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Barbershop Guys Weigh In On 'Accidental Racist'


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael; founder of themuslimguy.com and civil rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar. They're with us in Washington, D.C. Lester Spence is associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. He's with us from Baltimore. And with us from our bureau in New York is deputy managing editor for the National Review, Kevin Williamson.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellows.


IZRAEL: Welcome to the Shop. How we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

KEVIN WILLIAMSON: Hey, what's up?

IZRAEL: OK. Can I get some caffeine up in here? What's good?

SPENCE: Go blue. Go blue. Go blue.

MARTIN: Oh, nice.

IZRAEL: OK. All right. Well, you know what? We're all hot to talk about Rand Paul showing up at Howard University and on this show and, of course, we'll get to that, but let's get things started with some music from country star Brad Paisley and LL Cool J.

MARTIN: Oh, it's music? Is that what it is? Oh, OK. It's called "Accidental Racist." It's a single from the country singer's latest album, "Wheelhouse," and here's a sample.


LL COOL J: (Singing) 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: (Singing) I'm just a white man...

LL COOL J: (Singing) If you don't judge my do-rag.

PAISLEY: (Singing) ...from the Southland.

LL COOL J: (Singing) ...I won't judge your red flag.

PAISLEY: (Singing) I don't understand what it is like not to be...

IZRAEL: Ay, caramba. In the immortal words of Byron Crawford...

MARTIN: You know you love it.

IZRAEL: ...author of "Infinite Crab Meats," status ain't 'hood. Thanks, Michel. Yo, Kevin Williamson, what do you think of this?

WILLIAMSON: God, that's horrible, to start with. But I'll start with the disclaimer that I hate the fact that I live in a world in which I'm expected to care what Brad Paisley thinks about anything, especially race relations.

MARTIN: Preach.

WILLIAMSON: You know, country singer deep thoughts. Thanks, 21st century.

MARTIN: Preach.

WILLIAMSON: Well, what makes me crazy about this is the presence of LL Cool J on this, which is kind of the - you know, my-black-friend school of record producing. It's like when someone's going to tell you a racist joke and they always say, well, my black friend told me this joke. But, you know, it never works the other way. Back in the '90s, when Public Enemy was celebrating Farrakhan in their songs, they never, like, felt the need to include Pat Boone.

IZRAEL: But they did. They did rock with Anthrax for...

WILLIAMSON: That's true. And that song...

IZRAEL: ...a remix. For a remix of "Bring the Noise" and, you know, this isn't unprecedented. You know, Kenny Rogers - he messed around with Coolio. He did that song. Also, Jennifer Nettles and Rihanna. There's Jason Aldean and Ludacris.

MARTIN: Jason Aldean, who raps himself.

WILLIAMSON: Yes. And every one of these was horrible.

IZRAEL: And Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg. You know what? Here's me. I think this is something that looked to me - even to me - really good on paper, but it's all in the execution; and rap music and country music - I don't know. I don't know if we have a mix that makes sense there.

MARTIN: Is it the genre, or is it the words are insipid?

IZRAEL: It's the genre. The genre - you got something that's inherently urban clashing against something that's inherently rural, you know. And those two narratives don't, in my mind, have any mixture.

WILLIAMSON: Well, if you watch the opening to that...

IZRAEL: Just hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Let the good doctor in here. Go ahead, man.

SPENCE: Hold on. Hold on. No. This isn't a genre thing. This is just a...


SPENCE: ...suck thing, right? Because you take Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Gin and Juice." There's a heck of a bluegrass remix that's hot, that's super hot, and so there are a number of different ways you can take rap and make it work with country. You can make it work with jazz. But it's just a content issue here. I think, if Paisley really wanted to get down and really wanted to understand how racism works, he could have chose a whole - he could chose a number of more powerful lyricists than he chose, LL Cool J. I mean, Cool J should really stick to NCIS.

WILLIAMSON: On behalf of white Southern guys, I'd like to object officially to the conflation of country and bluegrass there, though.

