Entertainment has the potential to carry potent messages. Politically-minded entertainers can use their mediums to give us pause and force us to question how we think about and live in the world. For example, I can think of songs (“Fight the Power” and A Change is Gonna Come ), films (Higher Learning, American History X, Bamboozled, and Crash), books (Beloved and The Color Purple), and art (Augusta Savage and Faith Ringgold) that all changed how I thought about race in America.
The new song, “Accidental Racist,” by Brad Paisley and LL Cool J will never make this list. In this ditty, Paisley defends, among other things, symbols of Southern pride (e.g., the Confederate flag) crooning, “We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday/And caught between southern pride and southern blame.” Not to be outdone, LL Cool J responds with the following: “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.”
Not surprisingly, the artists have taken a lot of heat this week. The song has taken a beating by TV hosts (for example, Toure on MSNBC), and music critics alike (See the review by Chicago Sum-Times critic Richard Roeper who calls it “accidental garbage” as well as Billboard Magazine’s unflattering article titled, “Brad Paisley’s ‘Accidental Racist’: LL Cool J’s Craziest Lyrics”). Both artists defend the intention of the song. LL Cool Jay told Jay Leno that “The song wasn’t perfect. You can’t fit 300 or 400 years of history into a three or four minute song.” He added that “I would never, ever suggest to anyone that we should just forget slavery and act like that didn’t happen. I understand the systemic racism that exists, I get that, but you know what? If the playing field is unlevel and you feel it’s unfair, then maybe putting down some of that baggage will make getting up that hill a little easier.”
Paisley echoed this sentiment In an interview with Entertainment Weekly. He noted:
“I think that [the song] comes from an honest place in both cases, and that’s why it’s on there and why I’m so proud of it. This isn’t a stunt. This isn’t something that I just came up with just to be sort of shocking or anything like that. I knew it would be, but I’m sort of doing it in spite of that, really…. 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. How do I show my Southern pride? What is offensive to you? And he kind of replies, and his summation is really that whole let’s bygones be bygones and ‘If you don’t judge my do rag, I won’t judge your red flag.’ We don’t solve anything, but it’s two guys that believe in who they are and where they’re from very honestly having a conversation and trying to reconcile… But, you know, it’s such a complicated issue — I’m reading up on it now, [since] I felt I needed to be well-armed for any discussion – and here he is in a Yankees cap, and you think to yourself, ‘Well here is the antithesis of what was the problem.’ But it’s not. New York City was all for slavery. They actually voted 60 percent against — or maybe 70 against — Abraham Lincoln because they didn’t like the idea of slavery going away because there goes cotton and there goes tobacco trade, you know what I mean? It’s very hypocritical to feel like it’s just the South’s fault.
Paisley insists that he wanted to start a much needed national conversation. Assuming this is true, I am not sure I want to engage in a conversation based on completely naïve assumptions about the “race problem” or how to address racial inequality in America. I am sure that institutional racism, for example, could be easy be addressed if only we looked past how one was dressed.
Snarky comments aside, “Accidental Racist” does little to promote meaningful discourse or challenge status quo. Superficial art about race simply props racism (and its symbols) up. MK Asante, commenting in NYT’s Room for Debate said it best. “Racism is a lot of things — cancerous, insidious, learned, dangerous, destructive, dumb, vicious, institutional — but not accidental.”