Kanye West grabs Confederate flag for promotion, but does he grasp symbol?

Posted at 8:04 PM, Nov 04, 2013

(CNN) — Kanye West and the Confederate battle flag. That’s the discussion.

It’s not about race relations or a relic’s true meaning. It’s not about whether a group can co-opt a pejorative of which they’ve historically been the butt and make it their own, much like the gay community did with “queer” or African-Americans did with the n-word.

No, the conversation is about West and that flag.

The rapper thrust himself into the spotlight, yet again, with news that several pieces of merchandise from his Yeezus tour are emblazoned with the controversial Southern Cross. At his tour store in Los Angeles, a replica of the flag is affixed to the wall with red tape and adorned with the words, “I ain’t coming down.”

Twitter exploded after word got out, and while West saw some support, including a fellow who called him a “pro-black genius,” others called him a disgrace. Read one tweet, “Ye – THATS STUPID! Brother I marched to have that vile rag torn down from the state house grounds.”

Asked to explain the rationale for including the controversial symbol on his clothing, West told AMP Radio, “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?”

He added later in the interview, “It’s colorless also. It’s super-‘hood super-white-boy-approved at the same time.”

Those aren’t the words of someone seeking to further dialogue, said hip-hop historian and San Francisco State adjunct professor Dave “Davey D” Cook. It sounds more like a man courting controversy, especially when you consider the source.

“Kanye doesn’t move by accident. There’s definitely a level of publicity involved in this,” Cook said, adding that while West “built his career around controversy,” no one should begrudge him selling anything that people are buying.

Green-lighting racism?

There are dangers, though, and Cook worries that West has missed an opportunity to educate people on the flag’s symbolism. There’s also the chance he could embolden those who fly the flag with ill will toward blacks.

“Kanye runs the risk of green-lighting something that is overtly racist, and I don’t think he has any plan in mind on how to educate people,” Cook said. “The opportunity to educate people on the symbolism of that flag and the racism attached to it is there.”

Not everyone is holding West to such a standard.

“He is an entertainer, for God’s sake. Surprise, surprise. Of course, it’s part of a publicity thing,” said Harvard University law professor Randall Kennedy, adding that that doesn’t preclude it from being useful, interesting or justifiable.

Kennedy, whose half dozen books on race include “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” said there are parallels between groups co-opting epithets and West co-opting the flag, “But listen, n—-r is still a term of abuse used to terrify people and hurt people.”

There are both positive and negative potential upshots to West’s campaign, Kennedy said. If it lessens someone’s anxiety about seeing the flag or diminishes the symbol’s “power to intimidate,” it’s a win, but if people forget what the flag stood for or become too ignorant about its meaning to counter claims that it’s merely a symbol of state’s rights, there could be detriment.

“Here were people who were willing to fight and die in order to enslave people, and that shouldn’t be forgotten,” Kennedy said.

Cook said that if West wanted to meaningfully take on a hot-button social issue, there are more effective ways of doing it.

He pointed to numerous examples in hip-hop: Talib Kweli has been outspoken on New York’s stop-and-frisk policy and Florida’s “stand your ground” law; Rhymefest and Immortal Technique visited Alabama in protest of the state’s immigration law; and several rappers have penned thoughtful lyrics admonishing the prison-industrial complex.

“It’d be nice if Kanye was doing town halls while he was on tour,” Cook said. “He’s in a position to do that. I’m not sure if he really realizes it or wanted to go in that direction.”

Not a trailblazer

Whatever West’s true intention, it’s worth noting, as Kennedy pointed out, that West isn’t the first person to do this. About a decade ago, a Charleston, South Carolina, clothing company called Nu South featured designs with the Southern Cross in red, black and green, the colors of the Pan-African flag.

Several rappers have also used the flag, including Ludacris, David Banner, Pastor Troy, LIl Jon and OutKast, though Cook is quick to point out, “They’re not selling a flag. They were wearing it, so there’s a difference.”

Pastor Troy wonders if West, who was born in Atlanta but grew up in Chicago and is about to move into a Bel Air mansion with fiance Kim Kardashian, understands how powerful the symbol is in the South.

Driving through South Georgia during a phone interview, the Atlanta rapper, whose real name is Micah LeVar Troy, said he had just been passed by a swamp boat, the entire hull of which bore the Confederate flag, and he would remind West to be careful disrespecting things that others find sacred.

“Now, these are the ones Kanye needs to be worried about. Kanye ain’t waving that flag in front of them,” he said. “Be careful, Kanye.”

Not that Troy hasn’t used the flag on album covers and in videos, but “I wasn’t lifting it up to glorify it,” he said, explaining he knew the ramifications of using the banner. To Troy, the flag stood for rebellion, and he was being rebellious himself in flaunting it.

“I was letting them know it was a new day down here in the South, from then to now. Whoever would’ve thought a black man could touch that flag without getting killed?” he said.

With West,Troy said, “it sounds more like a personal agenda, which you’re free to have. But make it make sense, as my dad used to say.”

A complicated symbol

The Rev. Al Sharpton shared what he felt the flag represented in a column last month: “The Confederate flag symbolizes dehumanization, injustice and pain. It is a stark reminder of an era in our history that was defined by the abhorrent practice of slavery. And it is representative of a mentality that looked upon blacks as inferiors who needed to remain in the shackles of subservience.”

Yet that meaning is far from universal. In addition to the aforementioned state’s rights advocates, there are those who see it only as a symbol of Southern pride or heritage. Southern governors have risked boycott and ouster from office to keep it flying at state installations. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has said it belongs in a museum.

“When people say that the Confederate flag represents slavery, I ask them, ‘If you look at the importation of slaves to the United States from Africa, what flag did they fly under? It was the United States flag,” said George Mason University’s Walter Williams, an economics professor who studies and writes about race.

“People say, ‘Let’s get rid of the Confederate flag because it’s a symbol of slavery.’ I say, ‘What do we do with the American flag?’ ” he said.

WIlliams doesn’t like hip-hop music, but that doesn’t mean it should be banned or removed from public view, just like the Constitution shouldn’t be outlawed because some people have visceral reactions to the Second Amendment, he said. While the Nazis represented a “despicable” regime, it’s a “gross violation” of freedom of expression to ban anyone from displaying the Nazi flag, Williams said.

To Williams, it’s a matter of freedom of expression, the true test of which is not how one reacts when people “express themselves in ways you think they ought to express themselves, but when they express themselves in ways you find offensive.”

While Cook isn’t wholly ruling out that West has a plan to stoke dialogue about the flag, he hasn’t seen it yet. If the “Jesus Walks” rapper is just engaging in naked profiteering, that’s fine, but Cook said he hopes the flag’s true meaning and symbolism isn’t lost or skewed in the flap.

“You can’t leave room for misinterpretation, or some people will take that to the bank,” Cook said. “He’s going to take some of this to the bank himself.”

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