“Baltimore” – Hitnrun Phase Two (2015)

This song is the opening track from Hitnrun Phase Two. Released on Tidal on 12 December, 2015 by NPG Records, this is the last album Prince put out before he died. After a four year hiatus from regularly releasing albums, he gave us four albums in quick succession to make up for the lost time and maintain his one album per year average. Not that he completely stopped releasing music. There were a number of tunes made available in the break, but with these new albums Prince fans saw it as a new stage of his career; one where he seemed to find a new source of inspiration and energy after his time away. That being said, many of the songs on this album were previously released in one form or another. So really, a more appropriate name for the album would’ve been Scraps and Leftovers. That might sound a little harsh but this release really feels like a compilation album and not a freshly cooked meal.

“Baltimore” was one of those songs that had been heard before. It was originally released on Soundcloud on 9 May, 2015, seemingly as a response to the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore police and the subsequent protests following his hospitalisation and death. Freddie was arrested on 12 April, 2015 for possession of an illegal switchblade. While being transported by the police he fell into a coma and died a week later. If you’re thinking that it’s odd that he went from getting arrested for having a switchblade to ending up in a coma, you’re not the only one. Witnesses claim the arresting officers used unnecessary force and the bystander video apparently shows him screaming in pain and being dragged by the police (I haven’t seen the video myself). “Mr. Gray’s family said that his spinal cord had been 80 percent severed, and that his voice box had been crushed.”[1] The police also failed to secure him safely when they transported him (obviously). The police involved were all charged with various crimes (manslaughter, illegal arrest, etc.) but they all ended up being acquitted or subject to mistrial, even though the medical examiner ruled Freddie’s death to be a homicide. Yay justice!

While Freddie was still in a coma, protests had already started and continued after his funeral to the point where there was rioting and a curfew imposed on Baltimore’s citizens while a media storm enveloped the city. Even before Freddie’s death police violence in the US, particularly against young black men, had been getting more media (i.e. white) attention nationally. So much so that us folks living on other continents were hearing about Black Lives Matter and how shitty American cops were. After George Zimmerman was acquitted of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2013, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter gave rise to a movement specifically focused on these types of cases. A movement that is also kind of the inspiration for this song, beyond the city of Baltimore itself. Prince even gave the movement a shout out at the Grammy’s (“Like books and black lives, albums still matter”). Moving past just a hashtag, Black Lives Matter quickly morphed into a real world social movement focused on racial justice. In particular, the abuse of power by police and their targeting of minorities. It also spawned a (predominantly white) backlash with #AllLivesMatter. As though that wasn’t the original intention in the first place. In a similar way to feminism, #BlackLivesMatter is a movement focussed on equality and inclusion for all by highlighting the abuse and mistreatment of a minority or underclass, yet it still gets attacked for being domineering and exclusive. That is, until black lives (actually) matter then “all” lives don’t. The name of the movement is intended to highlight where the disparity lies (black lives in one case, women in the other) between the identified group and the rest of the mainstream (i.e. white and male) society. It’s as though people read the name of the movement and then don’t even bother to find out what it is about and just make up their own shit. And don’t even get me started on “blue lives matter”.

Police brutality has always been a thing that has existed (pretty much everywhere) ever since there’s been police and even though the rates of abuse are actually lower than they have been historically, they still aren’t zero. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker shows that rates of violence of all kinds have actually been going down over human history in both the long and short term. Sure there are fluctuations now and then but overall you are less likely to die at the hands of another human now than you ever would have been. On average and in general being a human is better now than it ever has been (despite what you may see on TV or hear from the president). But we still have problems. Just not as many. This means that things that the mainstream could once gloss over or ignore as not “important” enough to prioritise can now get more attention. And certainly the rise of social media and the ability for every person (who can afford it) to have a video camera/recording device/computer in their pocket has helped bring more things into the open. Things are better, but they’re not perfect. And there is no reason to pretend that they are. Police brutality is a definite problem that needs to be addressed and with all the extra media attention, why not now.

