The hateful killing of nine black churchgoers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has left a lingering wound on the American consciousness, as the country attempts to sort through what the heinous act means for race relations in the U.S. and what needs to happen to address the culture of hate that creates these kinds of killers.
The killer, 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof, directly stated that he was at the church’s Wednesday night prayer meeting to kill black people because “you rape our women, you’re taking over our country.” The aftermath has been filled with discussions about racism and white supremacy in America, and certain aspects of white Southern culture have drawn criticism. Specifically, the fact that the South Carolina state capitol flies a Confederate battle flag—long considered an emblem of racism because of the Confederacy’s desire to maintain chattel slavery in the United States—became a point of contention. Politicians and pundits from around the country have all weighed in, with many voicing opposition to any official state usage of the flag.
Hip-hop artists have been vocal in discussing Charleston and its aftermath, but some have been taken to task for their own use of the Confederate flag in their art. Pop artists using offensive symbolism isn’t anything new. In the mid-’70s, British punks like Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux began wearing swastikas in what they believed was an affront to British elders who’d fought Germany and would chide rebellious youth with, “I fought the war for your sort.” Nirvana’s 1993 video for “Heart-Shaped Box” featured a young white girl in KKK garb, innocently reaching for a fetus in a tree. Whether or not you were offended by those artists depends solely on point of view, but rappers are supposed to push similar buttons. And they oftentimes do.
In 2000, OutKast’s Andre 3000 wore a Confederate flag emblem on his belt buckle in the video for their hit single “Ms. Jackson.” Crunk rapper Pastor Troy had the flag prominently featured in his “This Tha City” video that same year. Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz’s Put Yo Hood Up album cover—in addition to the somewhat tongue-in-cheek title—featured the rapper draped in a Confederate flag with two more burning flags draped in the background. In 2005, Atlanta hip-hop star Ludacris performed his hit “Georgia” at the VIBE Awards wearing a Confederate flag outfit. At the end of the performance, he tore off his outfit to reveal an Afrocentric red, black, and green version underneath, and then stomped on the Confederate suit. He subsequently issued a statement explaining what the performance was supposed to mean.
“The discussions that have been sparked after my performance of ‘Georgia’ at the 2005 VIBE Awards is my exact reason for wearing a depiction of the Confederate Flag,” he wrote. “This flag represents the oppression that we as African-Americans have endured for years; this is a symbol of segregation and the racism that reigned not only throughout the South but throughout the entire United States. I wore it to represent where we came from, to remind people that Ray Charles’ original ‘Georgia’ was written because of that racism. At the end of the performance, I removed and stomped on the flag to reveal my version of the flag; a flag comprised of black, red, and green. Those are the colors of Africa. It is a representation and my interpretation of where we were and where we need to go. Racism is just as prevalent now and if we are not constantly mindful of our history and take charge of it, history is destined to repeat itself because of ignorance. In order to move forward, we must never forget where we were.I hope people continue to question and challenge authority, media and themselves because questioning and challenging can only lead to enlightenment.”
In 2013, Kanye West was photographed wearing a jacket with the Confederate flag emblem and later sold Confederate flag-covered merchandise during his Yeezus tour. He explained his intentions to 97.1 AMP in Los Angeles:
“React how you want,” West said at the time. “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. Now what are you going to do?”
Subversive art is absolutely necessary to challenging preconceived notions and ideas. Subversive art is why black rappers saying “Nigga” will never mean the same thing as a white person saying it. The context doesn’t just matter—it’s the entire point.
But in understanding how the repurposing of a hateful symbol can be empowering for those who have been oppressed by it, it’s important to recognize also that the repurposing is never wholesale. You can never change the entire meaning of what that flag represents to the point that it’s fully neutered. Lynyrd Skynyrd flying a Confederate flag at their shows wasn’t intended to convey the same meaning as Lil Jon wearing it on an album cover—nor should it be interpreted that way. And most important is understanding that rappers reappropriating that flag won’t ever mean the same thing as it flying over a state capitol or courthouse; just as a white person saying the N-word can’t ever have the same kind of undermining, neutralizing effect it has when a black person uses it as a term of endearment. It is impossible for the establishment to be anti-establishment. The point is to turn a tool of the establishment’s oppression into a tool to subversively challenge that establishment, and in America, the establishment is whiteness. And you can’t Rachel Dolezal your way into the oppressed group’s cultural spaces—even when it comes to verbiage and symbolism. But you can respect the right to be subversive.
And as fans and critics, we also have to be honest about the fact that not every black person that flies that flag is attempting to subvert the flag’s meaning. There have been black people vocally defending the flag—which is their right. The current conversation about the flag involves state usage and endorsement—private businesses like Walmart have pulled sales of their own volition—they weren’t “banned” in any way, shape or form. If an individual wants to fly the flag in their yard or wear it on their T-shirt or on their car, that’s their right. Whatever stigma comes with that is theirs to bear, as well. But black taxpayers and voters shouldn’t have to walk past that symbol of their oppression—and those who fought to continue it—every time they walk into a school or government office. And if rappers want to use the flag, that’s also their right as artists. But if you plan on using that flag to make a statement, be prepared to give a statement—because black people have been wounded by too much for anyone, regardless of their race, to exploit that painful history for empty shock value.