MARTIN: Oh, yes, sir.

IZRAEL: Noted. Duly noted.

MARTIN: Duly noted.

IZRAEL: A-Train, Arsalan Iftikhar.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I'm going to have to channel my inner Charles Barkley and say that this song was terrible. You know, what I think hasn't been noted here and really should - you know, if you look at the lyrics of the song, basically, Brad Paisley, you know, equates the Confederate flag basically just with Lynyrd Skynyrd fan boy-ism and I find that to be a rewriting of history. You know, to think that the Confederate flag or, you know, wearing it on a T-shirt, having it as a bumper sticker, you know, only originated with Lynyrd Skynyrd and I do agree with the whole LL Cool J thing. As comedian W. Kamau Bell said, that - I don't - I'm not sure if LL Cool J has spoken for black people since "Mama Said Knock You Out."

So, you know, these are some things that I don't think...

MARTIN: He can speak for himself.

IFTIKHAR: I don't think that they really thought this through. I think it was a very tone deaf song. I think instead of "Accidental Racist," it should have just been called an accidental song.

IZRAEL: Whoa. At least, he tried to put something positive out there. You know, I take issue with the idea that LL Cool J is irrelevant. He's an elder statesman, for sure, but I take some issue with that. Like I said, I think this looked great on paper. I think they messed it up in the execution and I'd like - I want somebody to be brave enough to try this again, but maybe not as preachy, you know.

IFTIKHAR: Well, and he could've picked a Southern rapper, like Big Boi or Andre 3000 from Outkast, other Southern rappers as opposed to picking a rapper from New York..

IZRAEL: I don't have any problem with the choice; it's just the execution is, to me, what...

MARTIN: No problem with preaching. There's no problem with preaching. I think - really, is - I don't think the problem is preaching; we love preaching.

IZRAEL: Amen, sister.

MARTIN: We love preaching. The problem is when it's stupid or when...


MARTIN: ...I'm sorry.

SPENCE: I mean, LL can't even - LL has even...

WILLIAMSON: But we're overlooking the kind of obvious comparison here...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Kevin.

WILLIAMSON: ...which is that, you know, if you're a white guy, and you see a guy wearing a Malcolm X T-shirt, all right, what do you think about it? Well, for some people, Malcolm X is a guy who is a symbol of self-respect and pride. And for some people, he was a member of a crazy, racist cult. You know, the Southern Confederate flag is very much the same thing. Where I'm from, you see black guys who wear Confederate flag hats or have Confederate flag bumper stickers on their trucks. For some people, it means - you know, it's a regional pride thing; it's a sort of rebellious thing. And for some people it means exactly the sort of poisonous, wacko, racist stuff that people up here in New York associate with it.

MARTIN: You know, I credit you on that...

SPENCE: And that it was created for.

MARTIN: ...and that like this is what LL said on - LL was on - it's interesting that Jay Leno has heard from both Brad Paisley and LL Cool J on this. And LL Cool J said look, for some kids, you know, wearing a Confederate T-shirt is like wearing a Memphis Grizzlies jersey. Except, there's no Malcolm X T-shirt flying on the Statehouse, you know, on the dome of any Statehouse in the country.

IZRAEL: Well - mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And those Confederate flags never flew on the tops of those Statehouses until the civil rights movement. So this is why I get...

SPENCE: That's right.

MARTIN: ...you know, when people say oh, this is just, it's just heritage. Well, if it was heritage, why is it that none of those flags were there until the civil rights movement came to those states...

SPENCE: That's right.

MARTIN: ...when those flags were deliberately incorporated into those state flags, as a statement of political belief. And so that's I think where - but I do credit you, there are a lot of kids who, you know, they're a lot of kids wearing X hats around who don't know anything about him so...

IZRAEL: You know, you're right. Right. Right.

MARTIN: ...there is that.

IZRAEL: Yeah. During that...

MARTIN: So let me just ask you this one more question, and I know we want to sort of move on.

