Brad Paisley’s 2013 song “Accidental Racist” featuring LL Cool J is passed off as an innocent attempt to bridge the communication gap between white southerners and African Americans, addressing misconceptions about manifestations of southern pride and judgments made against black people. Reading the lyrics, one can recognize that Paisley truly believes his intent and message to be noble. Ultimately, however, “Accidental Racist” is a clumsy and lazy handling of a deeply complex topic. The song ends up defending the racist history behind southern pride traditions, such as the mindless brandishing of the Confederate flag and deflecting any blame for perpetuating those traditions.
The lyrics also reaffirm reductive stereotypes held about Black people and offer a quick and apologetic forgiveness, presumably by black Americans, of white Americans for the travesties at the cornerstone of southern tradition. Although one would hope that most people would discriminate between the opinions of an individual and the opinions of the group to which they are perceived to belong, it is often the case that politically sensitive public statements made by an individual are seen as representative of the opinions and stance of all members of that individual’s group. In this way, Paisley and LL Cool J could be seen as representatives of white southerners and black Americans, respectively.
In 2013, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrong an article for The Atlantic titled, “Why ‘Accidental Racist’ is Actually Just Racist: The assumption that there is no difference among black people is exactly what racism is.” Coates’ claims that Brad Paisley’s selection of LL Cool J as his rapping counterpart rather than a lyricist known for his place in the public discourse of race turns the song into “a comforting lecture” rather the “challenging conversation” the writers intended it to be. Many responses to the song concurred with Coates’ observation that “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.”
Undoubtedly, there are members of both of those groups who do not agree with the opinions expressed in “Accidental Racist.” There are most certainly purposeful racists as well as white southerners who don’t believe in excusing “accidental” racism and who see the damaging effects of doing so. Likewise, there are black Americans who would not support the forgiveness implied by Cool J’s lines “If you don’t judge my do-rag/I won’t judge your red flag” and “RIP Robert E. Lee”.
Additionally, Cool J’s lines imply that he feels the need to qualify his distaste for white racism and his gratitude to white people for freeing and accepting his people. Immediately following “RIP Robert E. Lee”, Cool J raps, “but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean”. This is an example of the classic self-blame that plagues many people of color–they feel guilt for their subjugation and a constant need to mitigate their criticism of past and present white behavior.
LL raps: “Feel like a new fangled Django, dodging invisible white hoods/ So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinking it’s not all good/ I guess we’re both guilty of judging the cover not the book.” He casually references the horrors of slavery and KKK terrorism, blaming himself and others for their discomfort with people who proudly don garb rooted in southern tradition. This is indicative Cool J attempting to assimilate to mainstream white culture by hastily overlooking white transgressions and trying to draw similarities between his people and his desired people.
LL’s lyrics about trading exemptions for white symbols of racial discrimination and terror with the Black fashion statement and beauty tool certainly make the song laughable but also draw into question the historical examinations of race. In addition to Paisley’s part about “not being able to walk a mile in someone else’s skin,” the song resonates ideas within W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk.” In the first chapter of DuBois’ book, the author poses the question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Though these music artists do not respond to that enduring question directly, the song demonstrates the “double-aimed struggle of the black artisan–…to escape white contempt for a nation of mere hewers of wood and drawers of water” and simultaneously, work to fight their way out of impoverished living conditions. Somehow LL Cool J must match the shame of centuries of violence and prejudice with a shame for not dressing in a way approved by white society.
As a part of the modern internet era, public response to the song’s production and lyrics quickly appeared on Twitter, online news sites, and even inspired a Saturday Night Live skit. The SNL skit with Kenan Thompson and Jason Sudeikis mocks the naivety Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s message within the song. Repeating the phrase, “We solved racism, y’all!” the commentators demonstrate the artists’ mishandling of an attempt to start conversation aimed at “dispelling the stereotypes they perpetuate in the song.” Again, they comment on LL Cool J’s irrelevance to the subject matter.
On Twitter, comments mocked both LL Cool J and Brad Paisley for their contributions. Following the Charleston murders of Black churchgoers this summer and Bree Newsome’s removal of Confederate Flag from the South Carolina Capitol Building, contestations over the Rebel symbol’s implications became a popular topic within the discussions of American race relations. Some twitter users resurrected lyrics from “Accidental Racist” as an indicator for a much needed discussion of inequities in a purportedly “post-racial” society.
Since the song garnered so much attention for its controversial subject matter and questionable execution, many media sources sought to find out what motivated Brad Paisley to even attempt such a risk to his “brand” and “fanbase,” in the words of Fortune.com. Paisley’s interviews reflect a well-intentioned desire to expand upon the lasting effects of slavery upon the nation. In his interview with Vulture‘s Jody Rosen, Paisley claimed the song was “supposed to be a healing song” talking “about reconstruction, which is still going on.” The interview centers around what Paisley learned about racial discourse from his experience with the song, including the danger of treating a song about race with the same “hyperbole” in the poetic licensing of love songs. He even responds to the questions about choosing LL rather than Talib or Kendrick or “someone controversial.” In terms of risking his fanbase, Paisley describes LL Cool J as a lovable persona whose participation in the song alone would not deter people from listening to it or automatically dismissing their attempt at racial discourse.
Considered a progressive artist in the realm of country music, Paisley was taken aback by the reaction of many people who labeled him as a “racist.” He defends his “character’s” part in the song as an attempt to reflect a certain White, southern consciousness rather than his personal beliefs. In response to Coates’ suggestions for better ways to represent “southern pride” in The Atlantic, Paisley makes a point of the idea that he should instead throw a celebration of a particular southerner’s “contribution to the world of democracy”–Martin Luther King, Jr.’s contribution, that is.
The country musician replies with a sort of fact check of Coates’ statement by recalling what he did that year for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday; “I played a show for the inauguration of our president,” inherently a nod to King’s enduring impact upon American democracy. Despite the retort, Paisley claims to enjoy the criticism he has received as way to learn more about the intricacies of racial discourse and likewise, hopes that the commentary has provided his fanbase with the same opportunity to identify remaining problems with American race relations. Though it was not widely deemed as successful (“lyrically or musically,” claims the SNL skit), Paisley, at least, found the song successful in starting up discussion on the topic of race for the “gulf of understanding” apparent in our society.