I realize this story involves Kanye West and that more than likely you, like me, would love nothing more than to never hear from him again except for maybe on record. I truly do wish his generally excellent albums were recorded by somebody else — anybody but him — because I hate to have to admit that it’s worth putting up with that kind of petulant whining and depthless narcissism just for mind-blowing songs like New Slaves and No Church in the Wild.
But as with a lot of hip-hop, rock, and pop, maybe it takes an ego so big it has its own gravitational pull to truly shake things up. Kanye’s no stranger to controversy, but usually it’s wrapped tightly in the flag of self-promotion. I have no doubt that there’s a self-serving element to the latest thing he’s done to piss people off and get them talking, but for some reason I can’t help but think that this time there’s meaning in the flag he’s wrapped it all in. That flag, by the way, is the confederate flag.
Hip-Hop Wired published a photo yesterday morning of some of the t-shirts and other gear that’s available to buy at shows during Kanye’s Yeezus tour. As it turns out, a whole series of merchandise features the confederate flag emblazoned across it. There’s a t-shirt with an image of the flag and a skull and the words “I Ain’t Comin’ Down” across the front, as well as one that shows the Grim Reaper wrapped in the flag. There’s also, apparently, a tote bag that just has the confederate flag on it. All the items were designed by Brooklyn-based “Biker Americana” artist Wes Lang.
The first reaction of many, of course, has been umbrage. Both Hip-Hop Wired and the Huffington Post, as well as many on Twitter, seem to want to remind Kanye what the confederate flag stands for, as if he somehow has no idea. Needless to say, he does — and I think that’s exactly the point. I’m the first to agree that any promotion of the flag that represented the uprising of the pro-slavery South years ago — and which still flies proud in the hearts and on the back windows of the pick-up trucks of dumb rednecks today — is a touchy subject and it’s guaranteed to offend. There’s a dark history there that can’t be denied and maybe shouldn’t be trifled with.
But there’s also something really ballsy about what Kanye’s doing here. Some have said he’s attempting to “take it back” in much the same way black and hip-hop culture have claimed that the use of the word “nigger” is a kind of co-opting and defanging of a term so long used to subjugate and dehumanize. I think the reality, though, is far more brutally and brilliantly subversive. By taking complete ownership of the confederate flag to the point where he’s actually selling it to people, Kanye West is sending a message and issuing a challenge. That message? Fuck you. It’s a giant fuck-you to the people who worship the image and the symbolism of the confederate flag. I’m not even sure he means for these items to sell so much as he is making the statement that he, Kanye West — one of the richest, most culturally influential, and most famous black men in America — can essentially put his name on the goddamn confederate flag. Imagine how offensive that is to those who’ve traditionally embraced that flag and what it stands for? He can own it and he can sell it. It belongs to a black man. It’s his property.
The challenge, meanwhile, is to see if the white men and women who come to Kanye’s shows, who listen to his music and who love him, will be willing to buy these items and display them, proudly, ironically or otherwise. Will they confront America’s racist past — and present for that matter — and even embrace it while at the same time promoting Kanye West? And of course there’s the question of whether actual racists would be willing to buy and wear something like this, knowing that the money goes to Kanye. It’s kind of delicious to think about.
I could be wrong about all of this. Maybe I’m giving Kanye far too much credit. Maybe the intention is nothing more noble than to once again get his name in the headlines by courting outrage. Maybe he has no damn clue what’s going on at his own merchandise table. Who knows anymore?
Even if it wasn’t entirely intentional in the ways I’ve described, though, the result remains the same. The myriad layers to be peeled back in Kanye West’s decision to imperiously take possession of a symbol so inextricably associated with racism make it something more than just controversy. It’s perfect art.