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Essay: Prince Brought Magic to Baltimore

BALTIMORE — Most people would say I moved to Baltimore at the worst possible moment.

Hours after I parked my U-Haul outside the apartment I'd leased, the city was enveloped in unrest as thousands took to the streets in protest over the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who died after suffering a spinal cord injury in police custody.

People protesting the death of Freddie Gray and demanding police accountability move into the streets in the Sandtown neighborhood where Gray was arrested on April 30, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Andrew Burton / Getty Images

The images flooded every news network. The burning CVS. The looting at Mondawin Mall. A torched police car. I fielded calls from my hometown and texts from friends in DC: "What's happening in Baltimore?" I didn't have an answer.

For not the first time in my adult life, I felt like an interloper. As a journalist then working for NPR, I was quickly dispatched to cover the story unfolding just two miles from my apartment. And as a newcomer with plans of putting down roots and starting a family, I was struggling with my own place in and response to the turmoil enveloping the place I now call home.

RELATED: Baltimore Mending: One Year After Freddie Gray's Death

I cried a lot those early days, my heart hurting as yet another black family's tragedy was in the spotlight. This wasn't my story. I'd just moved here. I couldn't fully claim Baltimore. What right did I have to be upset at this very visceral level?

A week later, after the broken glass had been swept from the streets, the prosecutor in Gray's case announced that she would prosecute six officers in his death and the city seemed to be breathing — finally — a sigh of relief, Prince announced that he would hold a "Rally 4 Peace" concert in Baltimore, his first performance here in a decade.

Days prior, he'd released "Baltimore," a tribute song to Freddie Gray.

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

After a week of turmoil, a five-day citywide curfew that disrupted "normal" life here for so many, the joyfulness of the song touched me in a real way. It felt like Prince was linking arms, through music, with the protesters in Baltimore and Ferguson and so many other cities in America who had chanted, "No justice, no peace" - the chant that anchors the song. So when my now-fiance suggested that we try to get tickets, I was more than happy to spend some time hitting refresh repeatedly, hoping that we could afford them.

The truth is I didn't go into the concert a massive Prince fan. His music wasn't played in my childhood home — my mother has since confessed that he just "wasn't her thing." Sure, I could hum along to "Purple Rain" or "Little Red Corvette" and I knew that Prince was a masterful guitarist. I appreciated his style and the fact that he balked at convention and played by his own rules. I thought he was a beautiful, strange human being. I liked what I heard, but I lacked the deep cultural associations that so many of my friends had with his music.

RELATED: Essay: 'Sometimes It Snows In April': Remembering The Purple Reign of Prince

That all changed on a Sunday night in Royal Farms Arena. We had to wait an hour for the concert to kick off. Our seats — cheap-ish — didn't have the best view. I didn't care. Surrounded by young and old, black white and every color in between — many wearing grey as the concert's flier requested — I finally had the moment that so many Prince fans have described in the days since his death. Actually, there were a few of them.

There was the moment that he brought Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore state's attorney, and her husband to the stage days after she'd announced the charges in Gray's case. After a tense string of days following Grey's death, her announcement had brought some residents here a new hope.

Prince performs in Baltimore
Fans line up outside Royal Farms Arena before Prince's Baltimore concert on Sunday, May 10, 2015. Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun / TNS via Getty Images

There was Prince's acknowledgment of a broken system and nod to the young class of protesters who had mobilized here, and in cities across the country, as the future of the movement.

"We need new ideas, new life. Most of all, we need new peace. And the kind of peace I'm talking about is spelled p-i-e-c-e," he said during a gripping performance of "Purple Rain" that almost brought me to tears. "Next time I come to Baltimore, I want to stay in a hotel owned by one of you."

And there was the two words he repeated again and again during the 2.5 hour concert -- "No curfew" -- keeping the crowd dancing, cheering and on their feet for encore after encore. After the concert ended and we climbed on a crowded light rail car to head home, my boyfriend asked me what I'd thought.

RELATED: Essay: Prince and The 'Controversy' of Existing Unapologetically

"I'd see him again, any time," I remember saying, feeling joyful for the first time in the two weeks since I'd moved.

With his larger than life stage presence, almost mystical talent, energy and sex appeal, Prince defined the start of my life in Baltimore in a way I'll never forget. He took the passion and pain of Freddie Gray's death and the uprising and the conflict between race and policing playing out across America and, through music, made it make sense.

It was one of the greatest nights of music I've ever experienced.

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