A flood of words


September 5, 2005


Context is required to understand Kanye West's latest outburst -- criticizing President Bush on national TV during telethon

Kanye West's outspoken criticism of President Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina has become one of the most controversial statements by a popular musician since Sinead O'Connor tore up a picture of the pope on "Saturday Night Live" in 1992.

Like that incident, in which the Irish singer actually was making a complicated critique of the Catholic Church based on the teachings of the Rastafarian religion, the Chicago-born rapper's unscripted comments on live TV were no ill-considered outburst -- and they can't be understood divorced from the context of West's work.

A week after being hailed as "the smartest man in pop music" on the cover of Time magazine, and four days after the release of his second album "Late Registration," which is expected to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart tomorrow with sales of nearly a million copies, West appeared beside comedian Mike Myers as one of several entertainers who urged Americans to donate to relief efforts during a telethon broadcast live on NBC and its affiliated networks Friday night.

West did not perform, nor did he deliver the statement that had been written for him, which visibly shocked Myers. Instead, in a nervous and emotional voice, the 28-year-old rapper first criticized the media's portrayal of African Americans in the devastated city of New Orleans and the warnings issued by President Bush and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco that looters would be shot on sight.

"I hate the way they portray us in the media," West said. "If you see a black family, it says they're looting. See a white family, it says they're looking for food. ... They've given them permission to go down and shoot us."

As Myers returned to the script, West added another impromptu and even more incendiary line -- "George Bush doesn't care about black people" -- before the network quickly cut to comedian Chris Tucker. That line aired live on the East Coast, but was cut from West Coast broadcasts.

"Nobody, especially the president, would have left people unattended on the basis of race," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the administration's highest-ranking African American, said on Sunday while touring damage in her home state of Alabama.

NBC started distancing itself from West minutes after his appearance. Telethon host Matt Lauer noted that "emotions in this country right now are running very high. ... We've heard some [criticism] tonight, but it's still part of the American way of life."

The network later issued a statement, saying, "It would be most unfortunate if the efforts of the artists who participated tonight and the generosity of millions of Americans who are helping those in need are overshadowed by one person's opinion." But West's view that the federal government is set up "to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible" is not merely one person's opinion.

Many prominent commentators and newspaper editorialists have made similar charges since Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast. In an article Sunday criticizing NBC's decision to "censor" West's comments, the Los Angeles Times noted, "You can be sure those remarks would have been cheered more than anything else in the program by the black parents and children still trapped in the New Orleans Convention Center."

Nor was West the only performer on "A Concert for Hurricane Relief" to make such a criticism, although others were more veiled. Another African-American performer and a resident of New Orleans, Aaron Neville, performed Randy Newman's soulful ballad "Louisiana 1927," which includes the haunting chorus, "They're trying to wash us away."

But with his comments on Friday, West emerged as its new political firebrand, with a larger audience and more access to the mainstream than any rapper since Public Enemy's Chuck D, who declared in the late '80s that rap music "is the black CNN."

Like Chuck D, West grew up in a middle-class family that did not turn its back on the harsh realities of life in the ghetto but viewed political action and education as the paths to reform. His mother, Donda West, recently retired as chairwoman of the English Department at Chicago State University. His father, Ray West, is a former Black Panther active in the South Shore neighborhood, now serving as a Christian marriage counselor.

Unlike Public Enemy, which was famously criticized for embracing some of the anti-Semitic views of the Nation of Islam, West's beliefs reflect those of millions of mainstream Americans strong on family values, the merits of hard work and Christian teachings. Indeed, the message of "Jesus Walks," the phenomenal hit from his 2004 album "The College Dropout," is that anything is possible with the help of Christ, a theme that allies him with many of Bush's core supporters.

But Friday, West's statements were much closer to those being made by critics of the Bush administration from across the racial and political spectra. And while he is being criticized by many on the right -- and will no doubt pay a price with some lost album sales and less radio play in more conservative markets -- he did Americans a service by putting the issue on the table for national debate.

Perhaps the most striking evidence of this came on Sunday during CNN's "Late Edition" when host Wolf Blitzer quoted West when asking Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson whether the response to Hurricane Katrina has been racist. Thompson, a Democrat, said the government had failed and "someone has to be held accountable." He cited the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

The most revealing part of the exchange, however, was the fact that Thompson mistook the comments from West as a statement from Princeton University professor, theologian, author and activist Dr. Cornel West. In one fell swoop, the rapper and college dropout has earned a place in the front ranks of this country's best-known and most respected African-American activists.