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[Editor’s note – as with all the articles in this month’s social justice issue, what follows are the thoughts and ideas of the author. These do not necessarily represent those of Performer Magazine, its staff or its advertisers. The author’s opinions are their own, and we encourage you to join the discussion in the comments section below or on our social media pages.]
What we refer to as the Confederate flag has a controversial and downright oppressive history in the United States. It originally was a battle flag for the Confederacy as they fought for the continuance of slavery in America during the Civil War. Many Southerners, however, find the flag to be a source of “heritage” and “pride,” not viewing its image and usage as discriminatory, but instead as a nod to their familial lineage.
However, the Confederate flag didn’t enter mainstream culture until 100 years after the Civil War. In the 1960s, it became a ubiquitous symbol in Southern music. Artists adopted the flag to represent rebelliousness, identification as an “outlaw,” and to appeal to blue-collar Americans. However, it’s hardly a coincidence that this is the exact time that the Civil Rights Movement was in full-force.
Music historian and journalist Robert K. Oermann notes, “I believe it became a response to the death of segregation. That’s when these various states began to display the flag, and it started being much more visible. So these country stars, that’s the way they grew up. They grew up thinking, ‘Oh, it’s just a recognition of my ancestors, and I want to honor my ancestors.’ Well, you know, I’m a German American, and I don’t display the swastika.”
The industry has already been quietly shifting away from use of the flag. Younger artists don’t have the same connection with the flag, as many of them grew up in a different cultural climate in the South. Also, they’ve steered clear of the flag in order to reach wider audiences. Instead, they’ve adopted the American flag.
Even veteran bands that have built their reputations around Confederate iconography are trying to ditch this symbolism, most notably Lynyrd Skynyrd. They’re a band that has become almost synonymous with the symbol, displaying it on album covers and merchandise for the better part of four decades.
In 2012, Gary Rossington, the only remaining original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, announced that the band would stop using the flag as a stage backdrop. He claims that, “Through the years, people like the KKK and skinheads kinda kidnapped the Dixie or Southern flag from its tradition and the heritage of the soldiers, that’s what it was about. We didn’t want that to go to our fans or show the image like we agreed with any of the race stuff or any of the bad things.” This isn’t an uncommon view, that the flag was “stolen” by racists, but really, the South repurposed it long after the flag’s racist history.
Fan reactions to Rossington’s announcement are a true testament to the ignorance still thriving in many parts of the United States. Many were outraged upon the flag’s removal from the band’s image, so the band compromised and flew an American flag behind them at shows, with a smaller Confederate flag off to the side.
But many artists still continue to use the iconography, despite the fact that according to a recent CNN poll, nearly three-fourths of of African Americans find the Confederate flag to be offensive. As the music has spread behind the South’s borders, the flag has followed. It’s still not unheard of to see music fans in New Jersey or New Hampshire wearing a Confederate flag draped around their shoulders at a country music festival. Even as recently as July, bands such as Nashville Pussy were selling merchandise with the flag on it.
Artists are still reacting to criticism, however. Trace Adkins was seen on a live TV performance in 2012 with a Confederate flag earpiece. After receiving a lot of negativity in the press, he was never seen with it again. This arouses a question of why artists are moving away from the flag. Is it really a change of heart on their part, or is it just to avoid controversy?
Many musicians have stayed quiet on the issue. However, country star Brad Paisley tried to address it in a collaborative song with LL Cool J called “Accidental Racist.” The track is about a man wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt to a Starbucks and trying to explain himself to the barista. LL Cool J responds with lyrics such as: “If you don’t judge my do-rag, I won’t judge your red flag / If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains.” The song was a disaster, met with a heavy amount of criticism about reducing slavery to almost comically ridiculous terms. However, Paisley’s goal was get people talking about the debate, which was a valuable sentiment, if not a misguided artistic effort.
Another artist who’s spoken out publicly about the Confederate flag is Kanye West. He has used the flag ironically, sporting it on merchandise and even on himself during his Yeezus tour. He said of the subject on L.A. radio station 97.1 AMP, “React how you want. 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.’ I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag now.”
However, the removal of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina State Capitol this past July has made the push to be rid of the flag, especially on government property, even stronger. A further example in the music industry is the disappearance of Confederate flag merchandise from Pantera’s website following the removal (although Dean Guitars continues to market and sell the Dimebag Dixie Rebel guitar, complete with Confederate graphics on both the body and headstock).
The entire controversy definitely represents something far larger in our nation, and it’s not a discussion that will go away or be resolved any time in the near future. The entire landscape of the country, especially with racial acceptance, is changing. It’s clear that racism is not completely gone, although small (but hopefully meaningful) steps are being taken by public figures (especially in the music industry) to eradicate symbols of hate, bigotry and oppression.