As music lovers the world over mourn the passing of Prince ~ the legendary singer, songwriter, musician (he played every single instrument on several of his albums and was a guitarist extraorindaire), movie star and fashion icon who impacted American culture for close to four decades ~ another side of the Minneapolis son is emerging after his untimely death: philanthropist.
Van Jones — the activist, author, former Obama administration official, and current CNN commentator — revealed that Prince had secretly funded causes from public radio to Black Lives Matter to the Harlem Children’s Zone. He also conceived of #YesWeCode, an initiative to train black kids for work in tech. And he supported Green For All, a group working to fight climate change and bring green jobs to underprivileged populations.
“I was an Oakland activist giving speeches about the need for green jobs,” Jones told me over the phone, recalling how he first came into contact with the musician 10 years ago. “Prince heard me in the media and sent a $50,000 check to support the work I was doing. But he did all his giving completely anonymously, so I sent the check back. You never know when someone is trying to set you up — it could have been from Chevron or from a drug dealer or whatever. So then he sent the check back and I sent it back again, and then he sent it back and then I sent it back, until finally a representative called and said, ‘Will you please accept this check? I won’t tell you who it is from, but the guy’s favorite color is purple.’ I said, ‘Well, now you have a different problem: I’m not gonna cash this check, I’m gonna frame it.’”
Soon after, Prince reached out to Jones, and the two became friends — a friendship that would last until his death. Jones’ role in Prince’s life was, he says, as “his lead guitarist for social impact, for lack of a better term.” Jones helped distribute Prince’s resources when he didn’t want the attention, including providing solar panels for families in Oakland. The families never knew who their benefactor was.
Prince was immensely charitable — giving away lots of money anonymously. As a Jehovah’s Witness, he was not allowed to boast about his donations. But he helped causes as diverse as public radio, Green For All, the Harlem’s Children’s Zone and Black Lives Matter. More importantly, he made lots of calls behind the scenes to get people to act on causes that needed attention. He would see something in the news, and start calling people — “We need to do something about this.” He was kind of like the 911 of the celebrity class.
Jones says that what Prince really cared about was humanity. “He cared about life and love and freedom,” Jones says. “He had a mind that let him see answers — musically, spiritually, even politically. Rather than argue about global warming, he said, ‘Let’s help kids put up solar panels.’”
The artist had become interested in Van Jones’ Green Jobs initiative when he saw news reports about young people of color putting up solar panels in Oakland and wanted to help. “He liked the fact that I was bringing it to the hood. He just thought it was an amazing way to create jobs. He was always about economic independence.”
It wasn’t easy to define Prince’s politics. He was very concerned about poor people and black people, but he also believed in economic empowerment and uplift. “He wasn’t red, and he wasn’t blue,” Jones says. “He was purple. With one sentence, you would think he was Republican, because he’d be talking about the economy, and with the next, you’d think he’s a liberal Democrat, because he was talking about the need to fight racism. It was a flow of insights and inspiration. At the end of the day, it was purple politically.
“His cause is humanity,” Van Jones says. “He cares a lot about people. Nobody went to a Prince concert and said, ‘I don’t belong here. I’m not black. I’m not white. I’m not cool. I’m not straight. I’m not whatever.’ His cause was empowering and uplifting people. That didn’t stop when he walked off the stage or out of the studio. It was a current of genius trying to move the human heart.”
“He’s trying to create something that everybody can dance to,” he continues. “Politically, poor kids putting up solar panels? Everybody can dance to that…”
“I think people misinterpreted him as being cool for cool’s sake, or mysterious for mystery’s sake, or aloof for its own sake,” Jones says. “But that aspect of his personality was him trying to understand the world, the universe, God, people, everything. He was trying to understand the world so he could change it. He wasn’t trying to change it so he could be famous or rich, he’d already achieved that by the time he was 20. So what do you do for the next 30-plus years?
“Just like he had a whole roster of musicians, he had a whole roster of intellectuals, a whole roster of political activists, a whole roster of change-makers,” Jones continues. “Just like he was a bandleader on the musical side, he was a bandleader on the social side.”
So, amongst all the other gifts Prince gave the world, it turns out he was a very generous donor to many causes, including conservation and green jobs. Gone much, much too soon. Like he sang in one of his songs, “There Will Never B Another Like Me”….
Our communications coordinator Christian Martin is a life-long fan of Prince as well as a DJ and podcaster, and he has mixed up a musical tribute series to Minneapolis’ favorite son available for listening at www.mixcloud.com.