IZRAEL: Sure. Go ahead. Sure.

MARTIN: The argument that they made is that OK, no song is perfect, but if they got people talking about it then it's a good thing. Yes. No.

IZRAEL: Agreed.


MARTIN: Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Agreed but for all the wrong reasons.


MARTIN: Lester?

IZRAEL: Lester.


SPENCE: Talking about what? No. No. No.



MARTIN: No. OK. Kevin?

WILLIAMSON: Oh, yeah. God knows, we don't talk about race enough in this country. But we really need is another song to remind us of it. Thanks.


MARTIN: You're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, civil rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar, political science professor, Lester Spence, and Kevin Williamson from the Nation Review.

Well, everybody is awake now.

IZRAEL: Well, thank goodness. Finally. Thanks, Michel

MARTIN: Go ahead.


IZRAEL: So as it turns out, LL and Paisley weren't the only ones trying to get that (Singing) Ebony and Ivory flavor going on, you know, Republican Sen. Rand Paul, he was in town, try to put his best foot forward with black voters. But some folks he just, say he just put his foot in his mouth. He spoke at Howard University, the famous historically black university in Washington this week. We got some tape let's drop it.

SEN. RAND PAUL: I mean, how many of you would have, if I would have said, who do you think the founders of the NAACP are, do you think they are Republicans or Democrats, would everybody here know they are all Republicans?


PAUL: All right, all right, you know more than I know. And, OK and that's - and I don't mean that to be insulting. I don't know what you know. And you don't, you know, I mean I'm trying to find out what the connection is.

IZRAEL: Ugh. Oh, man.


IZRAEL: That's like the white guy that walks to the club and wants to know if you know what trans-Europe Express is. That's awful. So Michel, you talked to Rand Paul after he went to Howard. How did you do in there and what you think he, what did he have to say to you?

MARTIN: Well, if you missed the interview, then you can go to NPR.org and catch up and I hope you will.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: But I just wanted to point out one thing that editor Ahmad Omar did go and listened to the speech is that along with the students. And he talked to a number of Howard students afterwards and a lot of them applauded Sen. Paul for showing up, even if - and he told us that he had solicited that opportunity, that Sen. Paul did - even if they didn't, you know, love every aspect of his speech.

I do want to - there I think - of you don't mind my pointing out, there were a number of sort of interesting, you know, statements so I think, you know, you can say is it, you're making too much of it or not making - but not knowing what's Brooke's named, for example. Wanting to point out that, you know, the first African-American senator post-Reconstruction was an African-American, but not knowing his name when you have a printed speech, that kind of stuff...

SPENCE: Problematic.

MARTIN: ...when you have staff to pointing out, talking repeatedly and talking about how brave you are to be there was at the university? Really? Why?


MARTIN: I mean why? Because...

IZRAEL: His hubcaps are going to get stolen. That's what I...

MARTIN: Yeah. He's been through a number of, I don't know. So...

WILLIAMSON: Conservative speaking at any university is sort of brave, though...

IZRAEL: Go ahead, K-Dub.

WILLIAMSON: ...unless it's, you know, Liberty or something like that.

MARTIN: Liberty. Yeah, but if I were to go to Liberty, you know, what I start my conversations by talking about how frightening the people are? I don't think I would. What would that be?

WILLIAMSON: Well, usually, you know, people at the Oscars always talking about, you know, how brave they were to make this move or that movie.


WILLIAMSON: Like were going to hang people for making dumb movies.

MARTIN: I feel you.

WILLIAMSON: And Rand Paul's main problem was that he underestimated the quality of undergraduate education in this country - which is almost impossible to do and that's the real shocking thing-.

MARTIN: What is that mean?

WILLIAMSON: He didn't think they would know who the senator was and who founded the NAACP.

MARTIN: The fact that these students actually know more about history than they do?

WILLIAMSON: You know, I mean how it actually has a pretty strong curriculum on that kind of stuff. They have the required class in African-American history. The students actually are going to know these things. Normally, you can pretty safely assume that an American undergraduate is not going to know anything of any importance, but at Howard you're going to be wrong about that.

