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'Accidental Racist': The Controversy And The Conversation


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Country star Brad Paisley released a new album today, not usually something that becomes a national news item. But one song on "Wheelhouse" is generating conversation even before most people get a chance to hear it.

"Accidental Racist" is a collaboration with rapper LL Cool J. Brad Paisley sings of a Southern white man in a Starbucks who believes he's being judged for the Confederate battle flag on his T-shirt and responds with an appeal for understanding.


BRAD PAISLEY: (Singing) Our generation didn't start this nation. We're still paying for mistakes that a bunch of folks made long before we came, caught somewhere between Southern pride and Southern blame.

LL COOL J: (Rapping) 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.

(Rapping) 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.

BRAD PAISLEY AND LL COOL J: (Singing) Why then? (Unintelligible) I'm gonna cut your red flag. Oh Dixieland, I hope you understand what this is all about. I'm proud of where I come, not everything we done. It ain't like you and me can rewrite history. Oh, Dixieland. Relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs to fix. I hope you understand, but this all found. Quite frankly I'm a black Yankee, but I've been thinking about this lately. Son of a new South. The past is the past, you feel me? I just want to make things right. Let bygones be bygones. All that's left is Southern pride. RIP Robert E. Lee but I've gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean? It's real.

CONAN: That's the second half of a new song from country star Brad Paisley that's out today. The other voice belongs to rapper and actor LL Cool J, maybe best known as one of the stars of "NCIS: Los Angeles."

"Accidental Racist" has attracted a lot of praise and a lot of criticism, and an awful lot of people are talking about that song today. So what is the conversation among your friends and family? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, a college basketball player's time on the bench and how that led to a career in poetry. But first "Accidental Racist." Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University, joins us from a studio there. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL: I'm glad to be on, Neal. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you. Let me also introduce Peter Cooper, a senior music writer at the Tennessean in Nashville, a lecturer in country music at Vanderbilt University, a performer and producer himself. He joins us from a studio there in Nashville. Nice to have you with us today.

PETER COOPER: Great to be here.

CONAN: And Peter Cooper, the song is directed to a country audience, and I wonder what the reaction you've seen today is like.

COOPER: Well, I've seen the same reaction that a lot of us have seen if we've turned on the computer and checked the Internet. And I'm seeing a lot of things taken out of context. I suspect that there are people commenting that did not hear even what we just heard, which was the last half of that song.

But I think it's very interesting that we're here on a show called TALK OF THE NATION and we are talking about the Confederate battle flag and the appropriateness of that flag and whether it ruffles feathers. And we're talking about that because of a contemporary country song that was written from a perspective of inclusion. That's a different trick. I don't think you've done that before, Neal.

CONAN: I may not have. You're absolutely right. I'm glad we got around to it. But there are - another trick is a big-time country artist singing a song like that that's attitude is let me reach out as opposed to I'm wearing the Confederate battle flag, you got a problem with that?

COOPER: That's right. This is the first time that I can remember that something like this has happened. The Confederate battle flag will show up in country videos, it will - last time I remember a major artist writing a song that talked about it was if you don't like it, you can - and we can't talk about what it says on the radio, but it was you may do something unpleasant to yourself.


COOPER: So this is stepping out, and in terms - I know that for a majority of people, the thought that there's a song that says, well, the Confederate flag might be problematic in some ways, that doesn't sound like a terribly progressive or radical notion. But this is unprecedented in modern country music.

CONAN: Mark Anthony Neal, I wonder what your reaction, is and what reaction you're hearing.

NEAL: Well same thing, you know, I turned on Facebook this morning, and folks are really going at LL Cool J more than anything. And I will acknowledge that there is something unprecedented about this, about this kind of moment, that this kind of song could generate the kind of discussion that it's had.

And in many ways when you listen to Brad Paisley, he's very thoughtful about this, less so LL Cool J. And that's where the song is problematic for me in the sense that LL Cool J is not very thoughtful, this idea that, you know, if you can excuse my gold chains, you know, it'll take away the pain of all these other chains. I mean, it's absolutely ridiculous.

And it's the kind of song that circulates the way that it does for two reasons. One, because of social media. If Facebook and Twitter didn't exist, I doubt we'd be having this conversation right now today. But also because of this kind of post-race dynamic, right. And it's the kind of song that treats our conversations about race as things that are the product of individual choices and never really gets at the broader institutional aspects of what makes racism function? What makes white supremacy function, if I'm going to be honest.

