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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And one of the songs Will mentioned has generated a lot of debate, and a heap of scorn - the song "Accidental Racist." Here's the chorus.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACCIDENTAL RACIST")

BRAD PAISLEY: (Singing) I'm just a white man coming to you from the Southland, trying to understand what it's like not to be. I'm proud of where I'm from...

CORNISH: As we heard earlier, the song also features rapper LL Cool J. Now, to find out why "Accidental Racist" has struck a nerve, we turn to Gene Demby. He's our lead blogger for NPR's new team covering race, ethnicity and culture. Welcome, Gene.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Hi, Audie. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So tell us a little bit more about this song. What's the plot of it? What's the story it's trying to tell, and how did people react to it?

DEMBY: So in the song, Brad Paisley is walking into a Starbucks, and he's wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt, and he is reacting to people reacting to him wearing the Confederate flag T-shirt. He says that he's wearing the shirt not because he has any kind of racist inclinations but because he's a Skynyrd fan, and the song is...

CORNISH: A Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, yeah.

DEMBY: A Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, yeah. And he's kind of asking for people to be more understanding of this symbol, this iconography.

CORNISH: And how does LL play into that?

DEMBY: LL Cool J basically says, hey, it's cool. It's cool. That's OK. Hey, we can all get along. I'll make space for your Confederate flag T-shirt if you make space for my hip-hop attire.

CORNISH: So how did people react to this?

DEMBY: The overwhelming response on Twitter, where "Accidental Racist" was a hashtag that was kind of blowing up all day, was snark and eye-rolling. It was just - it was received as very earnest, very well-intentioned but a very earnest song.

CORNISH: But is this just the case of the Internet being the Internet, or are there real historical or other issues with the song?

DEMBY: Well, the comedian Patton Oswalt tweeted jokingly: Can't wait for Brad Paisley and LL Cool J's next single "Whoopsy Daisy, Holocaust, My Bad." A lot of people felt as if it was kind of sheering off kind of the rough edges of our history.

CORNISH: And today, Brad Paisley was on the TV show "Ellen," and she asked him to try and explain what he was trying to say with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELLEN")

PAISLEY: I don't know. It's kind of - we're sort of asking the question of - as a proud Southerner, and he is a - as a black New Yorker, it's sort of like, let's - one of my favorite lines of the song is, he says, "I think the relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin'."

ELLEN DEGENERES: Mm-hmm.

PAISLEY: Leave it to a rapper to put it so simply...

DEGENERES: Yeah.

PAISLEY: ...and so beautifully.

DEMBY: We were wondering, on our team, why Paisley chose LL Cool J and not a Southern rapper. Atlanta is the epicenter of the hip-hop universe. It's been that way for a few years now. And we were wondering whether a Southern rapper might have a different take on the Confederate flag. One of the lines that LL Cool J says in the song - that got the most attention, actually - he says," if you don't judge my gold chains, then I'll forget the iron chains."

CORNISH: Kind of comparing the two as symbols...

DEMBY: Right.

CORNISH: ...and it sounds like people think those symbols aren't weighted equally.

DEMBY: Right, exactly. The criticism has been, there's kind of a false equivalence.

CORNISH: Now, why do you think this has been such a lightning rod? I mean, is it because it's two polarizing genres of music that people have strong opinions about? Is it the song itself? Is there any way to do a good, interracial message song? I mean, was this doomed from the start?

DEMBY: You know, there isn't a very long track record of well-done, interracial message songs, right? You have "Black or White" by Michael Jackson, which is kind of cheesy. You have "Ebony and Ivory," which is like, notoriously cheesy. I wonder if there's a way to even tackle this subject kind of head-on directly in popular music, in a way that wouldn't cue a bunch of eye-rolling.

I think it's also kind of the content of the song, a bit. I mean, the song almost doesn't work if LL Cool J is not there. I mean, Brad Paisley basically needs a black friend in the song - for the song to work. It doesn't work if he's just him singing the song by himself. It becomes a completely different song, as a matter fact.

CORNISH: Gene Demby is our lead blogger for NPR's new team covering race, ethnicity and culture. Thank you so much for stopping by.

DEMBY: Thanks, Audie. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EBONY AND IVORY")

PAUL MCCARTNEY, STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) Ebony and Ivory live together in perfect harmony...

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We couldn't resist. It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.

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