Southern Music’s Racial Double Standard

We believe automatically that Chris Knight is not — could never actually be — that homeless man with a gun.

Put the same lyric in Killer Mike’s mouth, though, and you think something different, don’t you? You do not assume instantly that Mike is merely inhabiting a character. No, in your mind, he is the man with the gun in his hand.

Think for a second about the history of Southern music. Our Appalachian musical heritage has a long and grand tradition of what the academics call “murder ballads” and what the musicians just call “killin’ songs.” The archetype, perhaps, is “Knoxville Girl,” in which the protagonist beats a girl with a stick “until the ground around her within her blood did flow,” then drags her by her hair into the river to drown.

Southerners have written and still sing hundreds of ballads about killings. We sing them at festivals and around campfires. Academic musicologists study them as cultural artifacts. Though they are dark indeed, no one finds them too objectionable. Johnny Cash “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” and we’re not scared. We just love Johnny more.

But when the gun in the song is in the hand of a black man, things get weird. The song becomes less cultural artifact and more an object of fear. We reflexively object. We worry about what the children will hear.

You think we have a little double-standard problem here? Yeah, me too.

Chuck Reece writing in the Bitter Southerner about the rapper Killer Mike.

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Photo: Mads Danquah, Flickr