Not that any of this is new to black America. People of colour tend to bare the brunt of most of the institutional violence in countries where the power structure is white (see Aboriginal deaths in custody for an alternate example, not that this type of thing is especially rare). In the US however, the (white) community was “suddenly” being made aware of what black people had known forever- the police were less like Officer Friendly and more like Judge Dredd. And your fate is at the mercy of whoever happens to take an interest in you. Like a lot of male (again, mostly old and white) dominated institutions (churches, corporations, etc.), abuse is fairly commonplace. It may be true that not every priest is an actual paedophile but when large numbers of priests across different cities and countries are attacking children and being protected by the church then you look to the institution itself to shoulder the blame for allowing such a culture to develop and even flourish. Similarly, the police departments of America (and the world) have nurtured a culture where it is okay to treat someone you decide might be a criminal as less than human.

Some will argue that being a cop is a dangerous job and you can’t make an omelette without shooting a few eggs, and police come up against dangerous, violent people all the time so they have a right to defend themselves, and police are being killed too (blues lives bleed too). These are all valid points. However, it’s safer to be a cop now than it was 40 years ago with less cops being killed in action even though there are more cops on the street. In the 70s, about 24 out of every 100,000 cops were killed in the line of duty. In the ten years to 2013, that rate dropped to 7.3 per 100,000. So any claims that the police are “under fire” is not based in reality. As Pinker points out, all types of crime and violence have been on the decrease. So no need for hyperbole. Police kill citizens and citizens kill police. These things happen at different rates and for different reasons. However, young (often unarmed) black men were killed by American police at nine times the rate of other groups in 2015, which is clearly a problem.[2] It’s bad enough that police are killing people in the first place but it seems that there is some racially based targeting happening as well (can it still be called a post racial era if all the coloured folk are dead?). Saying that police get killed too does not make this okay. Just like saying people killing cops is okay as vengeance for the people they’ve killed. It is possible to address both things simultaneously. Even if one is quantifiably worse than the other, which is not something we should ignore. Black people are statistically more likely to get shot by police across the country. How do we know this? Well in a normal country you might ask an organisation like the FBI for that kind of info but in the United States the response you’d have gotten at the time would’ve been something like “Sorry but we can’t really help you there.” You see, around the time that Black Lives Matter was being born, reporters and others started asking the FBI for information and although the FBI did keep some track of police violence from across the country, they only maintained information that was sent to them by the various police departments themselves. Which would be an easy enough way for local police to manipulate and send false info. Luckily for them there was actually no law or mandate for them to send any info at all and the process was purely voluntary. So no one could actually tell you how many people were killed by the police in the United States. In the 21st century. For reals. In response to this gaping hole of information, The Guardian newspaper started a database they called The Counted to keep track of all deaths caused by police in America based on the publicly released media reports of each case. The database shows that if you take into account the population size of each group, the Native Americans and African Americans (or other dark skinned people) are disproportionately killed by police.

Being black in America has never been easy going. Being non-white in general has always been kind of a shit show but being Black or Native American seems to have been, and continues to be, its own special kind of “experience”. And although they may claim ignorance, white America has kind of always, sort of known about it. Because they’ve kind of always, sort of been the cause of it (slavery, segregation, etc). Because being white in America (or the UK, or Australia, or South Africa, or wherever) has meant that by default you are likely to start from a winning position. As Chris Rock put it:

“… there ain’t a white man in this room that would change places with me. None of you would change places with me. And I’m rich! That’s how good it is to be white. There’s a white, one-legged busboy in here right now that won’t change places with my black ass. He’s going, “No, man, I don’t wanna switch. I wanna ride this white thing out… see where it takes me.””

Sure it’s a joke but there’s a truth there that’s hard to ignore. And yes, black people can and do live just as amazing lives as everyone else. I don’t want you to start thinking that I’m implying that every black person or person of colour is just some sort of victim you should feel sorry for. I’m just hoping to provide a little context for this song and the culture from whence it came. When you talk about large groups, you don’t necessarily have to generalise but your generalisations should at least be based on facts. Like being born black in America (and a lot of other countries) is very different to being born white. One of the ways that it is different is how likely you are to be targeted by police.