CONAN: And I have to say it's been some years since LL Cool J was considered anything - I don't think he's made a recording in five years.

NEAL: You know, from a branding standpoint, it's genius for LL Cool J. I mean, it helps to introduce him or better introduce him, musically at least, to an audience, that, you know, only know him from watching him on television or some bad movies. You know, it's not unusual in the kind of larger trajectory of LL Cool J's career.

He's not then - you know, he's not Public Enemy that's going into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame. He's never been a political artist. But he does have those kind of moments. We got back to his "Mama Said Knock You Out" album and take a song like "Illegal Search," which is about the kind of stop-and-frisk policies in New York City going back 25 years.

So he understands those kind of dynamics. For him to just kind of write it off as being you be you, and I'll be me, we can get along together I think is disingenuous on his part.

CONAN: Peter Cooper, we have to understand a little bit more about who Brad Paisley is. Again, not an overtly political artist but sang at a - at Barack Obama's inauguration and I gather got some flak for that.

COOPER: He did get some flak for that, yes.

CONAN: And is this - do we accept this as a sincere statement on his part?

COOPER: Well, I certainly do. I think different people are going to accept it or not, or nullify it. But it's certainly something...

CONAN: I just ask that because we go back to - let me just point out another sort of cultural icon, "Okie from Muskogee," Merle Haggard. We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee and talking about all the cultural values of - it turns out, though, they were rolling past the town, which they thought was hilarious, because they were all smoking dope on the tour bus.

COOPER: That's right, and Merle will tell you six different versions of the story of the writing of that song and also came out soon after that with songs that seemed to be from a counter point of view to that.

CONAN: One of them sold a lot more than all the others, let me put it that way.

COOPER: Oh for certain, and it was interesting, though, that at the time that Merle was coming out with "Okie from Muskogee," his good friend Johnny Cash had the song "Talking Vietnam War Blues," he had "What Is Truth," songs that were in support of questioning the military and saying it's OK for these college kids to be protesting, we should listen to them, they're the future.

And no one had to decide between whether they liked Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard. It wasn't like two football teams or something. It seems like the politics of country music has become one big Clemson football game, and it didn't used to be that. And that was at a more contentious, supposedly, political time, as well.

CONAN: And you have to ask the question, is Brad Paisley about to, and here's a new verb for you, get Dixie Chicked?

COOPER: No, he will not. That was a very special circumstance, and that involved having so few people controlling radio, and that's not going to happen. Brad Paisley has such roots in this format and has been for more than a decade now somebody that people think of as thoughtful, as a tremendous musician and as just a charming, likeable guy. He will not get Dixie Chicked in this case.

CONAN: And that of course a reference to the once very popular country music group who were sort of banned from the airwaves after questioning the war in Iraq and President George W. Bush's motives in a concert in London, and had to sort of switch their audience around.

And getting back to you, Mark Anthony Neal, as you think about this song, though, is it going to, well, aside from the career of LL Cool J, which it may help or not, but is it going to prompt - are people going to listen to it?

NEAL: I think there will be fans of Brad Paisley and some fans of LL Cool J that will listen to the song. I'm not the best arbiter of what good gospel music - what good country music is, you know, beyond Johnny Cash and Patsy Kline in my own musical taste. I think it will appeal for those folks who really would like us to get past certain questions around race.

I mean, it is the perfect product for a post-race era in that regard.

CONAN: And of course as you point out, a lot of people will argue we're nowhere near a post-race era.

NEAL: Yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. You know, what would have been interesting is to pair Paisley with, say, a Southern rapper who at least would have an on-the-ground experience that would be much more closer than LL Cool J talking about this, you know, from Hollywood in one case or growing up in Queens, New York.

It would have been interesting to see, you know, whether Big Boi from Outkast or Ludacris, you know, how they might have responded to the gesture that Brad Paisley makes in the song.

CONAN: Well, if you've heard this song, "Accidental Racist," that features of course the author, Brad Paisley, and LL Cool J, tell us: How are you and your friends talking about it? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. We'll be back in just a moment. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Today Brad Paisley's new album "Wheelhouse" came out and with it an interesting conversation. His new song "Accidental Racist," a collaboration with LL Cool J, takes on questions of perception and history through a story about a white Southerner and a black barista.

It's not the first time popular musicians have mined this territory. Think back to Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney's collaboration on "Ebony and Ivory" or Michael Jackson's "Black or White" from the album "Dangerous," just to name a couple.

