Ever since Prince and Muhammad Ali transitioned from the earthly realm within weeks of each other, the sentiment has been that because they were popular with people of all races, creeds, backgrounds and faiths, that they transcended race.
Some posters on Prince.org, a site devoted to all things Prince, seemed offended to be reminded that the musician was a Black man or that he financially supported specifically Black causes like Black Lives Matter.
Through the power of YouTube, the beneficent, silent Muhammad Ali of recent years has again been given a voice. The young, fiery version of Ali that refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army on the basis of his newfound Muslim religion is there in all of his fierce Blackness In one clip, he shuts down a white woman who claims that her disdain for his brashness has nothing to do with race (shades of Cam Newton) in another, he slaps boxer Ernie Terrell and calls him an Uncle Tom when he refuses to refer to him as Muhammad Ali.
You may remember that Prince wore ‘Slave’ on his face for 7 years and changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph to protest the music industry’s treatment of artists. Unlike most businesses, recording artists who provide their music to a record label don’t end up owning their product. But Prince was ridiculed by the media for his insistence that he, one of he most productive recording artists of his generation, should own the music he worked so hard on.
Once he began recording at Paisley Park and paying for the recordings himself, Prince still had little chance of ownership. While he never explicitly said that his personal battle was also to highlight the ugly history of Black artists being exploited by white record labels, that history was inherent in his protest.
Now that Prince interview and music videos are flooding the web, you can see just how many times the man publicly reiterated his stance. He appeared at every Black awards show from Soul Train to the NAACP Awards to The BET Awards, a claim many Black artists can’t make.
He was a champion of Black media, summoning Black journalists like Steven Ivory, Tourè, Michael Gonzales and Miles Marshall Lewis to Paisley Park for one-on-ones and giving interviews to every Black publication from Black Beat and Right On! To Ebony, Jet and Essence, sometimes multiple times. Prince once told a Soul Train audience ‘As a people we’ve been considered a minority. But stop, take a look at yourselves. There’s nothing minor about you. You are a blessed people.”
Ali, of course, made his stand as well, asking for respect for both his humanness as a Black man and as a new convert to the Nation of Islam. With all the controversy surrounding Islam these days (Ali later became a Sunni Muslim) imagine what a radical stand it was to take back in the 70’s. Ali lost his boxing license and his ability to make a living. Though Prince continued to record and tour throughout the 90’s, his “Blacker’ era musically, there was an 8-year gap between platinum releases from 1996’s Emancipation to 2004’s Musicology.
Ali returned to boxing of course, becoming a global icon in the process, but as his physical form slowly deteriorated and his brashness turned into mostly mute public appearances, that adoration never had to be tested by any inconvenient public statements or controversial stands on any issues.
At one time, these men, though very different in their respective fields, were young, gifted and Black icons of the larger community but especially in the Black community, who changed the game and the world with their dedication to their craft and to their unstinting belief in themselves; men whose swag stayed on 10,000 before the term was ever invented.
Van Jones called Prince the CNN of Black celebrity, telling the public after his death that he was involved in way more philanthropy than anyone knew – and for causes, like his support of Chicago educator Marva Colllins’ school years ago, that were specific to the Black community.
As Black men who died in their 50’s and 70’s – one hailing from a former slave state and the other from a mostly white one, Prince and Ali had an acute knowledge of race relations and their place within them. While both also embraced a truly humanist perspective, their lived experience was a Black Men, with all the limitations that implies.
Prince a short, light-skinned Black man and Ali, a tall, brown-skinned one, were sheltered as celebrities from the everyday indignities of racism their respective statures and stances may have generated in the real world. But even in their safer spaces, they felt the indignities of being denied basic human rights. Both wanted the world to put some RESPEK on the names they chose for themselves and the principles behind those choices.
The global grieving for each of these race men is well-deserved. But we have to ask ourselves in the Black community, among the men and women who remain with us, who will now provide the inspiration for the future? Who will, blessed as they were to actualize their tremendous God-given gifts through personal sacrifices and hard work, including both men literally sacrificing their bodies to be the best, take up their mantle as race men?
Who can we look to provide the pride and love we returned to them as shining examples of Blackness without apology, for our kids and grandkids? Was part of the mourning for them, in African-American circles especially, the heartbreaking thought that these men were among the last of their kind?
Hopefully, someone is showing those YouTube clips of Prince dancing, singing, playing multiple instruments and living life as the man he wanted to be. They’re playing those interviews of Ali, full of fire in and out of the ring and inspiring some child, somewhere, whose name we don’t know yet to live as they lived – to be fierce and principled, but to be so with love. To give of your gifts without restraint. To show and prove and live your life not to transcend race, but to be unapologetically, boldly and freely Black.
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