"I Ain't Comin' Down" — Kanye West and the Confederate Flag

December 10, 2013

Mary Chiles was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. She spent three years working at the YWCA post-college as a child care teacher and as an AmeriCorps member in the Social Justice department. Mary now lives in San Francisco, CA.

On October 23rd, I went with a group of friends to see Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar play a show in Oakland, California, one of the earlier stops in his “Yeezus” tour. While being herded through security, I caught a glimpse of a black teenager wearing a T-shirt featuring a Confederate flag, a skull and the words “I AIN’T COMIN’ DOWN.” I felt a cognitive dissonance seeing a young, black kid in Oakland wearing something I had been raised to view as a symbol of hatred, oppression and intolerance.
 
While still processing the shirt, I passed a booth selling merchandise; it turns out the boy’s shirt was official “Yeezus” tour gear. Concert goers around the country can purchase tote bags and T-shirts boldly emblazoned with the Confederate flag. Kanye West’s career is built as much on his habit of courting controversy as on his considerable rapping and producing talent. His albums are increasingly audacious in both musical style and in their confrontation of racial inequality in America (his latest, “Yeezus,” has songs entitled “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead”). It isn’t surprising that West chose such provocative, polarizing images to adorn his tour merchandise. 
 
The day after the concert, I read Rebecca Harkless’s post on the YW blog about lingering symbols of racism. Rebecca’s post made me think about West’s merchandise in the larger context of the Rebel flag as a commodity to be bought, sold and worn.
 
My initial shock at seeing the shirt gave way to a frisson of excitement—could black fans around the U.S. donning this symbol strip the flag of its potency? I tried to imagine what those who proudly wear (and wave) “the stars and bars” around the South would think. Would their hallowed emblem of Confederate heritage lose some of its appeal? In the days following the concert, I attempted to learn more about West’s choices.
 
It’s important to note that Kanye West is not the first black artist to adopt this potent symbol. Southern rappers Ludacris and Andre 3000, among others, have both worn the Confederate flag during performances and in their videos. West’s appropriation of the Confederate flag is different as he doesn't wear or feature the flag during his show, but he designed and is selling clothing adorned with it to his fans. While this could potentially have a broader impact, I can’t shake my feelings of queasiness about this historical symbol of oppression further lining West’s already very deep pockets.
 
My thrill at the rebelliousness of a black artist selling gear adorned with the Rebel flag waned further when I heard an interview West gave to AMPRadio in LA. When questioned by the radio host about the merchandise, West’s ideas seem poorly explained at best and half-baked at worst.
 
I loved West’s bold assertion that the Confederate flag “is [his] flag now.” I expected him to delve further into the idea of cultural appropriation, but he lost the thread when he went on to refer to the flag as “colorless… super hood and super white boy approved at the same time.” Does West’s decision to use the Rebel flag stem from his desire to strip it of its power, from his desire to stir the pot, or from his desire to create merchandise with broad and edgy appeal? Is he brashly challenging ideas and prejudices, or is he cynically cashing in on the volatility of this controversial image?
 
West is a smart, savvy business man in addition to being a visionary musician. He enjoys tremendous success and, as he’d be the first to tell you, he’s one of the most famous and influential stars in the world right now. I can’t help but feel disappointed that West didn't flesh out his ideas on this issue more fully. He started down the path of an interesting, potentially constructive national dialogue around re-appropriation and oppressive imagery, but he didn't see the conversation through. 
 

Ludacris performs in a track suit covered with stylized Rebel flags.
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