Being from the South and being proud of where you're from isn't always easy, especially lately. Just do the body count from recent months: Walter Scott is shot down by a North Carolina police officer, who's charged with Scott's murder. Sandra Bland is arrested in a routine traffic stop and winds up dead in a Texas jail cell. A white-supremacist massacres nine in a South Carolina church. In each case, the victims are black and unarmed.
Racism isn't just alive and well, it's a straight-up crisis. There's been a renewed push to rid public spaces of a powerful symbol of hatred and oppression: the Confederate flag. State capitols in Alabama and South Carolina have taken flags down, and here in Dallas there are calls to remove memorials to Confederates such as Robert E. Lee.
But, Mel Kyle is clearly proud of Dallas. It's writ large in his music, right down to the name of his hip-hop group, the Outfit, TX. Their songs are full of references to their hometown, and their latest EP, released last week, is an ode to Deep Ellum. Kyle even wrote an essay for Noisey last month about how the rest of the country is sleeping on the talent in the local hip-hop scene. Kyle, a black man who fronts a rap group, wears his pride for his city on his sleeve, but he also defiantly wears the Confederate flag, raising it like a middle finger to the politically correct. Kyle often appears in the Outfit's promo photos with the flag draped around him, and it's frequently a part of their live performances. It's in the artwork for the cover of their recent single, "Wild Turkey," too.
"If you come in our house, we have a Confederate flag hanging up and it's airbrushed in burning flames all over the bottom," he says. "You come to our show at South by Southwest and we had this same flag." (That flag makes an appearance in the group's video for "Ü," where Kyle dances with it in the dark.)
Not that the Outfit are an explicitly political group. Their murky, Southern-fried rap gets marinated with whiskey and weed and concerns itself more with stealing your girl than making a statement about the world. Sometimes it doesn't even bother with reality. When shit does get real, like on "Ü," it falls into step with the band's usual swagger: "Tryin' a make music, you callin' us thugs/Promise you crackers ain't fuckin' with us."
"It is a definite motif," Kyle says of the flag, staying coy on just how he sees it fitting into the group's overall aesthetic. "As we get deeper into album mode, hopefully that will become clearer to people."
The Outfit are hardly the first group to make the flag part of their iconography; Kyle points out Lynyrd Skynyrd's use of it runs back decades and, in the hip-hop world, MJG's 1997 album No More Glory also features the flag in flames. He's not about to question using it himself. "We got people showing these flags again and everybody, honestly, is getting so up in arms about a flag that has existed strongly in the South since the '60s," he says. "That flag ain't going anywhere. I could take you to places around Dallas and show you houses that have that flag hanging. So nobody's been giving a fuck until recently."
To an extent the Outfit's use of the Confederate flag is a reclamation, a reappropriation of an object that for years has stood as a symbol of hate and oppression. Kyle believes that it's not unlike the use of the N-word: "We reappropriated that shit and made that shit familial, made that shit lovely," he says. The Confederate flag poses a slightly different issue: Hundreds of thousands of people died defending (and fighting against) it in the Civil War — but as Kyle sees it, that shouldn't mean trying to erase it from memory.
"We need to be able to document history," Kyle insists. "If we continue to hide and wipe away history and change history books to make slavery sound like it was indentured servitude — some kind of voluntary service, like Texas is doing — if we continue to take down all the flags and to make it where it never existed, then eventually we'll be able to pretend slavery never existed and we'll have no idea where we are in the world in 2015."
That history, however abhorrent, is what makes the South what it is, and if confronting that makes people uncomfortable then it may be just what we need to be able to move forward. "What makes the South so beautiful and why we have our swagger that we have is all the pain we've endured, all the hatred we've shared, all the historical moments that have occurred," Kyle says. Without it, he says, we wouldn't have most of the music we have today: no blues, no gospel, no rock 'n ' roll, no hip-hop. Each, in one way or another, was born of the social struggles that African Americans have faced throughout the history of this country.
What's true of the South is true of Dallas, and as Kyle points out, those same struggles remain painfully clear right here in our city. "We lived in Houston for a hot minute, and to be honest Dallas is a more segregated city," Kyle says. He singles out economic disparity as a root cause of the problem. "If you look at Dallas and you draw the I-30 line on the map, all the money and all the development and all the whites and all the progress is above the line. Below I-30, shit hasn't changed since the '90s ... Motherfuckers are still down here killing, still selling drugs and even worse."
What does concern Kyle is what he sees as the recent re-emergence of "olden time bullshit," like white supremacist marches, political figures slamming minorities in speeches and hateful comments on social media. "My sister just turned 17. Her and her friends, when I go to my mama's house, there's two black girls, two white girls and an Asian girl there all the time. They don't even fucking look at each other that way," he says. "If we start making racism and all these things a part of their society on these social networks, sooner or later they're going to look in the mirror and be like, 'Damn.'"
But Kyle won't let his Southern pride get in the way of his message; he wants it to drive his message forward. For him, disarming the flag as a symbol means confronting it head-on — even if he usually lets those airbrushed flames do the talking.
"Let's burn down the flag, burn down all these things and essentially say to people, 'Burn down these conventions, this old South bullshit we get such a bad rap for,'" Kyle says. "If Jimbo and the likes want to ride around with it in their truck, fuck 'em. They're stuck anyway. We're going to keep moving forward."