Sex, God, race, class: Prince told my story

Editor’s Note: Clay Cane is a New York City-based journalist, author and filmmaker. He is the creator of the original documentary, “Holler If You Hear Me: Black and Gay in the Church.” Follow him on Twitter @claycane. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Clay Cane: Prince's "Around the World in a Day" released 31 years ago Friday. It was profound

Cane: Prince explored themes of sex, God, race class; his tackling them made me feel less alone

CNN  — 

“Aristocrats on a mountain climb / Making money, losing time / Communism is just a word / But if the government turn over / It’ll be the only word that’s heard / America, America / God shed his grace on thee.”

Have you heard this Prince song? It’s titled “America” and is from the 1985 album “Around the World in a Day,” which was released exactly 31 years ago today. In the era of the crack epidemic, the alleged war on drugs, HIV/AIDS, and Reaganomics, which pushed the country’s national debt into the trillions, Prince made pointed critiques about American life.

Clay Cane

Beneath the guitars and godly vocal prowess, he was a musical activist, a Nina Simone with lace panties on his face. While he never marched in rallies, Prince’s music was his march. “Around the World in a Day,” his first album post “Purple Rain” is largely a forgotten piece of work (outside of the hit “Raspberry Beret”), but one of his most profound.

Prince tapped into my angst as a child living under the lie of trickle-down economics, which was an attack on the poor. Poverty is shaming, and when you have no agency to experience your rage, music is often your only outlet. This was especially true in the 1980s. Prince’s “America” resonated with every welfare check, block of government cheese and awful health care my mother and I received.

Even as a child, the song left me in a bit of a rage, especially with the cryptic ending, “Teacher, why won’t Jimmy pledge allegiance?” I had no allegiance.

Beyond that, Prince’s work was unpredictable. These were the days of complex albums with themes, not downloadable singles. The Purple One wouldn’t abandon you in anger, but remix you into accountability. The next track after “America” is “Pop Life,” where Prince turned the mirror on the listener, “What’s the matter with your life / Is the poverty bringing U down?/ Is the mailman jerking U ‘round? / Did he put your million dollar check / In someone else’s box?”

I was confused. Was he now blaming the disenfranchised for their circumstances, cosigning a pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps mentality? Not exactly, Prince challenged his listeners to take control. When I heard CNN commentator Van Jones say on air how his Royal Badness loved the youth of Black Lives Matter, wanting them to be an economic force, my mind flashed to “Pop Life.” It is not pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, but ownership over your right to exist, which is a perfect description of today’s movements: Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ equality and the rights of undocumented workers.

Prince’s legacy traveled beyond the music: He was a black artist who couldn’t even create work under his birth name because of a legal battle with his record label, Warner Bros. For decades, many black artists were robbed by record labels. However, Prince would not be owned, and eventually won his name and master recordings. He believed — he personified – the idea of holding onto one’s own identity in the face of policies that would co-opt it.

In many ways, politics has become pop life; Prince saw that in his musical crystal ball. Pop is king. This is often not good – and may explain the success of our current Republican front-runner.

“Around the World in a Day” also tackled taboos. In songs like “Temptation,” where a conflicted Prince conjoined God and sex, like only he could do, the manic cries were an encouragement into an exploration of sexuality that wasn’t void of grace or faith. Sex and God were not mutually exclusive.

The theme of “Temptation” reminded me of 1981’s “Controversy,” where he sang, “Am I straight or gay? / Controversy / Do I believe in God, do I believe in me?” The passion of “Temptation” and “Controversy” were my stories and Prince made me feel not so alone.

For hours, I would stare at the cover of the “Around the World in a Day” album, mesmerized by the image of a woman who had a condition of the heart, the young boy flying on a balloon and the man in all black clenching his tambourine.

I imagined that was exactly what Paisley Park would be, a space of interconnecting stories. But the image that I could never forget was the ladder in the center of the album cover, which referred to my favorite song on “Around the World in a Day.” In “The Ladder” Prince sang, “Everybody’s looking 4 the ladder / Everybody’s looking 4 the answers / How the story started and how it will end / What’s the use in half a story, half a dream / U have 2 climb all of the steps in between.”

In my lowest of moments, the gospel-type song would free me. Whether it was sex, God, race, or class, Prince brilliantly manifested my own story on the nine songs in “Around the World in a Day.” Prince gave me agency to exist in the deepest sense of myself – at any cost.

Maybe that’s how it was for you, too.

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