This is the background from which this song was birthed and why we’ve taken some time to get here. The song may be focused on Baltimore and the death/murder of Freddie Gray but it’s attempting to speak out about something that has a wider impact. A narrow focus to help tell a more expansive story. It could have easily have been a song that was more about Freddie and his family and life in the city but Prince chose to go somewhere else. There are actually a lot of stories about Baltimore. Randy Newman had a similarly titled song in the 1970s (covered by Nina Simone). Slightly different thematically but still a bit of a downer (“Oh Baltimore. Man it’s hard, just to live”). “Streets of Baltimore” from 1966 by Bobby Bare. “Good Morning Baltimore” from the musical Hairspray. And numerous other Baltimore related songs (“Raining in Baltimore,” “Barefoot in Baltimore,” “From Baltimore to Paris,” “Baltimore’s Fireflies,” Lady Came From Baltimore,” “What’s New in Baltimore,” “Baltimore to Washington,” “Dear Baltimore,” “Doing Time in Baltimore,” etc.) What is it about Baltimore that inspires such music (and TV shows – Where’s Wallace?). Even “The Star Spangled Banner” was written there. Part of it could be the city’s coastal position and its sometimes thriving port or perhaps that the city’s crime rate has been above the national average for awhile now, especially for homicide. As if to prove a point, in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray protests, murder rates went up to record levels.[3] Prince’s version of “Baltimore” is less about the city and more about America in general. However, writing a song called “Baltimore” instantly adds a multitude of issues, themes and ideas to the song just by using the name of the city. Violence, racial inequality, justice (or the lack thereof). The history of the United States gets folded into the song just with the use of this one word and then the song becomes a political statement concealed in a pop song.

I’ve heard that when this came out on Soundcloud that it was essentially a demo version. Hastily written and recorded. I’ve never heard that version but there are still parts of the album version that sound very demo-like. The intro guitar (for example) still sounds like a demo. And not a particularly good one. Especially by Prince’s standards. Musically this song isn’t one of his best efforts. Even if you’re only looking at his more political songs, “Baltimore” would not be on top of the list. Overall it’s kind of a sweet sounding song, musically. In contrast, lyrically it’s trying to be serious and talk about real world problems. Having the feel of the music contrast with the content of the lyrics is something Prince did fairly often and it works when it’s a heartbreak song written with up tempo music. But here I’m not sure it’s as effective. The subject matter is serious but the music is trying to convey the idea that not all is lost. There is still hope. A nice idea, but not especially well executed. It sounds too poppy to my ear. It also features a guest performer – Eryn Allen Kane. Her voice opens the track and sounds “sweet” for lack of a better word. I suspect that Prince brought her onto the project to beef up the vocal and add a little flair to the track.

 

[Eryn Allen Kane:]
Baltimore

[Prince:]
Nobody got in nobody’s way
So I guess you could say it was a good day
At least a little better than the day in Baltimore
Does anybody hear us pray
For Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?
Peace is more than the absence of war
Absence of war

 

There is a fairly common trope in movies and popular culture that innocent people often die because they got in the way of the bad guy. Or sometimes it’s presented as the bad guy’s only rationale for some heinous act – “he got in my way”; which is an irrational motivation for a murderer and poor work by the script writer. The implication in this verse is that Freddie “got in the way” of the bad guys in this movie and that there is no good reason for his death. Because even though it’s a good day wherever Prince might be, it’s still pretty shitty in Baltimore. So shitty in fact that it makes Prince doubt that god even exists. Garth Brooks might’ve been thanking god for unanswered prayers but the families of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown are probably not so thankful. It’s only one line, but given Prince’s extreme religiosity, it’s a powerful statement on the impact all these deaths had on him. To make him doubt, even a little.

Michael Brown was not from Baltimore (he was from Ferguson, Missouri) but he had just committed an actual crime when he was shot. So the circumstances were a little different. But the crime was shoplifting. And he was shot 12 times. And he was unarmed. I’ve read some comments from people that were less than sympathetic because of his criminal history, but if you ever need an example of excessive force, then this would be it; like crushing an ant by dropping a car on it. In both cases the police were guilty of over stepping and abusing their power. And that’s why Prince has included their names here. To highlight that none of these people deserve to die (whether criminals or not) and that the bad guys in this story are the cops. And also because they fit the cadence of the song. Which is important from a songwriting perspective once you decide you want to rhyme pray with Gray.

