diplomacy with the U.S.S.R., not indirect Cold War-style proxy warfare.

“We’re against hungry children, our record stands tall, but there’s just as much hunger here at home,” Prince also says in the 1985 track "Hello," Morris noted in her research.

"Dear Mr. Man"

Perhaps the most overtly political of Prince's songs, however, is the track "Dear Mr. Man." The song, on his 2004 album "Musicology," features prominent political activist and philosopher Cornel West.

West introduces the track praising Prince and declaring, "Raise your Socratic questions to the system! Bear witness to justice against the system!"

"What's wrong with the world today? Things just got to get better," Prince sings.

"Dear Mr. Man, we don't understand. Why poor people keep struggling, but you don't lend a helping hand?"

Prince quotes the Bible verse Matthew 5:5, which says "The meek shall inherit the Earth."

He sings, "Who said that to kill is a sin, then started every single war that your people been in? Who said that water is a precious commodity, then dropped a big, old, black oil slick in the deep blue sea?

Cornel West is also featured in an interlude speaking eloquently about systemic injustice. "Mercy, mercy me, we've got a crisis in our ecology, a system of legalized bribery, normalized corruption, leadership of bona fide mediocrity and certified mendacity."

Prince continues singing, "Might not be in the back of the bus, but it sure feel just the same."

"Mr. Man, we want to end this letter with three words: We tired of y'all," the song concludes.

In the final seconds, West can be heard declaring, "We're tired of your spying on fellow citizens! We're tired of your lying to justify war! We're tired of your torturing innocent people!"

Name change and "SLAVE"

Throughout his life, Prince also snubbed his nose at economic elites in other ways.

Prince got into a dispute with Warner Bros. in 1993 over who would control his music. In protest, he performed publicly with the word "SLAVE" written on his cheek and changed his name.

From 1993 to 2000, the musician identified himself only with a symbol that could not be pronounced (many referred to him during this time as "the artist formerly known as Prince"). He called it the Love Symbol.

In a news release during the scandal, Prince explained:

"The first step I have taken towards the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to [the Love Symbol]. Prince is the name that my Mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros."

He was also a longtime vegan, and expressed a profound message about women's empowerment in his movie "Purple Rain."

Prince's politics were not always consistent, nevertheless. He became a Jehovah's Witness later in life and adopted more conservative views. Citing his faith, Prince said he opposed liberal social issues, like same-sex marriage and abortion. Although he criticized both major parties, Prince even supported Republican politicians at some points.

Yet the subversive political messages left in his music will live on.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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Black Lives Matter Cornel West Freddie Gray Prince Wall Street