Old Flag, New Slaves: Kanye West, the Confederate Flag, and the Realities of Selling the Symbol

Old Flag, New Slaves: Kanye West, the Confederate Flag, and the Realities of Selling the SymbolImage via nabildo on Instagram

Written by Justin Charity.

In a recent interview with 97.1 AMP in Los Angeles, Kanye West addressed the online disquiet surrounding his incorporation of the Confederate flag into the apparel merchandising for hisYEEZUS tour. Once again, Kanye has divided. The critics suggest that Kanye’s use of the Stars and Bars is clueless and insensitive. Fans figure, "Duh," of course Kanye West would adorn his tour stops with only the most surreal, jarring apparel.

“React how you want,” Kanye says. “It’s my flag now. What you gonna do [about it]?”

Kanye West is a grown-ass man, an immensely bankable artiste who can wear whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and with gusto. He occupies a reality that accepts and promotes extreme behavior, visuals, and creations. We’ll gawk at his most perplexing fashion, but no one’s gonna stop him. As he says himself, "Who gonn' stop me, huh?"

When Kanye peels out of Barneys sporting a bomber jacket that’s patched with Confederate logos, we’ll snap a few photos of dude and keep it moving. But when Kanye starts merchandising this brand of grim irony, however cheeky, to his fans, you have to wonder: Who does he expect to rock these tees, jackets, and totes, and where? 

Using shocking imagery to stir up conversation and address serious issues is nothing new to streetwear and hip-hop. But to re-brand a symbol that has split our nation since 1861 is quite another matter. Far from a Lambo parked in Beverly Hills, these are the other realities his fans live within, in places like Richmond or Charlotte or Tallahassee, where the irony is possibly lost. If you’ve ever shared homeroom with rednecks or otherwise been swarmed by bumpkin riffraff all sporting that flag in common, you know there’s often a measure of dread in confronting this iconography. The Stars and Bars are a loaded, startling image, for sure.  

Much of the South is a world (and a history) apart from whatever cosmopolitan irreverence Kanye intends in this case. To many Southern blacks and whites alike, the Confederate flag is a vicious, genocidal icon—an American swastika—terrifying if only because secessionist nostalgia, redneck intimidation, and the spirit of Jim Crow are quite real, even if the Civil War is distant history.

This past weekend, in fact, Jamelle Bouie of The Daily Beast covered a rally to “honor the Confederate soldier” in Richmond, where so-called Flaggers mean to stake the flag as predominant banner of the South’s true heritage. Thus summarized according to the Confederacy’s founders:

“The Confederacy was a government founded on the preservation and expansion of slavery and white supremacy. ‘Our new government’, explained Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, in an 1861 speech, ‘is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.’”

To be blunt, the menace remains real today. Among the many Southern emcees who’ve caught flack for their shredding and immolation of the Confederate flag, Pastor Troy, speaking to CNN, questioned whether Kanye grasps as much:

“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’.”

Some people claim the Confederate Flag is about Southern heritage and tradition, but it is a symbol born from hate, with a legacy that still has very real tendrils in today's world. It’s this contention of seemingly-ancient imagery that, to this day, divides campuses, neighborhoods, and state legislatures. The Stars and Bars: Souring U.S. Race Relations Since 1863.

A prevailing theme of Yeezus and its promotional tour is focusing the spotlight on blasphemy—White Jesus comedy bit and all. And whether he’s casting Christ as hypeman and peer, or remixing a lynching protest song as a rant about child support, or defiling "My Funny Valentine," Kanye has long been a maestro of such perverse appropriation. His post-808s repertoire, in particular, is a now signature daring and ever-refined defiance of whatever pop complacency we might have ever expected from a college backpacker from Chicago. 

But by Kanye’s own admission in his interview with 97.1 AMP, as much as he might want to invert the Confederate flag’s meaning, he appreciates little of its context. Unlike the self-esteem thesis of his proclaiming ‘I Am a God’, sincerely informed by Kanye’s Christian faith, Kanye’s stylization of Confederate memorabilia does seem rather arbitrary, if still vaguely provocative. Yet it’s his fans who’ll have to cope with the consequences of that provocation, assuming they dare to rock those tees in public.

Kanye will be Kanye, of course. For this persistence alone, he’ll likely always manage to infuriate anyone who fears or reveres anything (other than Kanye West) too earnestly. Instigation is Kanye’s craft, take it or leave it. But for $35 plus my dignity? I suppose I’ll cop that black Electro-Crucified Yeezus tee and call it a day.

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