No survey of flags in hip hop would be complete without acknowledging the controversial use by rappers, from time to time, of the Confederate flag. Two years ago this topic gained a great deal of attention when Kanye West put the flag on his clothing and merchandise while touring to promote his 2013 album Yeezus. He was widely quoted saying:
“React how you want. Like I said, any energy you got is good energy. You know, the Confederate flag represented slavery, in a way — that’s my abstract take on what I know about it, right? So I made the song ‘New Slaves.’ So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag now! Now what are you gonna do?”
He was strongly criticized by some black leaders and entertainers, notably Al Sharpton, for using a hated symbol of oppression as part of a publicity stunt to promote himself and his album. They urged consumers to boycott the album and merchandise — ineffectively, as over one million records were shipped by the end of the year. Others supported the bold move. In Uptown magazine Lincoln Anthony Blades wrote:
For Kanye, wearing the Confederate flag isn’t about mocking his ancestors, but appropriating something that white, conservative racists love, and letting them feel helpless as he denigrates everything it means to them.
This unimpeachable symbol of white power is now nothing more than a fashion statement that Kanye wants to OWN and minimize, just like Black culture and history is appropriated by whites everyday.
By now this tempest has mostly died away, but not entirely. A 2014 video by Ethiopian Canadian performer Abel Tesfaye, known as The Weeknd, raised some eyebrows for showing, briefly, a Confederate flag as room decor:
Ally Schweitzer, writing for American University Radio in Washington, DC, just last month published a thoughtful essay entitled Can Hip-Hop Help Change The Meaning Of The Confederate Flag? It features an interview with a little known rapper from Alabama named Lazarus Thicklen II, who performs as Black Native, about his song and video Black Confederate.
…he says his Confederate flag isn’t the same one carried into battle under Robert E. Lee. For starters, Thicklen’s flag isn’t red, white and blue; it’s black and white. He says he wanted to retain the flag’s Southern symbolism while stripping its colors to transform its meaning. “I wanted to have something that said, ‘Yeah, I’m Southern, but I have a progressive mindframe,’” says Thicklen, 30.
Here is the design:
The idea in hip hop of reclaiming and reappropriating Confederate symbolism predates Kanye West and his successors. For example, here is a 2005 discussion entitled Appropriation of the Confederate flag by black rap artists. But none of these attempts, high or low profile, have managed to get significant cultural traction. Instead, they are more like a recurrent theme within the larger musical, cultural, and political forces pushing Hip hop forward in the face of other, more major appropriation controversies (e.g., Iggy Azalea vs. Azealia Banks, Macklemore’s Grammys, etc.).
To wrap things up, let’s give Chris Rock the last word: