In the video of the interview, when asked about his reaction to Al Sharpton calling him out for using the Confederate flag, Kanye had this to say:
I called Al Sharpton … Heh … Well, I called Russell to call him. And I was like — Tell Al Sharpton to call me before he go out talking to people…
(DJ interrupts to ask why Sharpton should call Kanye first)
You don’t never know what I’m trying to do. Because I like, literally called, because I was like… it was like the day I was about to sign my deal, finally. I was like — See? This is what happens. And that’s funny — that you jump to that off the title of the conversation. Or we can talk about the Rick Ross conversation. — Of it being black people stopping other black people from getting checks. Talking about — Man, that was racist! No, but wait — but y’all…
(DJ interrupts to say Rev. Sharpton “felt the pain,” presumably the centuries of racism)
What black people don’t know is racism is something that like white people don’t even have to do anymore. ‘Cause we hate niggas. We hate each other more than white people hate us. It’s like — It’s like a real estate of racism. Like it works on itself. Now you talking about the pain — The thing is, you know, people got bills. Don’t nobody care about the Confederate flag to that type of level. It’s like if someone did, if you came to ‘em and said — Look, I know that you’re, uh… that you know, uh, that this symbol means this, but I’m just gonna pay all your bills for one year and I’m gonna ask you — Does it mean that same thing? That in fact don’t mean nothing.
(DJs erupt into laughter, discussion ends)
There you have it. Make of that what you will. I transcribed it verbatim, as best I could. My intent was to avoid unfairly quoting him or taking his words out of context. Now, let’s zero in on the themes of his answers, the underlying reasoning of his argument.
A. Kanye resents that black people hurt each other financially, and specifically as in his case, do it by way of public criticism.
B. Kanye feels Black America suffers more from the racism of Black America. He suggests Black people hate themselves more than white people hate them. And this racism creates a self-perpetuating system of valuations similar to real estate.
C. As far as dealing with the pain and memories attached to the Confederate flag, if Kanye offered to pay the bills of an offended person for a year, none of the offensive nature would matter anymore, or at least, not nearly as much. Money would act as a pain-reliever.
I’d say those are fair summations. Now, let’s take another look at Kanye’s Confederacy controversy.
It would be sloppy to compare Kanye wearing a Confederate flag to any of the obvious analogs. There’s no value in contrasting his situation to say a Jewish entertainer wearing a swastika. Comparing atrocities always offends me. It reduces human suffering to the backs of baseball cards wherein history is turned into numbers and a scoring system of pain and suffering. All pain is pain. All suffering is the same for the one suffering. So, no comparisons will be made aesthetically or cross-culturally.
When it comes to waving this iconic flag of racism, as he prefers it, Kanye will stand alone. And in the spirit of his single-mindedness, let’s stick to our title question.
Kanye just stole the fucking Confederate flag and made it his own… can he do that?!
Full disclosue: I own and wear clothing with Confederate flags. What can I say? I blame The Dukes of Hazzard tv show. I loved that show. Heaven is in Hazzard County, as far as I’m concerned. Driving in the south, I have pulled off the freeway to take a picture with one of the many General Lees bought and exhibited by fans, often southern auto dealerships. If you’re unfamiliar with the General Lee, that’s the nickname of the bright orange ’69 Dodge Charger, the car Bo and Luke Duke drove in the show. It’s painted with the “Flag of Northern Virginia” across the roof of the car. I have a die cast metal toy version of the car near my desk. For a son of a black Nationalist, I have a surprising number of Confederate flags in my bedroom.
But I’m not on a mission to wave the rebel flag, at least not the way Kanye is. I just like the damn thing. Due to the power of fiction it has positive associations for me. The difference is how my backwards-ass love of the Confederate flag affects the rest of the world. Obviously, my sphere of influence is much smaller, microscopic in comparison. There is an influence and I consider it when I wear the Stars and Bars.
For my last birthday my sister gave me a black leather belt that had Confederate flags all the way around it, every few inches. It’s tacky as all-get-out. And I love it. I wear it. The thing is where I live no one really notices it. Maybe it’s because I call California home, and specifically, I live in Los Angeles. It’s a city of immigrants and transplants. Maybe that’s not it. I’ve just noticed that, for whatever reason, a black man wearing a Confederate flag doesn’t raise eyebrows out here. So, in some ways I feel like I understand Kanye on this one, or at least I feel I have some familiarity with what he may be thinking about the Stars and Bars, and its history as an icon of racism.