SPENCE: Well, this is...

MARTIN: And they would also know the past 60 years of political history in this country that is - go ahead, Lester.

IZRAEL: Go ahead, Dr. Spence. Go ahead, man.

SPENCE: Yeah. So it's not that he's making assumptions about undergraduate education. He's making assumptions about black people's knowledge. Now what we have to do is understand that these efforts that the GOP is undertaking actually art for black voters. I think the research is pretty clear. They do these because the optics looks good to middle class white voters that they're attracting, so that's the first thing. But the second thing is is that his speech, it worked on the assumption not that undergrad student, but that black undergrads don't know what their history, and that black undergrads don't know what their own preferences are, right? So the whole idea is well, if we just expose them or inform them and, you know, then maybe they are ideas will change. Well, no. Black people have a very clear understanding of where their political interests are and they do the best they can to meet those interests. And I wish...

IZRAEL: Even though...

MARTIN: I asked him about that.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, but isn't that the assumption of every political speech - that if you expose someone to your ideas you might change some minds?

IZRAEL: You know, K-Dub, there's something...

SPENCE: No, it doesn't work like that.


IZRAEL: There's something to that old black saying, you know, you don't walk to the front of the church, you wait to get called. You know, and I it was, I think it was gauche, but in some ways kind of, I don't know if he deserves a pat on the back, but I'm glad he took the initiative to say hey, I want to come talk. But...

MARTIN: I don't know if I agree with that kind of way to be called. I think that's the opposite.


MARTIN: I think that that's one of the things that people, particularly, I'll just for African-Americans...


MARTIN: ...because I sort of thought a lot about this piece...

IZRAEL: It's your turn today.

MARTIN: ...appreciate is somebody acting as if they respect you enough to talk to you to your face, as opposed to behind your back - which is the normal way.

IZRAEL: Right.

IFTIKHAR: And so...

WILLIAMSON: It would be nice if Republicans would sometimes...

SPENCE: And work on that, said that you know.

IZRAEL: He clearly didn't know his audience.

MARTIN: True that. True.

IZRAEL: So with all that said, he clearly didn't know who he was talking to. A-Train?

MARTIN: Final thought?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I think it is interesting, especially in light of the fact that, you know, he had that recent epic 13 hour filibuster on the floor of the Senate against drones during the confirmation hearings of CIA director John Brennan. You know, I gave him props for the drone filibuster, even though I disagree with most of his politics. And I think it was a good thing that he went to Howard. I do agree with Lester that it probably was more for the optics on a national scale. Obviously, you know, he was elected as a Tea Party member of the Senate from Kentucky - where my wife is from. But now to sort of get himself into the mainstream of the Republican Party, I think that you know, this was something that he did as a politician that many politicians don't do today.

IZRAEL: And we know how the Paul's love doing things conventionally anyway, so...



SPENCE: Right.

MARTIN: OK. Well, before we let you go, you heard about this? Did you hear about this? That the musical super couple Jay-Z and Beyonce....


MARTIN: And nobody ever talks about them, right? They went to Cuba recently and it happened to coincide with their fifth wedding anniversary. There are some political leaders like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, of course, wanted to find out how they got around the strict rules about Americans traveling there. The Department of treasury responded in a letter that we obtained, that the trip was OK because it's our understanding that the travelers in question traveled to Cuba pursuant to an educational exchange. The trip is not at all unusual for artists and entertainers to go, you know back-and-forth.

IFTIKHAR: Right. Right. Yeah.

MARTIN: Not to be outdone, though, Jay-Z released a dis rap as his own response about it. Here it is.


JAY-Z: (Rapping) I'm in Cuba, I love Cubans. This Communist talk is so confusing. This communist talk is so confusing. When it's from China, the very mic that I'm using. (Bleep) "Idiot Wind," the Bob Dylan of rap music. You're an idiot baby, you should become a student.


SPENCE: The Rock.

MARTIN: OK. Lester.


MARTIN: You wrote a book about this.

SPENCE: He's not Bob...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

SPENCE: He's not Bob Dylan, but that's what a lyricist sounds like, right? LL needs to take lessons.

IZRAEL: Here we go.

SPENCE: Like real talk.


MARTIN: OK. Kevin, Kevin, what do you think about it? What do you think about the trip? Do you care?

WILLIAMSON: Well, OK, another celebrity whose political activities I'm expected to care about.


WILLIAMSON: But the educational into the educational exchange doesn't seem to be doing much good for either side. Keep in mind that Cuba is a country in which it is mortally dangerous to be a librarian, a country in which HIV patients are locked up in prisons. And, you know, he went down there and allowed himself to be used as a political prop for a really truly awful regime. And I think he should be ashamed of himself.

IZRAEL: I think that's one interesting read of it. But it's not like he was on camera, you know, with a sombrero on his head and drinking a, you know, a pina colada. And...

WILLIAMSON: He shouldn't even cover the Cuban press and made a huge deal about it.

MARTIN: But what about that? But there is some - what about that, the fact that the press is not - I mean he is, you know, you see the point that these making in his rap, which is well, he hadn't observed that China was particularly free either.

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But what about it, Jimi? I mean, as a writer yourself, what about Kevin's point?

IZRAEL: You know what? As a writer I'm going to Cuba. I'm - put that on the record. Almost every writer I know has been to Cuba. I'm late. And I think more black people should go to Cuba. Don't take the news word for it. Don't take the newspapers word for it. Go see it out. I think there's this thing where a lot of African-Americans are afraid to travel abroad. And Jay-Z, he got clearance from the Treasury Department. Who else permission does he need? You know, I'm really offended that we believe that we can check the travel habits of rich black Americans. Nah. Nah. Go ahead, A-Train.

MARTIN: Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Well, yeah. And like you said, Jimi, you know, this was fully sanctioned by the Treasury Department under their people-to-people educational exchanges. There have been ballet companies that have gone there, you know, the Buena Vista Social Club has gone to Cuba.

IZRAEL: That's right.

IFTIKHAR: You know, you're not going to, you don't blame an entire population for what their government does. You know, we had Dennis Rodman a few weeks ago chilling with Kim Jong Un in North Korea. You want to talk about like, you know, rubbing shoulders with despotic leaders...

MARTIN: I don't recall that that we were particular fans of that.


IFTIKHAR: Well, no, we weren't, but what I'm saying is I don't think that it caused a faux uproar that it is today. And, you know, for many young Cuban-Americans, you know, many of them would think that the Bay of Pigs invasion where the opening act to Mumford and Sons at the Coachella Festival.

MARTIN: OK. Lester, final thought?

SPENCE: Cuba has far better health care than ours. I think there are a lot of other nation states that we should be questioning. And I think that this type of interaction is a good thing for the states for both nations.

IZRAEL: Amen, brother.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thanks. It's good to get all the different views. And we say goodbye to our headquarters here. This is our last Barbershop.


SPENCE: Oh, man.

MARTIN: This is the last time we get a trim and this particular location.

IZRAEL: Yeah, Lester, you should've been here.

SPENCE: Yeah, man. It's my fault.

MARTIN: Next time you hear us from our new - well, Kevin, do you still get a trim, from here?

WILLIAMSON: I do it myself.

MARTIN: You do it yourself. OK. Well, next time you'll have to see us in the new building.

IZRAEL: New digs.


MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. He's also an adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. Founder of the themuslimguy.com and civil rights leader, Arsalan Iftikhar, here in Washington, D.C. Kevin Williamson is deputy managing editor for the Nation Review, with us from our bureau in New York, from Baltimore, Johns Hopkins political science professor, Lester Spence.

Thank you all so much.


SPENCE: Peace.


IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

WILLIAMSON: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our new Barbershop Podcast, that's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday from our new headquarters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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