Why Prince's 'Baltimore' protest song is so important
“If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace” — the chant comes in about halfway through Prince’s song “Baltimore,” which he wrote and released as a response to the Baltimore protests surrounding Freddie Gray’s death in police custody and various forms of police brutality around the nation: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Rekia Boyd in Chicago, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and sadly, many, many more. The recent Baltimore protests, which were often blanket sensationalized as violent riots, are part of a long line of civil rights activism, and Prince’s “Baltimore” is part of an equally long line of artists responding to cultural traumas by interpreting and spreading messages of peace, love, and hope that justice will persevere.
Protest songs—from “We Shall Overcome” and “What’s Going On,” to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Blowing in the Wind”—have served as inspiration and backdrops for remixes, and several current artists (like John Legend and Common) have provided social justice commentary in their music. But it’s been some time since a new anthem has emerged—one that marks a current moment of protest, and provides a song for activists to call on in solidarity.
With “Baltimore,” Prince has given us just that. Though many actors and musicians have called for peace in Baltimore, Prince’s “Baltimore” speaks of a reality more relatable to the many activist protesters on the ground: “Does anybody hear us pray / for Michael Brown or Freddie Gray? / Peace is more than the absence of war.” It’s not a call to arms—in fact, Prince sings “Let’s take all the guns away”—but rather an acknowledgement that peace is the prize, even if it isn’t realistically in sight.
Like the protest songs that came before it, “Baltimore” seeks to push the issue forward knowing that forgiveness alone won’t change prevailing attitudes. Instead it aims to inspire and affirm those on the ground, with their “hands up,” that their work will pave the way for real change and justice.
“Baltimore” was released this past Saturday, and performed a day later at a “Rally 4 Peace” benefit in the city itself. The show was Prince’s first time back in the city after fourteen years, and he asked audience-goers to wear gray.
In a remark to the crowd, Prince said, “The system is broken. It’s going to take the young people to fix it this time. We need new ideas, new life.”
“Baltimore” joins a legacy of art produced from cultural trauma, but like all protest songs, the goal is eventually to retire their causes to memory. Until then, it will remain relevant and serve as an inspiration for change.