This new duet between Brad Paisley and LL Cool J, "Accidental Racist," is getting beaten up pretty badly on the intertubes. I confess to doing some of the beating, mostly because of laughable lyrics and the fact that there is actually a Rap Genius entry dedicated to the song. With that said, I think it's worth taking a second to analyze why the lyrics are in fact laughable. I think we can get to the root of this by seriously and directly engaging Brad Paisley and his stated motives for the song. Here is Paisley in his own words:
"At this point, after all these albums and all these hits, I have no interest in phoning it in, and 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'm doing it because it just feels more relevant than it even did a few years ago. I think that we're going through an adolescence in America when it comes to race. You know, it's like we're almost grown up. You have these little moments as a country where it's like, 'Wow things are getting better.' And then you have one where it's like, 'Wow, no they're not.'
"It really came to a boil last year with Lincoln and Django, and there's just a lot of talk about it. It was really obvious to me that we still have issues as a nation with this. There are two little channels in each chorus that really steal the pie. One of them is, 'We're still picking up the pieces, walking on eggshells, fighting over yesterday,' and the other is, 'Paying for the mistakes that a lot of folks made long before we came.' We're all left holding the bag here, left with the burden of these generations. And I think the younger generations are really kind of looking for ways out of this.
"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 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."
The du-rag/red-flag line Paisley cites at the end belongs to LL Cool J, one of the two guys "that believe in who they are." LL Cool J has enjoyed a kind of longevity with which very few rappers can compete. In the mid-'80s and early '90s, particularly, he was a dynamic MC. (I am still partial to the "I'm Bad"/"Radio"/"Go Cut Creator Go" era.) His career has blossomed beyond the record industry to include music and film.
I can understand why an artist like Paisley would be attracted to an artist like LL Cool J. I can't for the life of me understand why he'd choose LL Cool J to begin "a conversation" to reconcile. Rap is overrun with artists who've spent some portion of their career attempting to have "a conversation." There's Chuck D. There's Big Daddy Kane. There's KRS-ONE. There's Talib. There's Mos Def. There's Kendrick Lamar. There's Black Thought. There's Dead Prez. And so on.
In an artform distinguished by a critical mass concerned with racism, LL's work is distinguished by its lack of concern. Which is fine. "Pink Cookies" is dope. "Booming System" is dope. "I Shot Ya" is dope. I even rock that "Who Do You Love" joint. But I wouldn't call up Talib Kweli to record a song about gang violence in L.A., and I wouldn't call up KRS-ONE to drop a verse on a love ballad. The only real reason to call up LL is that he is black and thus must have something insightful to say about the Confederate Flag.
The assumption that there is no real difference among black people is exactly what racism is. Our differences, our right to our individuality, is what makes us human. The point of racism is to rob black people of that right. It would be no different than me assuming that Rachel Weisz must necessarily have something to say about black-Jewish relations, or me assuming that Paisley must know something about barbecue because he's Southern.
It is no different than the only black kid in class being asked to explain "race" to white people, or asking the same question of the sole black dude in your office. The entire fight is to get white people to respect the fact that Mos Def holding a microphone is not LL Cool J holding a microphone, that Trayvon Martin is not De'Marquise Elkins, that wearing a hoodie and being black does not make you the same as every other person wearing a hoodie and being black.
Paisley wants to know how he can express his Southern Pride. Here are some ways. He 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.