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Thursday, April 11, 2013

'CL' editor debates "Accidental Racist" at 'New York Times'

Posted By on Thu, Apr 11, 2013 at 1:23 PM

When a New York Times editor invited me to participate in a debate about Brad Paisley and LL Cool J's controversial song "Accidental Racist" at the paper's online "Room for Debate" forum yesterday, my feelings about the song had already evolved several times. They continue to do so.

I initially listened to it at home with my fiancee. Coming from two different cultural backgrounds -- I'm white and she's black -- we watched each others' faces as the country singer and rapper alternated lines in the refrain:

Paisley: I'm just a white man...

LL Cool J: If you don't judge my do-rag...

Paisley: ...comin' to you from the Southland...

LL Cool J: ...won't judge your red flag...

Paisley: Tryin' to understand what it's like not to be...

So far, it was an interesting if clunky dialogue about why we should not judge each other based on external trappings, whether those trappings are the color of our skin or the symbols we choose to wear - in this case, the symbols being do-rags and Confederate flags. After all, symbols can mean very different things to different people. We need to dig beneath the surface of those symbols if we are to understand each other.

But then, the two continued this dialogue:

Paisley: I'm proud of where I'm from...

LL Cool J: If you don't judge my gold chains...

Paisley: ...but not everything we've done...

LL Cool J: ...I'll forget the iron chains...

Paisley: It ain't like you and me can re-write history

LL Cool J: ...Can't re-write history, baby.

Whoa! Tarrah and I looked at each other in disbelief. Did LL Cool J really say that he (or anyone) could forget the chains that white Americans used to shackle slaves and drag them into a foreign country to work for nothing and be viciously whipped and treated as less than human? Yes, he did say that. And it is the weakest, most gravely unfortunate line in a song in which both artists' intentions were good.

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I have no doubt that Brad Paisley and LL Cool J joined together to promote a much-needed dialogue between working-class southern whites and blacks, and that they wanted to use language that would appeal to a mainstream country audience rather than impress music critics in Los Angeles or New York. But because of a few terribly ill-chosen words and half-baked ideas, I'm afraid at this point "Accidental Racist" has created more of a controversy than it has sparked a true dialogue. What's more, the song isn't nearly as strong as another Paisley composition, "Camouflage," from his 2011 album This is Country Music. In that one, Paisley suggested there were better, more compassionate ways "to show your Southern pride" than displaying a racist symbol like the Confederate flag.

You can go to The New York Times' "Room for Debate" to see my perspective on the controversy as well as the perspectives of Princeton University professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr.; author M.K. Asante, writer and comedian Phoebe Robinson, authors Alana Conner and Hazel Rose Markus, and novelist Will Shetterly.

Because I wrote my piece too long, it was edited down from the original. I made other points in the first draft that I'd like to share, if you're interested. Here's that draft in full:

By Mark Kemp

There's plenty to not like about "Accidental Racist" - it's not one of country singer Brad Paisley's best singles, in terms of clever lyrics or a novel melody, and it incorporates one of hip-hop legend L.L. Cool J's worst raps - but what's right about it trumps all that. Like the most effective popular songs that explore cultural misunderstanding, "Accidental Racist" has ignited a lively dialogue that goes to the heart of how language and symbols can mean very different things to different people. Presumably, that was Paisley's intention when he wrote and recorded it.

This is hardly the first time a song by a Southern singer has produced such strong reactions, nor is it the first time the largely Northeastern-based media world has come down hard on a thorny issue of importance to many predominantly blue-collar white Southerners. In 1974, the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd released "Sweet Home Alabama," whose lyrics suggested that non-Southern characterizations of the South as one giant cesspool of racism were hypocritical. Skynyrd was presently criticized for its right-leaning perspective and use of the Confederate flag during its performances.

That same year, The Charlie Daniels Band released a song called "The South's Gonna Do It," which played on the popular post-Civil War rallying cry "the South's going to rise again" in suggesting that Southern musicians were making new inroads in popular music and culture. Daniels was criticized for invoking the Civil War, after which he went on to become a vehement right winger, though not one known for his racism. The racist tag stuck for Southern rock, though, and it still colors perceptions of Southern-based white musical styles like contemporary country music.

That's something that clearly bothers Paisley, who has not been shy about expressing his decidedly left-wing perspectives on issues of race, immigration, gender and sexuality. In "Accidental Racist," Paisley adopts the persona of a Skynyrd-loving country fan trying to come to terms with his feelings about Southern pride and the symbology of the Confederate flag. In a sort of call-and-response, L.L. Cool J appears in the song adopting the persona of a young black kid trying to understand this Southern character. It's not the first time Paisley has addressed issues surrounding the Confederate flag; in his 2011 song "Camouflage," he suggested there were ways other than displaying a racist symbol "to show your Southern pride."

There's a lot of deep Southern hurt still very close to the surface even after so many years since the South lost the Civil War. There's even more black hurt. And there's perhaps even more hypocrisy from other parts of the United States. And this conversation won't be finished until all sides try to look at the world from the other's perspective, and try to internalize the fact that symbols cause misunderstanding and assumptions get us nowhere. Therefore, even as I think some of Paisley and L.L. Cool J's lyrics are weak - the worst line is when Cool J offers the mystifying couplet, "If you don't judge my gold chains / I'll forget the iron chains," as though the horrors of slavery are anything to "forget" - I applaud the duo's efforts to keep a dialogue going in popular culture. There isn't enough of that on today's Billboard charts.

My worry is that too many of the pundits on this controversy seem to be missing the point. Too many writers are assuming the characters in "Accidental Racist" are actually Paisley and Cool J themselves. In 2002, the leftist country-folk singer Steve Earle ran into the same wasp's nest when he released "John Walker's Blues," in which he took on the perspective of John Phillip Walker Lindh, the American kid who converted to Islam and joined the Afghan Taliban. That time it was right-wing writers who assumed Earle was somehow "supporting" the Taliban. This time left-wing writers are assuming Paisley is somehow "supporting" the Confederate flag. These issues deserve more than lazy thinking. Because art - even when it ain't great art - really is that influential.

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