No one possibly expected Kanye West's intensely anticipated Yeezus tour to shy away from controversy, but so far it's the accessories that are threatening to overshadow the sprawling, 27-track performance.
Over the weekend, fans in Seattle were treated to a white-robed Jesus impersonator, who joined West onstage just before the rapper performed "Jesus Walks." Now, via creative director Virgil Abloh's Instagram, the Internet has caught a glimpse of what's being sold at the tour's provocative merchandise table. The shirts, tote bags, and sweatshirts aren't emblazoned with the routine concert photos or tour dates you see in high school cafeterias. Complementing Yeezus's uncompromising aesthetics and socially charged commentary, they alternately feature a skeleton in a headdress and a skull draped in the confederate flag, with captions that blare "GOD WANTS YOU" and "I AIN'T COMING DOWN."
Here, have a look at one of the shirts:
Obviously, West's use of the confederate flag isn't a show of solidarity with the guy waving one outside the White House last week. It seems to be his means of co-opting the racist emblem in the context of tracks like "New Slaves" and "Blood on the Leaves," which draws its title and primary sample from chilling lynching imagery in Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit":
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
The caption beneath Abloh's image of the flag headdress, meanwhile, quotes the opening line of "New Slaves," Yeezus's furious anti-racism manifesto: "Our mamas were raised in an era when / Clean water was only served to the fairer skin." The track goes on to blast "rich nigga racism" and declare that "we the new slaves"; fittingly, West's merchandise graphically alludes to the South's own ugly racial history.
But not everyone's convinced it's a smart move. Given West's massive stature, the worry is a familiar and troubling one: are all of West's fans—many of them young and white—going to pick up on what he's trying to do here? And whose problem is it if they don't, or if they see the confederate flag as an acceptable symbol to wave around on its own?
I have no doubt in my mind that those Confederate flag Yeezus merchandise will sell like hot cakes Dec. 6th in Dallas.— Do-Z (@SouthernRam24) October 20, 2013
Kanye's team selling confederate flags on merch to White kids is not art or irony, it's just plain old stupid. That's just me though.— NRCY / The Narcicyst (@TheNarcicyst) October 21, 2013
But of course, in recent weeks it hasn't just been kids misappropriating West's means of getting his point across. And the rapper, to his credit, hasn't been shy about setting things straight.
All images by Virgil Abloh via Instagram.