Since the announcement in April that Prince’s estate was planning its release of the previously unheard “Welcome 2 America” album, there has been a lot made in the press of the album’s political underpinnings and overtures toward racial and social justice.
At retail outlets and on streaming platforms starting July 30, “Welcome 2 America” includes provocative titles such as “Born 2 Die,” “One Day We Will All B Free,” and “Running Game (Son of A Slave Master),” accompanied by a multitude of discerning and—as many have suggested—hauntingly prescient observations.
When speaking about the record around the time of its recording (2010), Prince famously even made reference to Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984.”
Singer Shelby Johnson, one of several contributors to “Welcome 2 America,” recently told London-based Uncut that she thinks Prince “knew this album needed to wait. He knew we’d need it later.”
Likewise, in an interview with Rolling Stone, keyboardist and longtime Prince confidant, Morris Hayes, notes that the album “further solidifies” Prince’s status as “a vanguard artist always looking forward,” adding that in the wake of George Floyd’s death and America’s racial reckoning, this record could have just as fitting been made “right now” were Prince still here.
Perhaps, as is the case with most Prince projects that heretofore have never seen the light of day, we’ll never truly know why “Welcome 2 America” was shelved a little more than 10 years ago. Nevertheless, the sentiment expressed by both Johnson and Hayes is spot on.
Moreover, in addition, to properly positioning their former boss as both “in the moment” and “ahead of his time,” their musings also reaffirm something many in the media seem to have either disregarded, misunderstood, or somehow just missed: Prince was always political, even radically so.
A decade or so after Prince’s debut release “For You” and his eponymous sophomore effort, renowned author and cultural critic Nelson George said he initially considered Prince to be sort of “Stevie Wonderesque,” if you will. Or, in other words, he was in the mold of “Black music’s reigning musical genius at the time.”
Not for political reasons per se, as Wonder was long-established as one of the most socially conscious artists around, but in that Prince produced the records himself, wrote all his material, played all the instruments, sang all vocal parts, and so on.
To be sure, with guitar-driven tracks like “I’m Yours” and “Bambi,” Prince was already hinting that he wouldn’t allow himself to be consigned to the segregated status of what the music industry prescribed a Black artist to be.
Then, with 1980’s “Dirty Mind,” Prince blew all convention out of the water, so to speak. Not only did he shock the senses of those who dared to listen, tackling any number of societal taboos along the way, he blended funk, punk, rock, and new wave, not only embracing seemingly disparate musical forms but also the renegade ethos in each of these genres.
“Dirty Mind” is also when Prince starts to get political, as evidenced in the anti-war anthem “Party Up” and the declaration and utopian vision he sets forth in the album’s lead single, “Uptown.” And, with his next record, Prince further expounds on race, class, gender, sexuality, and theology, while addressing real-time topics the likes of which included the nation’s gun culture, government corruption, cold war politics, nuclear annihilation, and the Atlanta child murders.
Then came the “Controversy” album. Its second cut, “Sexuality,” yields yet another manifesto, with a stylistic nod to Marx and Engels, where Prince calls for the “Reproduction of a new breed—leaders, stand up, organize,” while inserting a bit of parental advice and the following commentary on America:
Don’t let your children watch television until they know how to read. Or else all they’ll know how to do is cuss, fight, and breed. No child is bad from the beginning, they only imitate their atmosphere.
If they’re in the company of tourists, alcohol, and U.S. history, what’s to be expected is three minus three. Absolutely nothing.
Although Prince continued to explore similar themes a year later in the breakthrough double album “1999,” it’s not as if he introduced politics into music. To be fair, Prince inherited the tradition crafted by the legends that preceded him: from Billie Holiday to Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone to Sam Cooke, Mahalia Jackson to Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield to Bob Marley, James Brown to Jimi Hendrix, Fela Kuti to Funkadelic, and Sly and the Family Stone to the Staples Singers, among a myriad of others.
After all, one could easily make the case that Black protest music in America is every bit as old as America itself.
But Prince still deserves a great deal of credit as, for the better part of a decade, he was the bridge between the protest music he’d grown up with and the politically conscious rap of Public Enemy, KRS-One, and Michael Franti, the musical activism of Black rock-and-rollers like Living Colour, Fishbone, and Lenny Kravitz, and of course, singer-songwriters such as Tracy Chapman and Ben Harper.
