Prince's legacy, voting rights for felons, and giving voice - Sunday Suggestions and Connections

by Abaki Beck

Our two main stories this week may seem disjointed, but they have one common thread: they are about giving people a voice. Prince’s music and fashion pushed boundaries by simply being himself, inspiring millions to embrace their creativity and uniqueness. In Virginia, former felons now have the right to vote and run for public office, and will soon be able to use their voices for positive political change.

The largest pop-culture news of this week was the death of Prince, a genre-blending and gender-bending musician from Minnesota. His career spanned nearly forty years. Many are noting that Prince changed what it meant to be a black man - pushing gender boundaries with his flamboyant fashion sense and funky music. His art and visual presentation stood, and continues to stand, in stark contrast to social and political stereotypes of the hyper masculine or “dangerous” black man. Prince famously sang: “I am not a woman. I am not a man. I am something you will never understand.” His music was about embracing your identity and constantly creating.

He was, in many ways, an “activist artist,” both by his pushing of boundaries in the music world and expanding on meanings of blackness and gender. He was a private person, and rarely gave interviews. However, it is said that he gave money to the family of Trayvon Martin, the black boy slain by a neighborhood “vigilante” in 2012. Reverend Al Sharpton said that he had talked to Prince about human rights and social issues, and that Prince had once arranged for the family of Eric Garner to attend his concert.

Though there will never be another artist quite like Prince, it is important to support artists of all kinds who push boundaries and are political in their art. Here are a few organizations who curate activist artists to check out and support!

  • Just Seeds - A collective of political printmakers from the US, Canada, and Mexico whose work addresses social and political issues

  • CultureStrike  - A network of social justice artists who prioritize and empower migrant artists, women artists, and artists of color

  • Open TV - A platform showcasing television, music videos, poetry, dance, drag, and more from artists not typically represented on commercial or mainstream TV.

  • Mix'd Ingredients - A multi-ethnic, all female dance group that work to empower themselves and their community

Also this week, the Virginia governor restored the right to vote to former felons, allowing 200,000 more people in Virginia to vote who were previously denied that right. There are over $2.2 million incarcerated individuals in the U.S., and many view denying their right to vote as another tactic to oppress people of color (particularly black men), who are more likely to be incarcerated. In Virginia for example, more than half of incarcerated individuals are people of color. Virginians with past felony convictions will immediately gain other rights as well: the right to serve on a jury, work as a notary public, and run for office.

For formerly incarcerated individuals across the U.S., punishment does not stop when the are freed. In many ways, the punishment never ends, causing some to argue that the punishment rarely fits the crime. Individuals with former felony convictions are often denied public housing (though many tribes do not deny tribal housing) and have trouble finding jobs, leading to recidivism. Allowing former felons the right to vote gives them a voice in society once again, and is an important step forward.

Unfortunately, some Republicans in the state are against the measure, essentially saying that someone who committed a crime is no longer a human who deserves forgiveness or a second chance. And to think so many of them campaign on their “Christian values.”

To learn more about the prison industrial complex, here are just some of the plethora of resources that exist. Check out our Violence and Transformative Justice page for more extensive suggestions:

Before we head out, here are a few more stories you may have missed this week!

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the rest of your Sunday!

Abaki Beck