So how are you and your friends talking about "Accidental Racist"? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Send us an email, talk@npr.org. You can also leave your suggestion on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Duke University's Mark Anthony Neal and Peter Cooper of the Tennessean are our guests. And joining us here in Studio 3A, Keith Woods, NPR's vice president for diversity in news and operations. Nice to have you back on the show, Keith.

KEITH WOODS, BYLINE: Great to be back.

CONAN: And I know you've read about this song today, too, and the mostly negative reactions to it. Does anything strike you about it as redeeming?

WOODS: Well, you know, people say that one of the things it does is it gets people talking about something that we generally don't talk about across our differences. And the fact of the matter is that there are going to be people who will listen to this song who will find some of these ideas, especially coming from people they know and respect, to be profound.

And that may cause them to pay attention, to engage, maybe even to move a little on the topic. And you have to begin at least, A, with the assumption that Paisley and LL Cool J intended something good out of this.

CONAN: That's what they say.

WOODS: And if that's so, then you have to accept the value of that conversation as some movement in a discussion that has to constantly move if we're ever going to get anywhere with it.

CONAN: And even if that conversation can then become contentious, as in how could you possible say if you overlook my gold chain, I'll forget the iron chains...

WOODS: It will become contentious no matter what. And one of the reasons that that's so is that the song itself has some core flaws to it that invite that. You know, it's simple, and all songs, yes, have to have some measure of simplicity to them. But this one takes the topic of history and race, reduces it to really just one significant moment in history and says that, well, for the most part, folks, we're the victims, we're the hapless victims of this inheritance not of our making, and really those mistakes were made a long time ago.

And you're talking to people who know that there were mistakes made last week and last month and three years ago and want people to be accountable today for that. That's a lot of politics thrown into this, as I said. You probably will find people who will say yeah, I hadn't really thought about it the way Brad put it.

And yeah, I had that happen to me before once, where somebody saw something that I had on my T-shirt and summed me up by that, and that's not fair. Those are really experiences we have to deal with those things and recognize that that's one of the conversations we're having.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation on what people have been talking about today. We'll start with Raven(ph), and Raven's on the line with us from Austin.

RAVEN: Yes hi, how are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

RAVEN: So I was just discussing that - we were talking about the song with - I'm in law school, and we were talking about this song with classmates in the car. And I'm also, I should say, from Mississippi, and I'm a history major, taught history, I'm a law student. And so my view of this song is a bit different because I think that in order for us to kind of move forward, we need to, you know, talk about these events, this part of our history that brings up so much emotion.

But in order for, and as the comment was previously made, in order for us to move near a post-race era and to get towards a post-race era, we must first discuss these things so that we can understand where each individual is coming from.

And there was actually a white male that was in the car who didn't necessarily agree with the song, but again, you know, as a proud Southern woman, I feel like in order for us to move forward, we really have to start by discussing, you know, why is that there are individuals who continue to, you know, promote this flag and carry this flag, and what is really behind it.

And I understand the heritage and the history behind it, and I think that by us, you know, kind of talking about it, bringing it up, it may feel negative, it may feel upsetting, but that's how we really move forward. That's what I, you know, taught my students when I taught history. That's what I continue to convey to my own children, that in order for us to move past something that's hurtful, we really need to understand, like, what's the history behind it.

And there are people who still feel very proud of that Southern heritage. And who am I to tell them that they shouldn't have that sense of pride? But let's talk about, you know, on the other side of the spectrum, like how people may feel when looking at the symbol.

CONAN: Yeah, and that's the Confederate battle flag, and it's interesting, Peter Cooper, obviously the album is out today. It's available on iTunes. The video for that song taken down, not available on YouTube, yeah.

COOPER: Really? Well there you go, that's maybe a mistake because the YouTube viewings play into the country charts at this point, and I think it might be helpful to be played a lot. That's interesting. I don't think Brad is backing down from the song or from any statements in the song.

Actually, there's not really a statement from him in the song. He merely poses the question how does this make you feel, this shirt that I've got on.

CONAN: Raven, thanks very much for the call.

RAVEN: Yes, thank you.

CONAN: And appreciate it. In an odd way, Mark Anthony, he's making a statement by not getting highly defensive about the Confederate flag, which has been, as Peter Cooper was saying over the - earlier, that's been the message thus far.

NEAL: I don't think there's anything for him to be defensive of. You know, the Confederate flag is a symbol of a particular era, of a particular region. It speaks for itself. I'm much more concerned with, you know, the kind of actions that undergird racism and white supremacy than symbols of it.

