Remembering Prince

Henry Louis Gates. Jr

The recent death of Prince has prompted an outpouring of grief as well as a period of reflection. Though it hurts to think of what we've lost, it has been heartwarming to hear all the wonderful stories of the man from his close friends, professional associates, and even people who barely knew him. Along with anecdotes of his intense work ethic, we are learning more and more about his extraordinary generosity—a part of his life he kept secret in keeping with his faith as a Jehovah's Witness. In a particularly memorable interview, his friend Van Jones, a political commentator on CNN, talked about Prince's many charitable donations and causes, including the Black Lives Matter movement. According to Jones, Prince gave so many anonymous gifts over his career that we may never know the full scope of his philanthropy. Moreover, he had a reputation for supporting and promoting women in his profession at a time when few had opportunities to perform in large venues or on television. I expect, in the coming months, that more of his mentees will step forward, and more recipients of his generosity will acknowledge his private contributions.

One of the central messages of our scholarship on AASC is that the African American experience is not monolithic; that, in fact, black people are as diverse in their politics and their art and their lifestyles as any other group. In many ways, Prince's unexpected, extraordinary life is a perfect example of this. Prince debuted at a time when punk and the early pioneers of hip hop were on the rise, and he developed a sound that transcended what has often been a very segregated music industry. His unique and revolutionary fashion sense pushed the boundaries of what people expected from rock stars. In addition to his artistic abilities, Prince made his mark in the business of entertainment by developing new ways of marketing and distributing his own work—outside of the corporate studio system. And, as we learned from Chappelle's Show, the brother had a killer jump shot to go along with his pancakes.

One thing in particular we'll miss will be his socially conscious lyrics, which arguably do not receive the appreciation they deserve. One song that comes to mind is his low-key "Money Don't Matter 2 Night," from his 1991 album Diamonds and Pearls. Spike Lee directed the video for the song: a gritty depiction of a working class family, shot in black and white. In it, a father stares into the camera and pleads with then-President George H. W. Bush:

Mr. President. Mr. President, I don't think you realize what's going on here. I can't feed my family. I got no job, Mr. President. I got laid off. My wife, she tried to help out a little bit, but guess what? She got laid off, too. Mr. President, what am I supposed to do? Where are the jobs? Economic recovery? Yeah, right. What happened? What happened?

Oddly, "Money Don't Matter" is one of the few Prince videos in which the artist himself does not appear. Instead, we watch a mother as she prepares a dinner of peanut-butter sandwiches for her four children. Images of homeless people appear alongside footage of casinos, banks, and corrupt politicians palling around with their corporate allies (including a certain businessman currently running for President). As the lyrics play out, we hear a searing indictment of American capitalism, where poor people are left behind, manipulated by a system that promises quick wealth that never materializes. At one point, Prince raises a particularly taboo subject:

Hey now, maybe we can find a good reason
2 send a child off 2 war. 
So what if we're controllin' all the oil,
Is it worth a child dying 4? (is it worth it?)

Remember this was during the euphoria surrounding the first Gulf War. Patriotic fervor was everywhere. That year, a triumphant President Bush delivered a State of the Union speech to multiple standing ovations, and Whitney Houston sang a heartfelt national anthem at the Super Bowl. In the midst of all that, Prince set aside his usual songs and decided to hold up a mirror to the problems that were ignored in all the excitement.

In this politically charged election year, we could use that kind of introspection. The way in which Prince's passing has brought people together, if only for a brief time, demonstrates how much has changed since he first appeared on the scene. His fan base is one of the most diverse in the world—not only by ethnicity, but by age as well. It's rare for middle-aged musician to be so loved by a younger generation, and yet Prince's appeal extended to people whose parents were children when he debuted. I like to think that this unifying force is a small but noticeable example of progress, another barrier between us falling down. Prince's music belongs to everyone, and so does the responsibility to overcome the issues that divide us.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
May 2016