Along with 1987’s masterstroke of social commentary, “Sign O’ The Times,” which addressed mounting global destruction and the epidemics of AIDS, drugs, and gangs, the rest of Prince’s ’80s output touched on subjects from apartheid to poverty, militarism to materialism, and death to despair. The song “Crystal Ball” warns of hate advancing “on the right,” while 1989’s “The Future” contemplates the ploys of the ruling class as “Hollywood conjures images of the past.”
It was more of the same in the ’90s as Prince ushered in the decade with the politically charged “New Power Generation,” while tunes like “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” “The Sacrifice of Victor,” “Race,” “We March,” “Right the Wrong,” and “The Same December” would follow. Prince would also share explicitly political compositions with artists that included Mavis Staples (“You Will Be Moved”) and Tevin Campbell (“Uncle Sam”).
Essentially, it could be argued that the radical musical atmosphere Prince-inspired in the ’80s helped to lead the way for bands like Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, and hip hop radicals The Coup, not to mention the emerging alternative scene in Seattle where both Layne Staley of Alice in Chains and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell counted Prince among their biggest influences.
And, without question, Prince continued down the same path in the 21st century. For instance, there were the tracks, “2045: Radical Man,” “United States of Division,” “Cinnamon Girl,” “Dr. Mr. Man,” and “Act of God” among literally dozens more.
In fact, save for “Purple Rain,” you cannot find a Prince album dating back to 1980 that doesn’t contain at least one overtly political message, with the issues of race and class often at the forefront. Prior to recording “Welcome 2 America,” Prince’s 2009 “Dreamer” declares:
I was born, raised on a slave plantation
In the United States, of the red, white, and blue
Never knew that I was different
‘Til Dr. King was on a balcony
Lyin’ in a bloody pool
The same song later summons Du Bois’ prophetic notion of the “color line” set forth in “The Souls of Black Folk,” as Prince bemoans America’s shame that more than a century later, “race still matters.” And, that same year, “Old Skool Company,” from the “MPLSound” album quips:
Everybody’s talkin’ about hard times
Like they just started yesterday
People I 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
$700 billion but my old neighborhood
Ain’t nothing changed but the date
In the spring of 2015, just a year or so before his own passing, Prince made a very public statement on the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, with the release of “Baltimore,” a song that also coincided with his Rally 4 Peace benefit show at the city’s Royal Farms Arena.
At the time, as is the case today with “Welcome 2 America,” some music journalists pointed to this as if it was something new, an anomaly even. But again, this was anything but new—Prince has always taken into account the world around him in his music.
For a good part of the 2000s, fans and critics alike deliberated as to whether Prince’s changing views on faith may have undermined some of his previously progressive leanings, and if these views still held sway over him in his final years. Whatever side one might fall in that debate, one thing remains clear, Prince was remarkably consistent when it came to such things as race, class, and gender equity, in spite of the accusations leveled against him from some circles.
Prince’s philanthropic efforts, most of which remained anonymous during his lifetime, are still being advanced today by the work of many former employees through the PRN Alumni Foundation. Prince’s support for the arts, animal rights, the environment, and educational institutions such as the West Side Preparatory School in Chicago, the Harlem Children’s Zone, and the Harvest Network of Schools in the same North Side neighborhood he came of age in, has indeed, become legend.
Furthermore, Prince, perhaps more than any male figure in the history of popular music, championed the empowerment and equality of women in the industry, be it in the studio, on stage, or management positions inside the purple universe. And finally, although intensely ridiculed at the time, Prince challenged the racist and parasitic practices of the music industry, becoming a mentor and a model to his peers as well as to up-and-coming musicians seeking control of both their destiny and their artistry.
So, as we celebrate and sift through the wisdom and the warnings Prince shares in “Welcome 2 America,” let us neither underestimate nor overlook the four-decade legacy he’s already left us. No… Prince wasn’t perfect… but he was a revolutionary.
Tony Kiene’s experience in the Twin Cities nonprofit and entertainment industries includes work with Minneapolis Urban League, Penumbra Theatre, Hallie Q. Brown, and Pepé Music.
He welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.