“Just a week ago, there was armed military posted up right down the street from here,” remarked one Baltimore local, as he slowly entered the newly renamed Royal Farms Arena in the heart of downtown Baltimore.
He was one of thousands who turned out for the first Prince sighting in Baltimore since April 18, 2001.
This wasn’t just a concert though; this was a personal visit. Prince’s Rally 4 Peace. A response to a crisis, complete with a new custom-made song, “Baltimore.”
Less than a week ago, downtown Baltimore was, in fact, occupied by armed military. The presence of the National Guard, as well as a citywide curfew, was a direct response to the violent outburst that occurred after the funeral of Freddy Gray, the 25-year-old man whose death while in custody of Baltimore City Police was eventually ruled a homicide. The anticipation of finally getting a chance to see Prince in concert was matched only by the anticipation to return to some sense of normalcy for the city.
The streets were choked with people and the energy was palpable. This was a town ready to move past last week’s debacle and celebrate a new era. Hopefully.
Before the show starts, a disembodied female voice ran through some quick but very serious rules.
“Please don't record what happens here. What's happening is too big for your technology.” Several people were inevitably tossed throughout the evening for using their phones, as security stalked the isles like storm troopers enforcing the “no pictures” policy with iron fists.
Without notice, the dancing, singing, pancake-slinging megastar erupted onto the stage, dressed in all gray (in honor of Freddy) and blasting a slowed-down, funk version of "Let's Go Crazy" that turned into a three-guitar jam session.
“Baltimore, we are here. Where are you?!” He spoke to the crowd all night, constantly calling out the city by name as if to remind them that he was indeed acknowledging them, not just as a group of concert goers but as a city that’s been voiceless for decades.
After “Take Me With U” and “Raspberry Beret,” Prince briefly brought Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby and her husband, Councilman Nick Mosby, to center stage. A few days ago, Mosby passionately announced charges for all six officers involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray to mixed reviews.
Suddenly, in front of a backdrop of the city's skyline, Prince delivered “Baltimore.” The bluesy, folk-rock tune is not immediately recognized like his classics, so there was a bit of a lull in the crowd. But the song is powerful in its candor. Fists pumped and bodies swayed as Prince name-checked Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and sang out, "If there aren't no justice then there ain't no peace."
He gets us.
That was the highlight of the show. Of course it was amazing to see Prince seducing everyone with joints like "Darling Nikki." It was surreal to see him hit every damn high note in “The Beautiful Ones.” And listening to him cockily ask the crowd “How many hits I got?” before rattling off “Sign o' the Times,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “I Would Die for U,” “Pop Life” and “Diamonds and Pearls” — all before bringing out Doug E. Fresh, Miguel and Estelle (in the second of three encores. No curfews!).
The best part, still, was watching a city synonymous with stress and crime and drugs, where even the athletes and politicians get locked up, get validated in an honest and intimate way by one of the most mysterious stars on the planet.
“Young people, the system is broken. The only way to fix it is to build a new one,” he told the crowd betweeen "Purple Rain" verses. "We gonna figure this thing out. The next time I come here, I want to stay in a hotel owned by you. I want to take a car service created and owned by one of you."
The B-More struggle that boiled over recently after years of being ignored on a mass level (although hinted at on that one HBO show) has been co-signed by one of the world’s last remaining superstars.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Prince proved that he, and the rest of the country, is hearing Baltimore loud and clear.
(Photo: NPG Records / Ralston Smith)