Songs We Love: Prince, 'Baltimore'



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Prince, seen here speaking during the Grammys, will perform May 9 in Baltimore. (Getty Images)
Prince, seen here speaking during the Grammys, will perform May 9 in Baltimore. (Getty Images)

In a sly way, Prince has always been a political artist. Like Marcel Duchamp upending the art world with his readymades, he stormed the pop scene courting controversy, but always with a wink. Like Bob Dylan throwing down signs in the video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues," he sent out messages – some of them explicit, as in his anti-nuclear plea "Ronnie Talk To Russia" and the more recent call to the streets, "MARZ" – but scrambled them in ways that made them both poetic and prophetic. Like Jimi Hendrix, he's made bold statements within a veil of feedback and funk. Most of all, like his role model George Clinton, he's created a utopian space where partying allows for transcendence that eliminates all –isms and makes us the best people we can be.

Now, with "Baltimore," Prince is trying on a different protest singer's hat — he's playing funky Pete Seeger, leading chants and rousing hearts to inspire activism in a specific place and time. This song personalizes its call for armistice with names we've all come to know, names that press upon our hearts. "Does anybody hear us pray for Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?" Prince sings before offering a philosophical zinger: "Peace is more than the absence of a war." The chant that anchors "Baltimore" is contemporary, too — not "We Shall Overcome," but "No Justice, No Peace," which arose in response to hate crimes in the 1980s and resonates in Ferguson, Staten Island and Sandtown today. And the song ends with what sounds like a newscaster's fearful mention of a "developing situation in Los Angeles," placing this call for love, reconciliation and respect within a timeline that starts with the L.A. Riots and which lasts another painful day every time a citizen is felled by police.

It's confrontational stuff. But this is Prince, so "Baltimore" is truly a Sly protest – that is, in the style of Sly and the Family Stone, specifically the band's early, joyful, genre-obliterating anthems like "Everyday People." Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL very clearly present music as a path toward the peace for which they long, as well as a means of protest in itself. Prince's guitar solos here blend quick, hopeful licks with poignant, grounding blue notes; near the end, a rock and roll bassline mingles with gospel-choir vocals, turning the song's California sunniness into something more incendiary. At its peak, "Baltimore" presents itself as a new "Dancing in the Streets" — a song that offers a brand new beat in the name of real change.

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PRINCE: Baltimore .


That was Prince last night at Baltimore's Royal Farms Arena.


PRINCE: To all the families who lost loved ones, we are here for you tonight.

CORNISH: The Rally 4 Peace was a benefit concert staged in honor of Freddie Gray and others. The audience was asked to wear gray. Proceeds went to Baltimore youth charities.


PRINCE: Y'all ready? One, two, three.


Prince performed for two-and-a-half hours and premiered a new song called "Baltimore."


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Baltimore.

CORNISH: NPR's Ann Powers says the singer-songwriter has always been, in a sly way, a political artist.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Throughout his career, Prince has layered in political messages - messages in songs like "We March" and "Controversy," but they aren't usually attached to a specific event. That's the difference with "Baltimore." It's really motivated by the death of Freddie Gray and the ensuing protests and, in fact, was basically written for the concert he staged in Baltimore this past weekend.


PRINCE: (Singing) Does anybody hear us pray for Michael Brown or Freddie Gray? Peace is more than the absence of war.

POWERS: The lyrics for "Baltimore" are notable because Prince does mention Freddie Gray and Michael Brown by name. That's not always the way Prince operates, you know, topically off the news. But at the same time, they dream of a utopia, which is really what Prince is all about.


PRINCE: (Singing) Absence of war, you and me. Maybe we can finally say enough is enough. It's time for love. It's time to hear. It's time to hear the guitar play.

POWERS: There's actually a very long lineage of using - you could call them party sounds for political messages, especially in African-American music. You can take it all the way back to spirituals or gospel music, which lifts people up so they can be stronger to protest, to take to the streets. Prince follows in the lineage of artists like George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic or Sly and the Family Stone. This song, "Baltimore," really reminds me of Sly and the Family Stone in that you can dance to it, it's enjoyable, but it also sends this very strong message. Even Jimi Hendrix is someone who had strong political messages in his music, even if they were sometimes masked within other kinds of language. So I think Prince is really getting in touch with his connection to those other great African-American artists by creating this song, "Baltimore."


CORNISH: That's Ann Powers, critic and correspondent for NPR Music, talking about Prince's new protest song, "Baltimore." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.