Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Oh, Kanye -- Part 1: That Confederate Flag

In an interview with AMP Radio, Kanye West said, "The Confederate flag represented slavery in a way. That's my abstract take on what I know about it, right? So I wrote the song, 'New Slaves.' So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It's my flag now. Now what you gonna do?"

Later in the same interview, he said, "It's colorless also. It's super-'hood and super-white-boy-approved at the same time."

When I heard about Kanye West's latest controversial explosion -- incorporating the Confederate flag into his tour merch designs as well as his personal life (wearing it as a patch on a green bomber jacket on a recent visit to Barney's) -- I thought it was a gag someone made up at The Onion.  Things are going so well with this latest flap that he's opened a pop-up store in Soho that sells these Confederate items.  While the irony of rednecks the world over lining Kanye's pockets by showing up at his concert and purchasing a t-shirt that bears the symbol of his ancestor's pain and oppression isn't entirely lost on me, there is much, much more to all of this that completely and utterly misses the mark. 

Of course, we expect these "outrageous" antics from Mr. West, and while many (but certainly not all) are standing in what appears to be a long, long line to congratulate him on his latest bit of controversy, let's be clear on one thing: Kanye West is hardly the first black rapper to embrace the Confederate flag.  Lil' Jon did this more than ten years ago -- and on the cover of his third album with The East Side Boyz, no less.

The picture is one of complete defiance. Look at that stance. There's nothing agreeable or subservient or compliant there. He is flanked by The East Side Boyz, their expressionless faces and white t-shirts further exaggerating Lil Jon's approach as well as the entire scenario.  As the flag drapes his shoulders like a cape, Lil Jon is almost daring the viewer to take that flag away from him.  Both of the flags in the background are on fire -- as if to counter the crosses that the KKK would burn "religiously" to intimidate black folk and other undesirables, he now burns their flag to intimidate them -- and he is on fire, too.  He is burning it down, as it were -- symbolically burning down the old South and what those traditions represent while holding onto what it means to him. Very nearly lit from within with a kind of makeshift rage that some would want to call urban propaganda, and with that gleaming trademark dental work run amok, he is the living embodiment of what some consider to be The New South. 

Kanye West, on the other hand, is from the Midwest (yes, he was born in Atlanta, GA but he left as a toddler, was raised in Chicago and is about to relocate to a Bel Air mansion). The flag may symbolize many things for him as an American and as an African-American but because it's not a part of his culture, he is far removed from it in a way that Lil Jon and The East Side Boyz are not. 

He is also extremely well off, quite famous and insulated from much of the reality of (Southern) black life, so its altogether likely that there's a quite a lot that he's probably not aware of. It should also be noted that Lil Jon and The East Side Boyz -- along with several other black Southern rappers like Outkast, Ludacris and David Banner -- have used the Confederate flag in the recent past. Kanye, on the other hand, is flat-out selling it.
What did Lil' Jon say when the press questioned him about draping himself with what many consider to be a symbol of racism and hate? "I'm from the South. That's what it represents to me.  We're Southern-born and raised. The flag is part of us. We look at it as just being proud to say we're from the South." 

In a review of the CD, Lil Jon elaborated thusly: "As a Southern group, we chose to bring the issue to the forefront in our album packaging. We're basically mocking racists on one hand by wearing The Confederate Flag, but at the same time we're repping the South. Do you know how infuriating it will be for a redneck to see me, a black deadlocked rapper, wearing The Confederate Flag around my shoulders? It's almost as bad as me dating his daughter. The Confederate Flag ain't going nowhere. It's part of Southern life and a reality of where we're from. Getting rid of the flag will not get rid of racism. Our album cover was our way of burning The Confederate Flag and all the racist mentality that comes with it; but we're also wearing it to show our love for The South." 

Lil Jon went on to say this: "The flag is a symbol and people attach their own meaning to it. To me The Confederate Flag is just that, a flag. We grew up seeing that flag everywhere. It's more offensive to the older Southern black folks who understand first-hand what the flag symbolizes, but I don't think younger folks view the flag in the same way."

Furthermore, Lil' Bo, one of the East Side Boyz, said: "Being born in the South, the flag has a different meaning for me than it would to people who aren't Southern. On one hand, I know a lot of lives were lost on both sides over it, but on the other it's a symbol of racial hatred that Black people in the South want to forget. It depends on which side of the line you're on."

Even if Lil Jon and The East Side Boyz did this as some sort of marketing ploy that would differentiate them from the rest of the Southern hip-hop herd and sell more albums, it makes the powerful statement that Kanye's flag-waving cannot because it's coming from young Southern black men.  For Lil Jon, waving this flag carries the weight and meaning and rebel intensity for which it was initially intended -- and in doing so, it is innately subversive.

In the next installment of Oh, Kanye -- Part 2: That Confederate Flag, we'll do the unthinkable and look at the flag in context.

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