Farewell to one of the Most Revolutionary Talents of our Time
Last Thursday, television viewers received a respite from the unrelenting presidential campaign coverage with that grim news of the death of the seven-time Grammy winner Prince.
And I think it is safe to say that even the monotonous programming paused so the world could focus on the loss of this singer, songwriter, arranger and instrumentalist at the age of 57. Like most of you, I learned of his passing around the same time TMZ broke the news shortly after 10 a.m. but as night fell across my neighborhood, shock and grief gave way to a celebration of his life.
In the news business, we determine the depth of coverage an event will receive based on the impact or influence. Now, this was not just the death of any popular or famous musician. This was a legend who transcended genres as he brought the MTV generation into new realms of creativity.
For me, not since the death of Marvin Gaye on April 1, 1984 that the passing of another entertainer had such profound impact on me. Yes, Michael Jackson’s death was shocking and even Whitney Houston’s demise was sad but this one hit home in so many ways.
Most people think of Prince as a musician. I however, had a chance to learn a little about his heart and passion for helping children of color the last two summers when I was part of a group that took two busloads of students to the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans.
He was instrumental in launching YesWeCode, an initiative to attract 100,000 low-income youth to the tech industry and write code.
Prince agreed to headline the Essence Festival if organizers would promote the initiative. More than 100 youth from around the country participated in a hackathon during the days and since then, hackathons have been held all over the country. In a hackathon youth form teams with their peers, professional coders (computer programmers), designers (artists), and innovators (problem solvers and content experts) to build apps by rapidly prototype an idea —whose time has come.
I was privy to some of the conversations surrounding the negotiations and I recall hearing how he was protective of the youth, and strongly opposed them attending his concert at nights.
Hence more than 60 students from our area participated in Essence’s first and second hackathon, organized by Qeyno Labs, an Oakland,Calif., group which puts on coding competitions for youth from underrepresented groups.
My respect for him soared after that experience.
Prince was not just any other singer who had a large following. This brother was a philosopher. He was a businessman who dared to challenge the forces and his business acumen sets him apart from the rest.
My friend and local radio personality “James T” Thomas devoted much of his show to the legacy and memories of Prince who he says epitomized what it means to do things your way.
This ahead-of-his-time musical innovator was fiercely protective of his independence. He challenged his record company, Warner Bros., over control of his material and even his name. In fact, when the record label attempted to control his music, he protested by writing “Slave” on his face. He wanted to bring attention to the state of the industry. He left Warner Bros. and returned a few years ago. With first-hand knowledge, Prince spent the later part of his life educating young artists about the oppression that comes with signing their names on a contract.
“With that mindset, this brother took on the music industry and said that we should be our own masters and not be owned by those companies who believe they are the masters,” Thomas told me. “The record companies wanted to own our creation and they wanted to sell it and give you pennies on the dollar. That’s the way the system was set up. But Prince went against the grain. He went outside the box.”
I remember in 1993 when Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and became widely known as the artist formerly known as Prince. Many thought he was weird and could not see the bigger picture. But those who understand the struggle got his message.
“What we have not been able to master is the art of negotiation and recognizing our value in the work that we do,” Thomas, of WHQT Hot 105, said. “We let other people tell us what they will pay us rather than them recognizing our worth. And Prince was a person who was his own man and he knew the value of what he created and he was not going to allow the record labels to pimp him.”
- Ron Allen can be reached at crallen@DelrayBeachTribune or 561-665-0151.