Kanye West, the Southern Cross, and Muhammad Ali

Kanye West, hip-hop’s undisputed king of scrambled cultural signifiers and racial reappropriation, outdid even himself this week when he was spotted leaving a boxing gym in Los Angeles dressed in a jacket with a confederate flag patch. The patch is part of a new fashion line West has created to reclaim the Stars and Bars from Southern racists and Civil War apologists, which is itself part of a grander plan to rethink and rebrand cultural and racial terms and classifications, as he did on songs like “New Slaves” and “Black Skinheads” from his recent album, Yeezus. “So I made the song ‘New Slaves.’ So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It's my flag now,” Kanye told one reporter. “Now what are you going to do?”

Kanye is such a masterful mélange of self-promotion, self-delusion, cultural criticism, and musical innovation that sometimes it can be hard to see exactly what he’s aiming for with his critiques, but that confusion may be exactly the point. He appears to be more interested in questions than answers. Which makes his choice to start taking boxing lessons (and to wear his southern cross while leaving those lessons) so fascinating. Boxing, for at least a century, has been both celebrated as an avenue for African-American opportunity and demonized as the prime example of African-American suffering-as-white-American entertainment. The sport is boiling over with contradictions and racial ambiguity. Add to that the fact that West loves Muhammad Ali, the man credited with (at least to some extent) wrenching boxing hegemony from white hands and flipping the script on the sport’s racial narrative, and that West’s father was a Black Panther, whose kind of cultural reclamation was a little more hand’s-on than West’s more theoretical version, and the story gets wonderfully dense. And then, of course, there’s West’s business acumen—that he’s using racist southern symbols in the name of merchandising and self-promotion. Ali wrote the book on walking the line between political action and self-aggrandizement, and it appears West is studying at the master’s feet. Both inside the gym and out.

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