Baltimore can be a greedy city. I remembered that last night at the Royal Farms Arena, after Prince had given the third encore of his Rally 4 Peace concert. Admittedly, he’d left the stage somewhat abruptly, having mixed a few snippets of his classics, then singing a rendition of “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore?” It was reasonable to expect that he might reappear. But at that point he’d been performing for more than two hours with no opening act and no intermission. A crowd used to surfeiting on good things — long superstar concerts, a restrained police force, higher literacy and high school graduation rates — might have sighed contentedly and started toward the door, confident that such abundance would come again.
Some audience members did. I think they were the out-of-towners. The rest of us planted our feet and stared expectantly at the stage. We wanted more. Music legends play Baltimore now and again but rarely to stand in public protest with us, seldom to use their stages as bully pulpits for the unrest in our communities. It was hard not to keep asking for just a few more songs, a few more soothing words from an icon.
From the center of the arena, a chant rose: “No curfew!,” a defiant call Prince had been using all night to reference the citywide 10 p.m. lockdown the mayor had first imposed on residents last month. He had mentioned it to open the show: “They said there ain’t no curfew so I’m not sure how long we’re gonna go.” Every time he burst back onstage, we heard it before the stage lights went up and we could see him again. “No curfew,” his low tenor teased.
We were only giving it back to him. First we called out hopefully, then we got louder, hungrier, more demanding. “Don’t leave now,” we seemed to be saying, “because none of us have to.” I wondered how many concertgoers were remembering the National Guard presence that had been so visible just weeks before. Not too far from this very arena, cars had burned, protesters had yelled at a line of shield-bearing police, and a few marchers had boldly decided to remain in the streets after 10, breaking the curfew each time it was imposed.
Street activity is more stable now. But as a city, we’re still traumatized. Staying out late and cutting this loose is still a huge luxury.
Prince returned to close the show once and for all. “I could get used to this,” he cooed into the mike, acknowledging how much we wanted him.
We could, too. To be seen, heard and affirmed by someone who’s known and beloved by the entire world is a heady sensation. Prince coming to town in response to the death of Freddie Gray meant Baltimore’s pain had resonated with someone in the unique position both to amplify and to ease it. Getting tickets to his show was like our first time accepting a party invitation after a period of mourning, and then upon arrival, discovering that the host acutely understands our grief and made it his mission to ensure that we had the best time possible.
“We’re here for you. We are your servants,” he said at the beginning of the show and in the fourth and final encore. He and his band, 3rdEyeGirl, as well as special guests Doug E. Fresh, Miguel and Estelle, had proved that. Between a laundry list of hits such as “Kiss,” “When Doves Cry,” “The Beautiful Ones,” “1999” and “Purple Rain,” Prince also urged us to keep chanting our city’s name. There’s power in that kind of incantation, uttered among people who’ve just lived through the same communal crisis and who, for all intents and purposes, may be bracing for a second wave, if the six officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death are granted their request for a case dismissal.
Prince will turn 57 next month, and as he closed out his show with a few of the only overtly political remarks he made all evening, it was clear that he has entered the elder-statesman phase of his career. After telling us that the system is broken, he reassured, “It’s gonna be all right. We gon’ figure it out this time. It’s gonna take the young people to fix it. We need new ideas. We need new life. And most importantly, we need new ‘piece.’ ” He was careful to spell out “piece,” lest we’d mistake it for “peace,” and stressed the importance of community members increasing their stake in their city of residence. “The next time I come to Baltimore, I want to stay in a hotel that’s owned by one of you.” He repeated this ownership theme, citing that he also wanted to be able to hire car service and concert promotion companies owned and operated by young Baltimoreans.
The show ended near midnight, a full two hours past our erstwhile curfew. Its length was an act of rebellion. Its insistence on audience joy was an act of community healing. And this call to entrepreneurship was an intergenerational torch-passing. For me, it had the familiar of effect of a beloved elder urging, “Make me proud.”
We’re working on it, Prince. Around the clock. No curfew.