Hip Hop and the Confederate Flag

An oft-republished image of Kanye West wearing the Confederate flag on his sleeve.
An oft-republished image of Kanye West wearing the Confederate flag on his sleeve. Photo by X17.com on Saturday, November 2, 2013.

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?”

Image on Yeezus 2013 merchandise.  From
Image on Yeezus 2013 merchandise. From “Kanye West Is Trying To Take The Confederate Flag Back” by Sharmin Kent on thinkprogress.com.

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:

Produced by Toronto design and film studio “Kid.”  Uploaded to YouTube Aug 28, 2014, it has currently reached over 8.7 million views.

The lights are down, but a Confederate flag is on the wall.
The lights are down, but a Confederate flag can be seen in the background, behind dancing Canadians.

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.

Uploaded Dec 22, 2014, it currently has 577 views on YouTube.

She writes:

…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:

Black and white rebel flag.
Black and white “Confederate flag” (Technically, what’s popularly known as the Confederate or rebel flag is the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, or a rectangular version of the CSA battle flag, and was never a national flag of the Confederacy.)

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:

From The Chris Rock Show on HBO in 2012.

The Hip Hop Unity Flag

The Flags of the World database includes an entry under Hip Hop Unity flag (U.S.):

In the summer of 1996, a flag symbolizing the values of the Hip Hop Nation was officially revealed in San Francisco. The Hip Hop Unity Flag is the brain child of community activist James P Queen who is the President of Racial Unity Inc. The flag features the colors of our human family: Black, Brown, Red, Yellow and White. Unlike most flags whose stripes are laid horizontally the Hip Hop Generation-Unity Flag’s stripes stand vertical/side by side. The significance of this is to show equality… because no color is above the other. In short the flag stands for unity.

Hip hop unity flag, front (obverse). FOTW image by Antonio Martins, 14 May 1999.
Hip hop unity flag, front (obverse). FOTW image by Antonio Martins, 14 May 1999.
Hip hop unity flag, front (obverse).  FOTW image by Antonio Martins, 14 May 1999.
Hip hop unity flag, back (reverse). FOTW image by Antonio Martins, 14 May 1999.

In a posting about the flag in 1996, hip hop journalist Davey D reports on several different appearances of this flag: by SF mayor Willie Brown at a Mayors Conference; at a Peace Walkathon in 1995 as a stage backdrop; and at a summer music festival sponsored by KMEL radio, at which it was endorsed by Russell Simmons, MC Hammer, and Ice Cube.

See also:

And please help:

  • We can’t find any other information about this flag, James P Queen, or Racial Unity Inc. (other than an entry for a supposedly active non-profit in New York that was founded in 1948).  If you can, let us know at info@portlandflag.org.

X Clan: Weapon X

Brooklyn-based Afrocentric group X Clan released Return from Mecca in 2007. The music video for the single Weapon X features two flags: the green, gold, and red flag Ethiopian flag, and the red, black, and green Pan-African flag.

X Clan: Weapon X. Directed by Dale “Rage” Resteghini. Uploaded to YouTube August 24, 2006, has 320,000 plays.

Leader Brother J with the imperial Ethiopian flag in the background.  The flag, adopted by the Rastafarians, depicts the Lion of Judah.
Leader Brother J with the imperial Ethiopian flag in the background. The flag, associated with Emperor Haile Selassie and made famous by the Rastafarians, depicts the Lion of Judah.
The Lion of Judah flag.  It was the Ethiopian flag during the reign of Emporer Haile Selassie, who called himself the Lion of Judah, asserting a divine connection to the biblical tribe of Judah.
The Lion of Judah flag. It was the Ethiopian flag during the reign of Emporer Haile Selassie, who called himself the Lion of Judah, asserting a divine connection to the biblical tribe of Judah.
Waved in the background: the red, black, and green Pan-African flag.
Waved in the background: the red, black, and green Pan-African flag.
The red, black, and green flag goes by many names:  Pan-African, Afro-American, Black Liberation, Marcus Garvey, and others.  It was designed in 1920 by the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA) .
The red, black, and green flag goes by many names: Pan-African, Afro-American, Black Liberation, Marcus Garvey, and others. It was designed in 1920 by the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA) .
X Clan adopted the ankh or "Key of the Nile" as part of their symbology, using a version of the green, red, and black flag charged with this ancient symbol of universal life.  The video shows Brother J wearing a large gold ankh around his neck.
X Clan adopted the ankh or “Key of the Nile” as part of their symbology, using a version of the green, red, and black flag charged with this ancient symbol of universal life. In addition to the shoulder patch, the video shows Brother J wearing a large gold ankh around his neck.

