In 2013, Kanye West set about on what appeared to be a one-man mission to reappropriate the Confederate flag, long considered by many to be a symbol of hatred and racial terrorism.
He was photographed sporting an MA-1 green-and-orange flight jacket; the flag was sewn prominently on the sleeve. Not only did West wear the patch on his jacket, he was photographed draped in the flag.
In an interview with Los Angeles radio station 97.1 AMP, West explained his motivation.
“React how you want,” West said. “Any energy is good energy. 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.”
He featured the flag prominently in merchandise for his “Yeezus” tour. There were Confederate flag tote bags and a T-shirt emblazoned with the flag and a skull in the foreground.
For West, this was a subversive act, the logic being that nothing would make white supremacists angrier than seeing a black man enrich himself by hijacking their own branding. But it amounted to little more than tilting at windmills. Perhaps unsurprisingly, West did not set off a revolution of black and brown kids claiming the flag as their own. Instead, the move simply erupted as a brief media controversy, then receded, written off as yet another West-ism.
But West’s move was not without precedent. In fact, West is far from the only black artist to rock the rebel flag.
Andre 3000 wore a Confederate flag belt buckle in the video for “Ms. Jackson.” Lil Jon featured it in the video for “Bia Bia,” and Pastor Troy did the same in his video for “This Tha City.” All three are from Atlanta.
In 2005, Ludacris, another Atlanta rapper, wore a Confederate flag suit to perform “Georgia” onstage at the Vibe Awards. At the end of his performance, he took off the suit and stomped on it, while wearing an Afro-centric version of the stars and bars in red, black and green.
There’s a history of reappropriating symbols of hate in hip-hop, absent of the never-ending debate over who, if anyone, is allowed to say n—–.
During the 1970s, several gangs in the Bronx including the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads, featured in the new documentary “Rubble Kings,” wore swastikas as a way of communicating how menacing and terrible they were. Some even had positions called “Gestapo.” It was the gang wars of the 1970s that led to the the birth of hip-hop later in the decade when gangs traded guns, fists and knives for rap battling and break-dance competitions.
“That tripped me out, too,” “Rubble Kings” director Shan Nicholson told the Post. “Black guys with Nazi helmets and everything. It’s just the craziest thing to me. But they adopted the Hells Angels sort of look and energy. They wanted to be outlaws, and everything that goes along with being an outlaw, from the Swastikas to war helmets.
“I asked a few of the leaders, ‘What’s up with the swastikas, man? You guys are black and Puerto Rican.’ They took it back to the original symbol. It’s a symbol that’s been around way before the Nazis. But they wanted to be the baddest, and they wanted to be feared and then loathed. And what better way than to put a swastika on your arm band?”
Just last year, Nicki Minaj apologized after she was criticized for using Nazi imagery in the lyric video for “Only.”
As usual, the debate about these symbols is all about context.
In the wake of last week’s shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., the debate over whether the Confederate flag should stand outside the statehouse has sprung anew. Dylann Roof, who was arrested and charged with nine counts of murder and one count of possessing a firearm while committing a violent crime, composed a racist manifesto in which he declared that he hated the American flag. On his Web site, he posted pictures of himself holding a Confederate flag. It was on the front vanity plate of his car.
Former presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney have both said the Confederate flag should come down. President Obama has said it belongs in a museum. In a widely circulated essay on Facebook, North Carolina folk singer Jonathan Byrd argued the same. He wrote:
If the massacre in Charleston- or any number of similar events in recent U.S. history- had been committed by a foreign invader, we would go to war. How many billions will we spend fighting the terrorist organization known as institutionalized racism? How many American lives are we willing to risk to protect America?
I hear you out there saying, “But it’s not an institution. There are no leaders. There’s no one to attack.”
Yes there is. You want to flush them out? Here’s how to do it: Take down the confederate flag. Take it down on national television. Take it down for an hour. A day, if you can stand it. A week would be nice. I don’t want to talk about whether it’s right or wrong. It’s the least we could do, a gesture that would mean more than words.
Then watch the organization reveal itself. The leaders would be obvious immediately. They would in fact be invited to speak on the nightly news. You might be surprised to find out that they already sit behind the news desk. They are in some of our nation’s highest offices. They are on the school board. They will not have enough humility to sit on their hands, not even for ten minutes. Their supporters may even show up in the comments on this status, threatened enough by the mere idea of a humble gesture to their sworn enemy. I hope they do.
Byrd is a seventh-generation North Carolinian and a self-described “world-traveling songwriting redneck from Cackalacky.” The Confederate flag, he admitted, means something different to him.
We live in a terrorist state.
I say that because I can’t feel it. … I say it because when I see the confederate flag, all I think is, “I’m home.” The flag doesn’t bother me at all, not in my gut, not in my deeper psyche. Sometimes when I’m far from home and I see the rebel flag, it’s actually… and this is so terrible I need to take a breath before I type it… comforting. What can I say? It’s hard to see a problem when it signs your paycheck.
So I say it to remind myself: we live in a terrorist state that doesn’t threaten me.
When West decided embark on his mission of reappropriation, he dared white supremacists to retaliate.
“Now what you gonna do,” he huffed, his voice filled with bravado. “Ain’t nuthin’ gon’ happen.”
But Roof, now held on a $1 million bond after officials captured him in North Carolina, cloaked himself in the very same flag West attempted to reclaim for himself. What does West think now? Is it still his flag?
See that’s the magic of racism, it works on itself
We hate each other, screw each other, kill each other
When we can’t kill nobody else
See that’s the magic of lackin’ resources, it works on itself
500 n—— gettin’ pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-popped
And North Carolina didn’t help
See that’s the magic of racism, it works on itself