Back to the question at hand; Kanye stole the flag and is trying to make it his own. Just attempting that is one of the boldest thefts of a historical property on record. Anonymous has snatched the iconography of Guy Fawkes for their purposes. Grabbing from the rebel past is kinda a thing these days. And so, Kanye went a little bigger and captured the rebel flag of a whole history of institutionalized American racism. That’s a bold fucking move! No doubt about it.
But can he pull it off?
The hidden irony of his flag-snatching is something Kanye inversely points out in his radio interview. He seizes on the same social value. He just mistakenly uses it for faulty leverage. He ignores how he’s hastening others into forgetting history. That’s the whole deal! That’s the slippery fulcrum of his argument.
His daring move fails because when he tries to steal the Confederate flag, in effect, he’s not really stealing anything of value. Who cares if you steal forgotten history? There’s nothing there. It’s fast disassociating from the power it held in memory. Kanye accidentally cuts history loose like he’s releasing an astronaut’s tether only to watch the spaceman drift away into the vast black void.
If Kanye helps people forget why the Confederacy, and by extension the flag of the seceded states, the Stars and Bars, is such a hateful icon of racism what that really means is, Kanye has finally stolen something that’s boring.
That’s why his rebel yell about stealing the Confederate flag feels so lame. It’s not setting the culture ablaze with the burning fires of controversy. It’s not really badass to use the Confederate flag if everyone is already busy forgetting what it was.
In fact, even the choice to use it comes off as adolescent. It’s a silly pose. It’s one struck for maximum drama, “Ooh! Look at what I’m gonna wear out of the house!”
If that’s the case and Kanye stole a boring piece of controversy, then that leaves the matter of how Kanye’s use of the Stars and Bars is hurtful to those who remember it originally; the ones who lived under it before it was removed from stubborn state flags, for those survivors of decades of persistent, life-limiting racism, Kanye’s stunt must look even more adolescent.
When it comes to creative geniuses, one expects more nuance, especially in the arena of fashion aesthetics. You can’t just be edgy. There’s more to it than just stealing a racist bit of iconography and daring to wear it. Cast an eye at the trouble the fashion designer Jeremy Scott stepped into with some of his 2012 shoe designs for Adidas. The provocative designer ham-handedly created basketball shoes with bright orange chains and leg manacles, the kind last seen on the ankles of slaves and work camp prisoners of the Deep South. That fiasco was fueled by Jeremy Scott’s insatiable need to be daring, edgy, provocative and slightly ahead of the curve. Take heed from his lesson.
Or if you prefer a laugh, watch Spinal Tap for a reminder of where the line of bold interesting taste is drawn. “There’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”
Kanye’s Confederate flag campaign fails his aim because apparently his fans don’t really care that much about the flag, or if they do, he feels they don’t care deeply because they can be bought off by a year’s worth of their bills, which leaves the symbol empty of its raw power and him with a legion of easily-swayed fans. Meanwhile, for those who can’t forget the original meaning, the Confederate flag rises again as a painful reminder of the human capacity to brutalize and then forget as fast culture leaves the historic lessons in the past.
For me, it’s less a question of: Can Kanye steal the Confederate flag and get away with it?
It’s more of a question of: Should he even waste his time trying to get away with it?
Dude’s a genius. So it’s fair to assume, he can pull off whatever he’s trying to do. But is this a good use of his genius?
Kanye’s attempting to point out that blacks Americans are the “new slaves” and they hate each other based on a system of self-sustaining racism. If that’s his social message, stealing the Confederate flag isn’t the best way to spread that message. Sure, it ramrods the point home, but it does it simplistically, with a tin-eared redundancy, and it’s culturally unwise based on the loss of memory; as well, personally for Kanye’s brand, the symbol fails to be daring. Nothing is worse than being boring.
And this isn’t an example of black people getting in the way of other black people getting a check. I can’t say I wouldn’t do exactly what Kanye is doing if I was him, and if the circumstances were the same. I just have the luxury of not being Kanye. I see things a little differently.
The thing is, do you, Kanye. Do you. Just don’t be boring. Especially, if by you being boring it pains old black people. I mean, come on, brother. Haven’t they been through enough? You gotta put Confederate flags on the backs of shirts of all the kids in their neighborhood?
Maybe a year from now, when kids are hopefully still wearing your merch; maybe you can go ask the elderly in the community, the ones who remember, ask them if they don’t mind seeing all those Confederate flags on the kids. Maybe you’re right and they’ll say, “That in fact don’t mean nothing.”