The music video from an obscure rapper named Black Native opens with a famous quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience,” it reads, “but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Seconds later, we see an image that could certainly be called controversial: a Confederate flag. But there’s a twist. The hip-hop artist is wearing it on his T-shirt.
“Black Confederate” is the name of a new single from Black Native, a Maryland-based lyricist with Alabama roots whose Bandcamp page says he wants to “redeem the South.” His homemade video shows him sporting the Confederate flag while he rides a D.C. Metro train and strolls amid monuments on the National Mall, recruiting passersby to his cause.
It’s a bold act, considering that the last reported time a Confederate flag flew in downtown Washington, a Congressman from California called it “despicable,” and implored Congress to condemn it. But that flag-waver was also white.
One hundred fifty years have passed since the end of the Civil War, and the flag first flown by the Army of Northern Virginia still stands as a searing reminder of what Abraham Lincoln called “the only substantial dispute” between North and South: the systematic capture and enslavement of black people. Yet Black Native is black, and he’s claimed the flag as his own — though, not without significant edits.
The rapper legally named Lazarus Thicklen II spent a decade in Huntsville, Alabama, before he moved to Bowie last summer, and he’s undoubtedly a proud Southerner: He earned his Master’s at Alabama A&M University, and in the video he rocks an assortment of Alabama-themed gear. But he says his Confederate flag isn’t the same one carried into battle under Robert E. Lee.
For starters, Thicklen’s flag isn’t red, white and blue; it’s black and white. He says he wanted to retain the flag’s Southern symbolism while stripping its colors to transform its meaning.
“I wanted to have something that said, ‘Yeah, I’m Southern, but I have a progressive mindframe,'” says Thicklen, 30, in a phone call.
To him, “Black Confederate” is about a few things: Southern pride, subverting the flag’s symbolism and taking a step away from the booming trap rap and party anthems he thinks have given Southern hip-hop a bad name. The release that “Black Confederate” appears on, Furious Styles — named in tribute to actor Laurence Fishburne, who people say he resembles — is more interested in social commentary.
“I’ve decided to secede from this union of wack rappers,” he declares on the track, “prepared for when the backlash happens.”
So far, Thicklen hasn’t seen much of a backlash. Then again, only a few hundred people have seen his video so far.
Hip-Hop and the Dixie Flag
Thicklen is not the first hip-hop artist to try to rebrand one of the country’s most controversial symbols. The most famous occurrence involved envelope-pushing rapper and producer Kanye West, who wore the flag on a jacket in 2013 and sold Confederate merchandise on tour.
In response, Rev. Al Sharpton called for a boycott on West’s Confederate merch and derided the artist for promoting imagery that “symbolizes dehumanization, injustice and pain.” Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest tweeted, “I love Kanye no shots but my people continue to suffer psychologically from hardships that happened under that banner.”
West addressed the outcry in a radio interview, saying, “I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag now. Now what you gonna do?”
With “Black Confederate,” Thicklen is going in a similar direction. Many black Americans would probably agree with Sharpton and Q-Tip before they agreed with Thicklen or Kanye West; a 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 41 percent of polled African Americans react negatively to the Confederate flag. But that same poll found that more African Americans — 45 percent — have no reaction to it.
The poll also found that nearly half of Americans think the Civil War had more to do with states’ rights than slavery. Harvard professor John Stauffer, who’s written numerous books about the Civil War, abolitionism and slavery, says that contradicts the way the war was perceived when it was taking place.
“At the time of the Civil War, no one challenged whether or not the war was about slavery. Everyone acknowledged it,” Stauffer says. “You look at virtually every declaration of secession from Southern states, and one of the main reasons of secession is to defend and expand and to propagate the institution of slavery.”
But by the 1880s, Stauffer says, perceptions of the Civil War began to change. “Southerners and many Northerners started to view the Confederate flag differently, much as they started to view the war differently,” he says. They began to attribute the war less to slavery and more to states’ rights.
That thinking is fairly common today. According to the Pew Research Center poll, 48 percent of polled white Americans think Union and Confederate troops went to battle over states’ rights. And so do 39 percent of African Americans.
Thicklen says he thinks the Confederacy fought to protect slavery. But he also seems more interested in the future, not the past, of the war’s most prominent symbol — and of the South in general. He says places like Alabama are changing, and it’s time for the Confederate flag to change along with it.
“I Can Switch This Around”
In his video, Thicklen is shown giving a basic (if heavy-handed) lesson on symbolic subversion. “Now I understand the different kinds of emotion this may elicit/And everybody that see it may not get it,” he rhymes. “But before you strip it apart like a movie with plot hiccups/Like, take a gander at the swastika.”
If the Nazis could turn the sacred swastika into a symbol of antisemitism and totalitarianism, Thicklen argues, he can do the reverse.
“My whole thing is, if they can change that positive into a negative, then I can switch this around and turn this negative into a positive,” he says.
When asked why he chose the fraught symbol over something less loaded, he says he considered other options, but tossed them out. “I felt like it wouldn’t have the same impact,” he says. He preferred to offer a new spin on a flag that most Southerners can identify with, or at least identify. Why couldn’t it become a sign of broader solidarity — even a welcome mat in the doorway of the South?
“When you strip away [the colors], and you put something else behind it, the mentality becomes, ‘Hey, come to the South, you are welcome down here. Enjoy our warm weather. Enjoy our low property tax, our low gas prices,'” Thicklen says.
Plus, the hip-hop artist thinks Southerners are more modern than outsiders may think. “A lot of people think that the South is just behind on things,” he says. “I’ve been asked, Do I wear shoes? Do I ride a horse? … So I’m trying to really push that the south really is progressive.”
His friends have been mostly supportive, he says, including the members of his hip-hop group, Dirty South Avengers. But still, not everyone is ready to buy the T-shirt.
“I have another friend who was just like, ‘No!” Thicklen says. “He’s just like, ‘No, man. Too many people have seen that flag and died, or that was the last thing they seen.'”
How did he respond?
“I was like, ‘No it’s not,'” Thicklen says. “It’s not that flag.'”