“Peace is more than the absence of war.” This is what this song is about at its heart. If you Google search this phrase there will be a few different results that will be returned as the potential origin for the quote. An image search will show a number of memes created with names of people that have used this phrase to make their own statements. Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr, the Peace Pilgrim, Laini Taylor, Willy Brandt, Helmut Kohl, Ronald Reagan, Jane Addams, Poul Hartling, Harry S Truman, Jawaharlal Nehru. All have a version of this phrase attributed to them. And now Prince. So what’s going on? As far as I can tell they are all remixing one of the illest philosophers from the lowlands – Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677). Spinoza was talking about government and how a nation can be at peace with its neighbours but its citizens still aren’t able to live peaceful lives:

“Of a commonwealth, whose subjects are but hindered by terror from taking arms, it should rather be said, that it is free from war, than that it has peace. For peace is not mere absence of war, but is a virtue that springs from force of character: for obedience is the constant will to execute what, by the general decree of the commonwealth, ought to be done. Besides that commonwealth, whose peace depends on the sluggishness of its subjects, that are led about like sheep, to learn but slavery, may more properly be called a desert than a commonwealth.

When, then, we call that dominion best, where men pass their lives in unity, I understand a human life, defined not by mere circulation of the blood, and other qualities common to all animals, but above all by reason, the true excellence and life of the mind.

But be it remarked that, by the dominion which I have said is established for this end, I intend that which has been established by a free multitude, not that which is acquired over a multitude by right of war. For a free multitude is guided more by hope than fear; a conquered one, more by fear than hope: inasmuch as the former aims at making use of life, the latter but at escaping death. The former, I say, aims at living for its own ends, the latter is forced to belong to the conqueror; and so we say that this is enslaved, but that free. And, therefore, the end of a dominion, which one gets by right of war, is to be master, and have rather slaves than subjects. And although between the dominion created by a free multitude, and that gained by right of war, if we regard generally the right of each, we can make no essential distinction; yet their ends, as we have already shown, and further the means to the preservation of each are very different. “[4]

Sorry for the long quote but I wanted to provide a little more context than you would normally find in an internet meme. Spinoza is confirming that a commonwealth or government that rules by fear becomes a nation of slaves. The instrument of that fear in modern times is the military and police forces of the world. Whether intended or not, this is the philosophical well that Prince was drawing from when he wrote this song. And it seems to fit the themes that he’s trying to address. My guess is that he likely heard or read Martin Luther King Jr use the phrase or some variant of it. Nevertheless, the implication is that the streets of Baltimore and the rest of America are not “at peace.” The civilian population is not “free.” Especially anyone whose skin colour might make them stick out a little from the crowd. It affects the way you move through the world and how you raise your children and how you survive. I imagine that sometimes walking out your front door may even feel like you’re going to war.

 

[Prince & Eryn Allen Kane:]
Are we gonna see another bloody day?
We’re tired of the cryin’ and people dyin’
Let’s take all the guns away

 

“Everybody say gun control!” A nice idea, but if they didn’t ban guns after Sandy Hook then the chances of it happening because of Baltimore or Black Lives Matter are practically zero. Freddie Gray wasn’t shot. Michael Brown was shot, but not in Baltimore. So again we’ve actually switched focus in this verse to talk about something more than just “the Baltimore incident” (for lack of a better term). Most countries have citizens who own guns but American culture definitely has a hard on for firearms. Consequently, America also has a lot of people that get shot. Amazing how those two facts are correlated. If you’re a person or a culture that’s in love with something that only exists to kill people (and other living things) then there is something fundamentally fucked up with you. Prince and I are on the same page here. There’s a fed up-edness that comes through in the lyrics of this section. “How long do we have to keep going through the same fucking shit before something changes?” Other countries have gun owners but they don’t see the numbers of gun deaths that America sees. How can they manage it and we can’t? Prince and Eryn start by asking if this type of thing is likely to happen again and the answer is – almost certainly. And almost every day.

 

[Prince:]
Absence of war, you and me
Maybe we can finally say
Enough is enough, it’s time for love
It’s time to hear
It’s time to hear the guitar play, guitar play
Baltimore, ever more

 

A call back to Spinoza and a call for unity. We’ve all had enough so let’s show the world that love is the answer. Love and guitar solos. Which is really a simplistic answer to a real world problem. You can’t just make people love each other. And besides, lots of people get shot by the people that love them and not always by accident.

If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace
If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace
If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace
If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace

 

After the arrest of Freddie Gray, while he was in a coma, the protesting crowds started to chant “No justice, no peace, we don’t need you on our streets.” [5] Prince includes something similar in this song. A chant to unite the crowd and get everyone singing from the same song sheet. They both seem to invoke the line from Spinoza but give it a little twist. I’m not sure if Prince made this up himself or if this was a line that was used by protestors. Either way, Prince using it here is a call to arms. It’s practically a declaration of war against the police and the government. If we don’t have justice, then there will never be peace for us. Marches, protests and riots may come and go. But until there is justice, the fire that flames those marches and protests will never go out. It might lay dormant but all it needs is a spark. I think Prince believed that Baltimore would be the spark that would lead to justice. But it doesn’t look like it even got close.

 

[Prince & Eryn Allen Kane:]
Are we gonna see another bloody day?
We’re tired of the cryin’ and people dyin’
Let’s take all the guns away

If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace
If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace
If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace
If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace

We have to interrupt the regular scheduled programming
to bring you up to date on a developing situation in Los Angeles

 

It’s a song titled “Baltimore” but it ends with a newsreader talking about Los Angeles. That seems odd. Is this snippet taken from recent events or is this from the Rodney King riots back in 1992? Is Prince reminding us that what happened in Baltimore is not new? There is no justice now and there was no justice then. Or is the reference to Los Angeles intended to show that what is happening in Baltimore with the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, is spreading across the country? I think it’s the latter. The vibe of this song is essentially positive and upbeat and saying that it’s “time for love” definitely suggests that Prince is hoping that this song will help the movement gather momentum. That by focusing on Baltimore, the movement will have something to rally behind and bring people together. Which is kind of what happened. The protests rolled on from Baltimore and spread out across the country. Protestors marched in New York, Washington DC, Seattle, Denver, Boston, Minneapolis, Oakland, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Albuquerque and Ann Arbor. Did they bring about any change? Well guns are still legal and people still get shot in America at an alarming rate. Black people are still being killed by police at a rate higher than the rest of the population (except for maybe Native Americans). And none of the police involved in Freddie’s death have seen any justice.

Unfortunately change is often gradual. Sometimes painfully so. This song is intended to show love and support in a dark time. A message of hope and unity. We’ve had enough and we’re not going to back down. But did it have any actual impact in the real world? Probably not much. This isn’t a great song and was never popular. Even amongst Prince fans it’s not particularly well liked. The Peach and Black podcast’s fan vote put “Baltimore” last out of all the songs on Hitnrun Phase Two. Its heart is in the right place and Prince obviously felt strongly about it. That’s why this song is the opening track to this album even though it doesn’t really fit too well with the rest of the songs on there. He had something he wanted to express about what was going on (and is still going on). Maybe he was hoping to help change the world but songs like this don’t really change anything. Not in the real world. All it can do is try to inspire the people who hear the message to do their part to keep the flame lit and to pass on the message. A message that’s been around in some form for centuries (if not longer) – there ain’t no peace until we have justice.

 

Running time: 4:33

 

References:

Hitnrun Phase Two (released 2015)

The Peach & Black Podcast

Wikipedia

Prince Vault

AZ Lyrics

Prince in Print

Prince.org

The New York Times

The Guardian

The Baltimore Sun

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/26/us/baltimore-crowd-swells-in-protest-of-freddie-grays-death.html?_r=0

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counted-police-killings-us-database

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/01/14/us/Baltimore-homicides-record.html?_r=0

[4] http://www.despinoza.nl/politiek_trakta/political_treat/chapter_v.shtml

[5] http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/bs-md-shooting-20150418-story.html

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