Some may argue that it’s simply a nod to history or a source of Southern pride, but to most of us, the Confederate flag is a skin-prickling racist icon. Worn casually on a belt buckle or handkerchief, it becomes a passive-aggressive endorsement of slavery–something along the lines of “those were the days!” or “I sure wish things had turned out differently!”
Now, Kanye West is adopting the Confederate flag for his Yeezus tour. The flag, accompanied by dramatic skeletons, is featured prominently on T-shirts and tote bags along with the phrase “I Ain’t Comin Down.” And while the stunt is tentatively floated as “controversial” in most news articles, the explanation Kanye gave to Los Angeles radio station 97.1 AMP was perfectly clear (and perfectly Kanye):
React how you want. Any energy is good energy. You know the Confederate flag represented slavery in a way–that’s my abstract take on what I know about it. So I made the song “New Slaves.” So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag. Now what are you going to do?
It’s an ingenious maneuver, really. Cultural icons only have their significance because of culture. And say what you will about Kanye, but the man has incredible pull over culture. Most celebrities approach “controversial” stunts simply for the case of getting press, but by stamping the Confederate flag across his own tour and music, Kanye could achieve a coup and actually remap a connotation of oppression to a connotation of liberation. At minimum, he’s adding another powerful definition to the Confederate flag. But in the best-case scenario–one in which he really invests in the idea–the Confederate flag essentially becomes Kanye’s logo, meaning that any person wearing that flag no longer endorses slavery; they endorse Kanye West.