You know, there are folks who feel very differently about that, but I'm really concerned about behavior as opposed to, you know, symbolic representations of that behavior.

CONAN: Go ahead, I'm sorry.

COOPER: I believe on a personal level maybe it has some impact on behavior, and this certainly has nothing to do with tackling systematic issues. But I think there might be an eighth-grade kid who might think twice about his Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt tomorrow.

I remember going to a concert when I was in the sixth grade by a band called Alabama, and they had the Confederate flag within their logo as a band. And I bought a souvenir and didn't think twice about it. Later on that year, we went on a field trip to the South Carolina state capitol, and there was that Confederate battle flag flying atop there, and I felt strange standing next to my black classmates looking at that flag.

I think this is just - Paisley wrote the song from a real experience. He wore a T-shirt from that band Alabama on a national television show. And somebody tweeted that he was a racist for wearing that shirt. And he thought gosh, you know, I didn't mean it that way. And then he wrote that into the character in this song.

I think it's a very - it's about something that happens on a personal level hundreds of times a day, especially in the South, and it happens at Ole Miss football games, where hundreds of khaki-clad people are waving that flag around. And t happens at NASCAR infields, and it's good to make people - maybe people who hear this song today would think twice about that shirt or about shoving that kind of thing in somebody's face or about that defensive this is mine, this is my heritage, not hate.

You know, it at least gives someone pause, and I think that's all that Brad was attempting to do is begin a conversation.

NEAL: Well, Peter makes a valuable point, though. I think the kind of misunderstanding of what these symbols actually mean speak to how bad we are about talking about race and our history in this context. You know, we don't have deep discussions. We don't ask the deeper questions. What we get stuck with are these kind of symbolic moments, these kind of playing out of what could happen on any - in any Starbucks anyplace in America at any given time without really getting to the substantive questions about, you know, why people cling to the things that they cling to.

CONAN: A tweet from Jeremy(ph): The guests seem positive on the intent of "Accidental Racist." What about the actual message? It seems to dismiss modern racism. And Keith Woods, I think that's one of the things you were talking about.

WOODS: Well, it doesn't necessarily dismiss it, but it doesn't talk about it at all. And I think that, you know, when we talk about having these conversations, if all we're doing is expressing our opinion in response to the opinion of the last person who spoke, and nobody's opened a book, nobody's taken a moment to learn something new that they can add to the conversation, then what you wind up with are these simplified I'll trade in my - I mean I won't hold your red flag against you if you don't hold my do-rag against me.

That's not real deep. And we've got enough information about something as sort of old and controversial as the Confederate flag. We have enough information so that we don't have to have that conversation again.

NEAL: But, you know - but this is the thing, though. No one goes to jail for flying a Confederate flag. You know, we have municipalities in this country where people do go to jail for sagging, you know, so that there's a real disconnect even in terms of that misunderstanding on what these symbols represent.

WOODS: But to that extent, I guess you have to say that LL Cool J is talking about something real when he talks about baggy pants. But, you know, again...

CONAN: He also slanders William Tecumseh Sherman.


CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. This is Pat(ph), Pat on the line with us from Denver.

PAT: Hello. I'm a grandma with a 12-year-old biracial grandson, and we've been afraid to talk about racial, you know? It's been so uncomfortable. And I'm - this is just the time for it. I'm hearing more and more. We're seeing things on YouTube - they're really great - about black and white, and it's good. It's good. You know? It's all good if we're talking about it, amen.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call. And I have to issue something of a correction. Earlier, we talked about the video being taken down from YouTube. According to The Atlantic Wire, that video may not have been posted by the artists themselves. If that was true, maybe there was a copyright issue involved, which, of course, would be far more serious than anything to do with conversations about race.

In the meantime, let's see if we could go next to - this is Richard(ph), and Richard on the line with us from Jacksonville.

RICHARD: Hey, thanks for taking my call. This song was actually a conversation with a friend of mine and my wife. The bigger issue, it seems, that I've heard that people have a challenge with, is who is LL Cool J to offer some sort of forgiveness, and who is this artist, this white guy, to offer an apology? They don't speak for us.

And I go back to a conversation that I had in my sociology class, where my sociology professor was talking - I wasn't listening - and then I heard African-Americans are a subculture. I got angry, and I said to him, that's the problem. As a white man, you can put labels on us and make us feel whatever you want to say, and we never have a chance. And he said, no, white people are a subculture too.

And what that did was it started a conversation of understanding how culture is developed. Culture is developed as the result of institutions that are well established, and then people fight to protect those institutions. And that's what we're having with sagging(ph) and all those other things.

The bigger issue is, is this an apology that can be accepted, and this is - is this forgiveness that is offered? We've been doing a document called "The National Declaration for Forgiveness on Behalf of Our African Ancestors" every year. And it's been getting this kind of pushback with, who are you to forgive.

Well, every year we do it, and I hope that this conversation will open up a real dialogue that we're in the greatest opportunity now to really release the hurt of the past. But I'll finally say this: There's no such thing as an accidental racist, no more than there's an accidental rapist.

CONAN: Interesting. And, Mark Anthony Neal, I think we'll probably add that there are not just that black subculture and white subculture. There are subcultures on both sides.

NEAL: Yes, absolutely.

WOODS: If I can just say, Neal...

CONAN: Keith Woods, go ahead.

WOODS: ...that the - to me, one of the interesting things about the beginning of this song, and if the song kind of stayed there, you're hitting on something that is a universal experience for people, that I present something to you; you assess that thing and then judge me and my totality from it. And that's how we conduct the conversations around race very often in this country.

If we were just talking about that, even with the Confederate flag, even with his explanation for why he didn't think - why he thought he was misjudged, we would be talking about something that is, in fact, kind of universal to our experience. It goes off the rails from there when we talk about our problems today as being simply tied to this one time in history, disconnected from all of the things that are going on today and have been going on for 150 years since then.

CONAN: Richard, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

RICHARD: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And our guests, again, you just heard Keith Woods, NPR's vice president for diversity in news and operations. Also with us, Peter Cooper, a senior music writer at The Tennessean in Nashville, and Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African-American studies at Duke. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email that we have: My name is Rebel Rice(ph), born and raised in Houston, Texas. My name is at the center of a controversy. My father, a proud Alabamian, named me after the rebel yell from the Civil War. I struggle with the family, the history and pride, but have personally come very far from the attitudes of the Old South. I really appreciate the conversation this starts. My adopted daughter is Chinese. We discuss race, racist attitudes, both overt and not, with increasing frequency. That the two sides of racial views even appear in a national song feels like great progress.

And, Peter Cooper, I think that is going to be an aspect that, I think, is going to be a topic of conversation in country music circles.

COOPER: Yes. I think it forces that conversation a little bit. And to the point that another caller - that a caller made a moment ago, the thing about there's no such thing as an accidental racist, that is certainly a point. In contemporary country music, you know, which is where Brad Paisley works, terms like rebel and redneck are thrown around with absolutely no notion of the things that are behind those words.

These are prideful things. This is a very one-dimensional picture. And so I think there now have been generations of people using those words that don't understand the civil rights implications of things; when you say you're a rebel or when you say you're a redneck, what kinds of things you may be conveying. And I think that's a good thing with this song.

Paisley even talks about I'm a son of the New South at the end, which was a term we heard a lot in the 1970s with Jimmy Carter and the notion of a South that remained friendly and with plenty of good food that's bad for you, but that put shackles of the past aside, those attitudes aside. I think this is the first song that really is addressing that on a popular level in a long time in this kind of music.

CONAN: Just wanted to end with some comments from listeners, a tweet from Badge Five: Regardless of intention, the lyrics are horrible. LL should stick to terrible sitcoms, it's actually a scripted drama. A tweet from Josh Huntsman: The song doesn't seem very deep like the movie "Crash" which also seems to look at racism only at the surface, much a due about a little. And there is a mailing comment from - this is Brad: Excuse me, Rashad, excuse me. Alexander Stevens, vice president of a confederacy says: Slavery is the cornerstone of confederacy. He said it also points to the fact the black man is in Syria to the white man and slavery is his natural condition. You shouldn't have pride in the flag or a political system whose cornerstone is slavery. And Keith, that conversation is going to be open (unintelligible).

WOODS: If - well, if, you know, I think at the end that the discussion about whether or not the confederate flag, it represents slavery and what the Civil War was fought over - was slavery up close, issues in a lot of ways but very much open for a lot of people today.

CONAN: Well, thanks to all of our guests. You just heard Keith Woods who I, unfortunately, gave 30 seconds to wrap up and he did a very good job. Peter Cooper and Mark Anthony Neal also joins us. Thanks to everybody who called and wrote. Coming up next, lessons from the bench of a college basketball team. It's THE TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.