Although he’s probably best known to most people for his songs about sex, love and… sex, the fact is that politics have always played a very important role in Prince‘s music and lyrics. In fact, the Purple One’s thoughts on race relations, social justice, economic inequality, military action, drug addiction and other issues provide at least an undercurrent to some of his best work — and more and more frequently as his career progressed, served as his primary subject matter.
If you’re a fan of his music, you already know his feelings on the internet and why you’ll rarely find a YouTube video featuring his tunes, which is why this list is without audio support. His views on the control over music distribution on the internet are strong and within reason. For Prince newbies, there are other ways to listen to his catalog without getting on his bad side — like actually buying the lauded singer’s albums. When you do, you’ll understand why these selections are the 10 Best Prince Political Songs.
As this slippery little number from 1980, off his third album demonstrates, Prince has always been very clear about which side he’s on in the “lover or a fighter” debate. Perhaps nervous about our government’s early ’80s conflict with Iran escalating to the point where a five foot, two inch, 100-pound man in bikini bottoms and a raincoat was going to be drafted into the army, our hero makes it clear he’s too busy dancing to answer the call: “You’re gonna have to fight your own damn war / Cause we don’t wanna fight no more.”
“Ronnie, Talk to Russia”
With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan pushed Cold War tensions between Russia and America to their highest levels since the Cuban missile crisis, Prince gets desperately political on this 1981 track. Over a frantic, punkish two-minute blast of keyboard pop, he sends an open letter to President Ronald Reagan, begging him to talk to his Russian counterpart, Leonid Brezhnev, “before they blow up the world.”
The second political Prince song from 1981’s Controversy is as vague and mysterious as “Ronnie” is direct. Clearly as shocked as the rest of us were by the murder of John Lennon, Prince delivers his own version of the Rolling Stones‘ “Sympathy for the Devil,” cryptically tying together the death of the former Beatle, the March 1981 attempt on Reagan’s life and the ABSCAM investigation, which caught dozens of politicians using their elected power for personal financial gain.
Faced with criticism over passing up the chance to participate in the star-studded “We Are the World” charity single, Prince gets personal and political on this 1985 B-side from the Around the World in a Day era. He starts by pointing out that he instead offered to record a brand-new song for the accompanying album (“4 the Tears in Your Eyes”), sends a few shots at the ever-hounding paparazzi and ends by reminding everybody of his own significant charitable acts: “We’re against hungry children / Our record stands tall / But there’s just as much hunger here at home.”
“Sign ‘O’ the Times”
Prince used this politically charged and musically spare song to kick off his 1987 double-album masterpiece of the same name. The unusually direct, down-to-earth lyrics deftly connect and contrast issues such as poverty, disease, drug addiction and inner-city violence — while his gritty guitar playing punctuates every line. “A sister killed her baby ’cause she couldn’t afford to feed it / And yet we’re sending people to the moon / In September, my cousin tried reefer for the very first time / Now he’s doing horse — it’s June.”
After running down a litany of political problems very similar to the prior year’s “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” Prince goes a step further by suggesting a broad societal solution: “It’s time for new education / The former rules don’t apply / We need a power structure that breeds production / Instead of jacks who vandalize.” Meanwhile, his typically awesome guitar playing rides atop a pulverizing bass line, hyperactive drums and what sounds like the organ from a baseball stadium.
“Money Don’t Matter 2 Night”
Temporarily putting aside his normal genre-blending ways, Prince gets his thoughts on the effects of poverty and greed across more clearly by keeping things simple and retro-soulful on this underrated gem. With a woozy, slightly distorted vocal reminiscent of There’s a Riot Goin’ On-era Sly Stone, he recounts the many defeats of a man trying to get ahead, and the effect his failure to do so has on his family. Along the way he also manages to get a good shot in on the military’s habit of meddling in petroleum-rich countries: “So what if we’re controlling all the oil / Is it worth a child dying for?”
Even in the middle of a nasty, extended war with his record label — more on that with the next song — Prince finds the time to fight to clear the world’s thoughts of “angry thoughts – the racist kind,” and offers a warning about the consequences of continued economic and legal inequities that seems especially prophetic in the wake of the recent protests and violent clashes in St. Louis and Baltimore: “We ain’t got no time for excuses / The promised land belongs to all / We can march in peace / But you best watch your back if another leader falls.”
Prince spent several years in the early ’90s locked in a bitter battle with his record label over issues including ownership of his master recordings and the speed at which he was allowed to release albums. Things got so bad that he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and appeared in public with the word “slave” written on his face. When he finally won this politically-charged music industry battle, he unleashed this highly atypical burst of dark-humored anger (on an otherwise extremely uplifting and staggeringly consistent TRIPLE-album) targeting those who wanted him to “go down as a washed-up singer” and instructed him to “keep your place.” He also explains exactly how his foes misjudged him: “Thinkin’ all along that he wanted 2 be rich / Never respected the root of all evil and he still don’t 2 this day / Bury him face down, let the motherf—ers kiss a ass, OK?”
Over one of his heaviest, most Jimi Hendrix-inspired guitar performances ever, Prince re-asserts his dedication to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, even as he vividly describes the shock of seeing his hero “lying in a bloody pool” on this 2009 track. Despite his defiant optimism, he’s forced to sadly marvel that racial inequality is still a fact of life in today’s world: “21st century / Oh what a shame that race still matters / A race to what and where are we going? / We’re in the same boat / But I’m the only one rowing.”