When Prince Tackled a Broken System With ‘Baltimore’
Prince's legendary ability to take an idea and quickly turn it around into a complete song served him well in the case of "Baltimore," which arrived on May 9, 2015 and centered on the story of Freddie Gray, a 25-year old African American who died in the custody of Baltimore police less than a month prior.
Gray had been arrested on April 12 for possession of a switchblade, but fell into a coma while being transported and died seven days later as a result of injuries to his spinal cord and neck. Questions were raised as to whether the police had used unnecessary force during the arrest, and protests began in the city the day before his death. After a week of peaceful demonstrations, violence broke out and escalated into several days of rioting.
On April 29, as the city began its recovery, Prince, according to PrinceVault, recorded a version of "Baltimore" with his then-backing band 3rdEyeGirl. A day later, he cut another version in which he played all the instruments, and flew in Eryn Allen Kane from Chicago for extra vocals. Prince released it to Soundcloud on May 9, with the official single coming out on May 26.
“It meant the world to me to be a part of a song like “Baltimore,” Kane told Vibe for their oral history of the HitnRUN Phase Two album. “I think as artists it’s our duty to capture this time. Our music should be little time capsules of what’s going on around us. I think Prince asking me to do such a song on a very serious topic, just to stand up for something…I was thrilled.”
Later in the interview Kane reveals more about the session: “I’m asking him, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And Prince just says, ‘Do whatever you do…whatever it is you feel.’ So I went into the studio and I recorded my part and after doing so we had a couple of notes to add, but he kept everything that I did. I couldn’t believe it.”
Dylan Dresdow, a Grammy winner for his work with the Black Eyed Peas, mixed the song. The studio version contains string and horn arrangements from Michael Nelson of Prince’s legendary Hornheads that channel Prince’s classic work with the late Clare Fischer. In the same Vibe interview, Nelson discusses the Fischer connection. “'Baltimore' is in a completely different category than the other songs we worked on for Phase Two. In 2012, Prince’s longtime string arranger Clare Fischer passed away. Sometime that year, Prince contacted me about producing strings for some songs. I brought on Adi Yeshaya and Stringenius to work on the fuller orchestral arrangements. Prince’s specific instruction was to have the strings play the guitar solo, which was a really great idea. ‘Baltimore’ was the testing ground for the orchestration work Prince wanted to do. He kept throwing harder and harder tracks at us just to see how far we could go with it."
Watch a Video for Prince's 'Baltimore'
The fresh wounds are captured in the pain and gospel of "Baltimore," which directly references the deaths of Gray and Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Mo., a year prior and draws the conclusion that "peace is more than the absence of war." Its defining chant, “If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace” is inexplicably missing from the lyric booklet for HitnRun Phase Two. In a sermon that Prince delivered during "Purple Rain" at the Rally 4 Peace in Baltimore on May 10, 2015, he switched out the word “peace” for “piece”, noting that the solution for equality lies in black citizens getting a larger piece of the economic pie:
"The system is broken," he said. "It's gonna take the young people to fix it this time. We need new ideas. We need new life. Most of all, we need new peace. The kind of peace I'm talkin' about is P-I-E-C-E. Next time I come through Baltimore, I wanna stay in a hotel owned by one of you. I wanna leave the airport in a car service created and owned by one of you.”
"Baltimore" was the last in a long line of political statements Prince would commit to tape, barring anything that remains in his vault. The newspaper headline, “President Signs Gun Control Act” is over Prince’s shoulder on the Controversy album cover. Inside, Prince sings “Ronnie talk to Russia before it’s too late, before they blow up the world.”
"America" from Around the World in a Day, was a much more scathing indictment of the country under President Ronald Reagan. “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.” The division of wealth and power that led to Freddie Gray was most notable in the second verse: “Little sister making minimum wage / Living in a 1-room jungle-monkey cage.” “America / Keep the children free” was the plea then, as it was on 1999 when Prince sang, “Will we all fight, for the right, to be free?” The verse in "Free" is more chilling than ever in 2017: "The soldiers are a-marching, they’re writing brand new laws / Will be all fight together for the most important cause?"
Gray's death was ruled a homicide by the Baltimore medical examiner. Six officers involved in the case were charged either with manslaughter or false imprisonment. By July 2016, three officers had been found not guilty, two had the charges against them dropped and the other had his trial declared a mistrial.