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