Accidental Racism, Pop Culture, and White Supremacy by Alykhan Alani
(link to this article: bit.ly/16NGEi8 )
By now, I am sure you’ve heard the new country-pop record that’s just been released by country heavyweight Brad Paisley, featuring one of hip-hop’s most venerable dookie-chain rocking, Kangol-cap wearing hip-hop icons who not only listens to his mama but can’t live without his radio, gets headsprung in the club, remains current with chart topping hits, and still has time to pursue romance. LL Cool J’s success and appeal stem from a rather lengthy career and diverse catalog, but let us not forget his most salient contribution - audibly defining mutually beneficial heteronormative safe sex across the boroughs for at least two (if not more) generations of hormonal youths, awkwardly grinding in high-school gymnasiums across the nation. LL Cool J probably does a number of things well, but politicking about race simply isn’t one of them.
The underlying assumption of the song is that since we can’t change history, we ought to do our best to see each other as equals and move on, despite the fact that we may feel uncomfortable due to the (often subtle) threat presented by particular cultural artifacts like confederate flags, or du-rags (interpersonal racism is written off as irrational and structural racism doesn’t seem to exist in this narrative).
When it comes to race, it might very well be the case that privileged (white) folks are wracked with guilt about a history they had no hand in creating (or are blissfully ignorant, which is often the case), and the fact that they actively benefit from (and perpetuate) it causes a great deal of anxiety within them. However, certain cultural signifiers like the confederate flag have a very specific and violent prehistory to them. Would this song even be regarded as ‘acceptable’ if Brad Paisley and LL were “conversing over a beer” about a swastika?
Instead of engaging in a meaningful and artistic discourse about race and guilt, LL simply endorses Paisley ‘judging the book by its cover’ rhetoric. Such enthusiastic approval verbally articulated over a poorly produced country-hop ‘beat’ brings to light a number of problematic assumptions.
“To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main / I hope you understand / When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan”
Instead of simply walking by a person of color on the street, or seeing a person of color patronizing the same Starbucks he (Paisley) happens to be in, the situation described is one that is all too common - service sector employment where the employee happens to be black and the patron white. Whether you’re in line at a Starbucks, or at a college campus cafeteria, the implications of racialized service-sector relations are broad. If your only interaction with people of color is across the counter as you exchange money for food and seemingly pleasant small-talk, there’s a chance you subscribe (perhaps unconsciously) to Paisley’s worldview, which limits where and how you might envision engaging a person of color, relegating them to simple and demeaning service sector employment. With regard to being a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, Gary Rossington has distanced the band’s brand from the flag, much to the dismay of many fans.
In the following verse, Paisley attests to the atrocities of the past, yet maintains his complacency, and even manages to evoke sympathy from the listener. Poor Brad Paisley, he’s so conflicted.
“Our generation didn’t start this nation We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday And caught between southern pride and southern blame”
Right. No one want’s to waste time fighting over yesterday, except for the fact that the effects of slavery and the embedded nature of racism built into nearly every social institution are far-reaching and incredibly detrimental. So it might make Brad Paisley and many others uncomfortable to even have to think critically about race, but given the great disparities that exist between blacks and whites in this country, they are conversations that desperately need to be had. On the other hand, quit being so sensitive about race you bleeding-heart progressive with a not-so-secret love of the four elements and a B.A. in the humanities or social sciences from some east coast liberal arts college - no one cares.
At least Paisley didn’t explicitly pull the ‘I have black friends” card to further mask his tacit complacency with racism. Oh wait, he did. Enter rap mogul LL Cool J.
“Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood / What the world is really like when you’re livin’ in the hood”
LL’s assumption in these lines further contributes to well-established stereotypes of African Americans, who can only occupy decrepit ‘ghetto’ neighborhoods. You might think that LL might utilize this opportunity to acknowledge folks of color who reside in underserved rural communities given the country-pop appeal of the music, but he doesn’t. LL passes up a chance at complexifying the traditional narrative of marginalized African American communities by reifying commonplace stereotypes. But there’s still time for redemption, right? Don’t get your hopes up.
