I have to admit I’m a little slow when it comes to pop culture, and even slower when it comes to contemporary country music. So I was mildly intrigued when I heard that country singer Brad Paisley was recording a duet with rap legend LL Cool J.
And so the song itself is terrible – it’s soporific and slow-moving – the kind of earnest, trying its darndest to be Dylan you’d expect from a song titled “Accidental Racist.”
But the song’s controversy are over its rather terrible lyrics. First, it’s gotta be said: this is well-intentioned. Excruciatingly so. Painfully so. It’s a problem when pop songs are written to “change the world.”
Here are some of the sterling words:
“I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the southland
Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history
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”
These lyrics were warbled by Paisley. Then LL Cool J chimes in,
“Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood
What the world is really like when you’re livin’ in the hood
Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good
You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would
Now my chains are gold but I’m still misunderstood
I wasn’t there when Sherman’s March turned the south into firewood
I want you to get paid but be a slave I never could
Feel like a new fangled Django, dodgin’ invisible white hoods
So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinkin’ it’s not all good
I guess we’re both guilty of judgin’ the cover not the book
I’d love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air
But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn’t here”
The issue I have with the song is actually more with LL Cool J than Paisley. Paisley’s plaintive lamenting (fine, whining) is the kind of thing I hear a lot from white folks – “I’m not racist, I’m just proud of being white – what’s wrong with that?” I get it. But I’m a little disturbed by his naivety that the “red flag” he drones on about has an ugly history that cannot be separated from slavery. Can one separate the swastika from Nazi Germany?
But my issue is with LL Cool J. Now, I’ll assume he wrote his rap – but even if he didn’t, at this point, he’s a big enough star that he’d be able to veto lyrics he’d fine offensive. And yet, for some reason, he finds some these lyrics fine.
Like for example, there’s this bit at the end of the song, after LL Cool J’s contribution (which for an artist of his caliber was shockingly terrible – it made Madonna’s stab at rapping sound like Nas) both stars do this call-and-response deal where Paisley keeps singing, while LL drops some lines in between his duet partner’s lyrics.
So, LL Cool J says, “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 past is the past, you feel me/Let bygones be bygones”
I find his chants more offensive than Paisley’s “poor me – slavery was the past, I’m not racist, but I’m being blamed for it” blah blah blah.
First of all, LL Cool J and everyone in the United States has a right to judge the Confederate flag – I believe there’s a strong debate and maybe the pro-Confederate flag folks may have a point – but the jury’s definitely still out there, on whether one can fly that flag and not tie it to the history of slavery, racism and brutality – I don’t think it’s possible, but that’s a different argument.
But there’s nothing analagous about a guy’s do-rag and a Confederate flag; I don’t see the two as being comparable – I would never say, “Hey, I won’t judge your swastika t-shirt, if you don’t judge my rainbow pride tee.”
And then LL Cool J continues by promising that if white people ignore the “gold chains,” he’ll “forget the iron chains.” Uh, should we be forgetting the iron chains? Why should we forget slavery, when it’s impact has stained our history and our present? The early success of the United States was largely due to slave labor, and yet in 2013 we still see huge inequities between whites and blacks in this country (despite the fact that we have a black president).
And then he insists that we let “bygones be bygones.”
Uh, no, I don’t think so. Slavery wasn’t just some minor slight that ended, and we’re fine. It’s not some grudge that people are holding.
And by the way – why are we concentrating on slavery? The song seems to think that the issue starts and ends with slavery. It doesn’t – Paisley doesn’t sing about Jim Crow, segregation, race riots, police brutality – I don’t know, it’s a very reductive look at racism.
I may sound like a churl, that I’m attacking poor Brad Paisley and LL Cool J, who after all, are trying to put together a nice little ditty to make everyone hold hands and transcend differences. Except that Paisley’s still wrong-headed about how to approach the issue – defensiveness and white liberal guilt are both indulgent and self-defeating.
And I’m not against southern pride – there are lots of great things from the south: Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner spring to mind. The great Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests Paisley could “hold a huge party on Martin Luther King’s birthday, to celebrate a Southerner’s contribution to the world of democracy. He could rock a T-shirt emblazoned with Faulkner’s Light in August, and celebrate the South’s immense contribution to American literature. He could preach about the contributions of unknown Southern soldiers like Andrew Jackson Smith. He could tell the world about the original Cassius Clay. He could insist that Tennessee raise a statue to Ida B. Wells.
Every one of these people are Southerners. And every one of them contributed to this great country. But to do that Paisley would have to be more interested in a challenging conversation and less interested in a comforting lecture.”
If Paisley’s interested in anti-racism songs – there are lots of greats he can pick – Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” or her “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Bob Marley’s “War,” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” or Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”