From an earlier song Funkin’ Lesson, X Clan’s late founding member Professor X explains:

Freedom or death, we shall all be moved
Vanglorious
This is protected by the red, the black, and the green
With a key, sissy!

ankh-afam-flag

Thanks, Gontzal Royo, for pointing us to this video.

Outkast’s Stankonia flag

OutKast are a celebrated hip hop duo from Atlanta.  For their critically acclaimed 2000 album Stankonia, in what became an iconic image, they appear on the cover in front of a huge black and white variant of the US flag, with inverted stars.

Paste magazine ranked it 21st in their list, The 25 Best Album Covers of the Decade (2000-2009):

Stankonia‘s album cover presented OutKast’s Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton as they were and are—strong, smart, funky and ready to “[give] the youth the truth from this booth.” Most striking of all is the stark, black-and-white-American-flag backdrop, hinting at a separate America—a place that exists apart from the country experienced by the masses. A place called Stankonia. Fun fact? This flag is actually enormous and hangs on the wall in the tracking room at OutKast’s northwest Atlanta recording studio. We saw it there, and it was awesome.

Cover of the album Stankonia.
Cover of the Outkast album Stankonia.  Art direction and design by Mike Rush.  Photograph by Michael Lavine.
The Stankonia flag.  Image from Wikipedia.
The Stankonia flag. Image from Wikipedia.
Outkast performing in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, September 27, 2014.  The flag design is similar but not identical to Stankonia's: the stars are right side up.
OutKast performing in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, September 27, 2014. The flag design is similar but not identical to Stankonia’s: the stars are right side up. Image from Wesley Hodges’ review in the Consequence of Sound.

See also:

Young Jeezy: Put On

This video for the Grammy-nominated hip hop song Put On by Young Jeezy popularized the monochrome, “black and silver” adaptation of the US flag.  The song was on an album entitled The Recession, and the flag was used in the video as a symbol of the Great Recession.  For most of the US, the recession started in December 2007, but for African Americans it started long before that.

Here is a censored version of the flag-filled music video:

Official video, directed by Gil Green.  Published December 19, 2009.  Currently has over 9.5 million views.

The first appearance of the flag in the video.
The first appearance of the flag in the video.
Large version used on stage.
Large version used on stage.
From one of a number of scenes of characters posing with the flag.
From one of a number of scenes of characters posing with the flag.

See also:

Machine Gun Kelly: Raise the Flag

Hip hop has a thing about flags.  This week, we’ll look at some examples.  Here is a music video by American rapper Richard Colson Baker, known as MGK (Machine Gun Kelly).  The song is Raise the Flag (uncensored).

Official video, directed by JR Saint. Published on Oct 14, 2014.  Currently has over 3.8 million views.

US flag made from printed fabric.  Image from official video.
Red, white, and blue US flag made from fabric printed with MGK’s trademark “EST 19XX”, EST = Everyone Stand Together (his crew, fans, label, movement). Image from official video.
Here is a black-and-white version of the US/EST flag, with a standard US flag attached to it.
Here is a black-and-white version of the US/EST flag, with a standard US flag attached to it.
A large black-and-white version of the US/EST flag, used as a backdrop.
A large black-and-white version of the US/EST flag, used as a backdrop.

See also: