It began with an anonymous check about 10 years ago. Environmental and human rights activist Van Jones was working on George W. Bush’s Green Jobs Act when he received a $50,000 donation and no name attached to it. “I promptly returned it,” he recalls. “I’m not taking anonymous checks for $50,000. It could be from anybody.” But then someone sent it back, and he returned it again.
Eventually Jones received a call from a rep for the donor: “I cannot tell you who the money is coming from, but his favorite color is purple.” Jones laughs. “I said, ‘Well, now you’ve got another problem, because now I’m not going to cash the check, I’m going to frame it.'” The story got back to the man who wrote the check, Prince, who found it so funny he called Jones up and befriended him.
That’s when Jones learned about Prince’s secret other gig: philanthropist. Since Prince’s death last Thursday, Jones has learned just how involved Prince was in philanthropic causes. In recent years, the artist – who worked with Jones on the organization Green for All, which creates green jobs in disadvantaged communities, and #YesWeCode, an organization that educates urban youth about technology – worked to raise awareness for movements like Black Lives Matter and sent money to the family of Trayvon Martin. Prince’s ex-wife, Manuela Testolini, met him through doing philanthropic work for his foundation and he encouraged her to start her own charity; she’s now building a school with her In a Perfect World organization in his memory. In a statement after his death, she described him as a “fierce philanthropist.”
The artist had become interested in 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,” Jones tells Rolling Stone. “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.”
Asked if certain causes appealed to Prince more than others, Jones just laughs. “You’re asking if there was some pattern to something that Prince did?” he says. “I think my phone broke up. He was completely unpredictable.”
He then focuses on Prince’s mission. “His cause is humanity,” 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.”