Confederate Flag in Popular Music: A Recent History

Ed Rode/Nashville Rising/Getty Images for Nashville Rising
Johnny Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd performs at Nashville Rising, a benefit concert for flood relief  at Bridgestone Arena on June 22, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. 

America has been deeply conflicted about the Confederate battle flag for generations. In the aftermath of the Charleston shooting's racial terrorism, Alabama decided to remove the flag from its state Capitol in Montgomery, and other states may soon follow suit. America is changing, but will supporters of the flag cling to tradition, regardless of what lawmakers tell them?

It's no secret that many musicians have employed this controversial symbol over the years; some still do today. Some have worn it as a symbol of heritage, while others have adopted it only to subvert it. Some of its most iconic supporters have distanced themselves from it. Here are some instances where the Confederate flag intersected with popular music over the years:

For many, the Confederate flag is just as synonymous with Lynyrd Syknyrd as the lead riff of "Sweet Home Alabama." But in a 2012 interview with CNN, guitarist Gary Rossington, the band's lone surviving original member, appeared to backpedal on Skynyrd's long-standing love of the flag:

"Through the years, people like the KKK and skinheads kinda kidnapped the Dixie or Southern flag from its tradition and the heritage of the soldiers. … We didn't want that to go to our fans or show the image like we agreed with any of the race stuff or any of the bad things."

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This interview sparked outrage from some Skynyrd fans, prompting Rossington to clarify his position. "We still utilize the Confederate (Rebel) flag on stage every night in our shows, we are and always will be a Southern American Rock band, first and foremost," he wrote on the band's official website. The band continues to use it in live shows. 

The legendary metal band Pantera has been inactive since 2003; beloved guitarist Dimebag Darrell was shot and killed onstage in 2004 and the band has never reunited. The Arlington, Texas-based band often used Confederate flag imagery, as Darrell played guitars painted with its likeness:

Today you can still buy apparel featuring the flag on Pantera's website:

In 2013, LL Cool J and Brad Paisley collaborated on a song called "Accidental Racist." Paisley sang lines like, "To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main/ I hope you understand when I put on that T-shirt/ The only thing I meant to say is I'm a Skynyrd fan."

Critics were not kind. 

Trace Adkins was criticized for performing while wearing an earpiece with a Confederate logo at the 2012 Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting. The Sons of Confederate Veterans member explained himself in a since-taken-down post on his website: "To me, the battle flag represents remembrance of my Southern lineage… I advocate for the preservation of America's battlefields and honest conversation about our country's history. To those who view the flag as a symbol of racism, that was not my message and I did not intend offense."

After the Charleston shooting, Radio.com spoke to the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley -- lifelong Southerners -- about their views on the flag. Hood likened it to the swastika and said it was used after the Civil War as a way of intimidating black people: "People say 'The South will rise again'… The South will never rise again as long as we keep our heads up our asses. I feel very strongly about it. I'm from Alabama. I lived in the South my entire life. I have ancestors who fought in that ill-begotten war, but it's way, way past time to move on."

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Cooley put matters into first-hand context: "I live in the reddest district in one of the reddest states in the country (Alabama)… And I don't feel like I'm surrounded by brainwashed a–holes at all. But there's a meanness in the way that the South expresses itself politically, that is not reflective of what kind of people they are, and most of it is rooted in Civil War resentment."

Other artists have used the flag ironically, in an attempt to subvert its meaning. Kanye West, no stranger to subverting things, used it prominently in his Yeezus tour -- on merchandise, and even wearing it himself. 

"React how you want," West told L.A. radio station 97.1 AMP. "Any energy is good energy. The Confederate flag represented slavery in a way. That's my abstract take on what I know about it, right? So I wrote the song 'New Slaves.' So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It's my flag now."

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