What’s in a symbol? A lot it seems if reaction to Brad Paisley’s new collaboration with LL Cool J 'Accidental Racist' is anything to go by. The song, which was recorded to promote interracial understanding, has caused an uproar.
The premise of the song is that Paisley wears a t-shirt bearing the confederate flag to Starbucks, resulting in a very unimpressed barista and an unfair assumption that Paisley hates black people. This incident prompted Paisley's attempt to clear up the negative connotations of the flag and reclaim it as an indication of Southern pride. Describing himself as ‘Caught between Southern pride and Southern blame’, the singer appeals for understanding of the position of a white man in the South. In the second half of the song, LL Cool J chimes in to tell his side of the story as a black man hailing from the North.
The tune has faced somewhat mixed reactions. The majority of internet commentators are slamming it as being misguided and patronizing. Jezebel went so far as to label it ‘The Worst Song Ever’. Among the most derided lyrics are those LL Cool J raps which include, “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”. While many of the internet commentators took a light-hearted look at the song, if ridiculing its cringe-worthy nature, some raised more important issues. Associated Press writer Jamelle Bouie put it eloquently when he raised the concern on Twitter that "Defending Confederate flag as 'Southern heritage' writes black people out completely as Southerners."
Paisley explains his side of the story in a feature with Entertainment Weekly. He felt it was essential to incite a dialogue on race. “It really came to a boil last year with ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Django,’ and there’s just a lot of talk about it,” Paisley said. “I just think art has a responsibility to lead the way, and I don’t know the answers, but I feel like asking the question is the first step, and we’re asking the question in a big way.” He finished by affirming his belief in the song's message: “This is a very sensitive subject, and we’re trying to have the discussion in a way that it can help.” This isn’t the first time a country star has caused controversy by sporting the confederate flag; both Lynyrd Skynyrd and Tracy Adkins have come under fire in the past for wearing it while performing and both defended their actions declaring themselves to be representing heritage not hate.
The Village Voice offered a far more sympathetic understanding of the song than other news sites. Referencing Paisley’s previous songs such as ‘American Saturday Night’ in which he celebrates immigration and diversity, they defend the country’s stars effort to address prominent issues and challenge attitudes. 'Accidental Racist' is described as “a daring declaration of the new American norm”.
Yesterday Paisley himself took to Twitter to defend the song. However last night after the storm of backlash the original YouTube version of the recording, including a video featuring stills of Paisley and LL Cool J was removed, presumably by Paisley’s management. Though the video has been removed, you can still listen to the song below, via SoundCloud.
I think it can be agreed that the track was well-intentioned, if not well-executed. One thing is for sure, if Paisley's goal was to get America to talk about race, the song is already a success.