“Now my chains are gold but I’m still misunderstood”
and several lines later
“If you don’t judge my gold chains / I’ll forget the iron chains”
This cute juxtaposition of bling with chains that once shackled the ancestors of many people of color isn’t novel to critical discourse about hip-hop culture, but phrased in this particular way (and given the context of the song) it seems like LL is willing to ‘call it even’ as long as Paisley won’t judge him for being successful. We may not be able to “re-write history” as our two musically inclined compatriots suggest, but we can surely erase generations of enslavement, torture, and present-day racism if we could only respect one another’s bling. Wearing expensive jewelry is one way in which a person can flaunt their wealth and success, because we all know that unbridled materialism is the best way to cope with the anxieties of late capitalism. Drake wears both chains even when he’s in the house, so there! Why would wearing a gold chain contribute to LL being misunderstood? Well, everyone knows that black men with chains are sports players, rappers, or even more likely, drug dealers, right?
We might apologize for LL, and write off his verse as simply ‘bad’ up to this point. The following lyric, however, makes redemption impossible and cements LL Cool J’s newfound reputation as an apologist for racism.
“If you don’t judge my du-rag / I won’t judge your red flag”
We’re already battling a great deal of white-washing when it comes to race-relations in this country as it is, and this song had the potential to counter this narrative. Instead, it falls short in just about every way.
Comparing a du-rag to the confederate flag is simply irresponsible and reductionist, even for the purpose of a pop-song. Both cultural artifacts are symbolic, and may seem threatening, but for entirely different reasons.
A du-rag is a product born out of the desire to conform to hegemonic Euro-centric ideals of beauty and fashion. Black folks in the 1920’s needed to protect their relaxed / treated hair while sleeping. While some undertook this painful chemical process for cosmetic reasons, many found it necessary in order to gain or maintain employment, since kinky hair was (and still is, to some extent) perceived by (white) America as savage-like and uncouth. While du-rags and wave caps serve a similar function today, they have resurfaced as a fashionable accessory in the current age. Du-rags have become a staple ‘hip-hop’ fashion accessory worn by people from a variety of cultural backgrounds, and are associated with urban masculinity (not unlike certain types of jeans, hoodies, and other clothing/accessories). Because of this, they are perceived as threatening.
The confederate flag is threatening because it represents a time in our nation’s history where racism was codified into not only culture, but law. It represents lynching. It stands for enslavement. It harkens back to Jim Crow, domestic terrorism in its most pathological form. It defends the complete and utter degradation and abuse of people of color and their families, shipped here against their will. It stands for Chattel slavery and much of the wealth of our country has accumulated since the colonies were founded. If this pre-history truly imbues you with pride, I have news for you.
LL Cool J plays himself and does listeners a disservice by being an apologist of white supremacy, nevermind Paisley’s ignorance as a ‘misunderstood’ white man. There is nothing ‘accidental’ about a creative work that masquerades as one that ‘speaks truth to power’ when in fact it emboldens a white-washed a-historical narrative of race relations in this country that absolves guilt, pays no mind to white privilege, white supremacy, and institutional and structural racism that persists today. We’re not going to see significant change in this country around issues of race, class, and gender by not talking about them (or the structural forces which shape them). How we talk about them is just as, if not more important than having the conversations themselves. Until then, I guess we’ll have to settle for Corey.
my man is doing his thing for the local scene!! big up JWalsh!!
Don’t get bitter, hit my dude up on Twitter: @JAKOBWALSH .
REST IN PEACE TO ONE OF HIP-HOP’s GREATEST
“TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTY POUNDS OF GOOD LOVIN”
he was so comfortable being him…he didn’t conform and he never sold out. He will be missed.