by Julian Spivey
This is the 10th anniversary of one of the most devastating natural disasters in terms of both lives lost and costly damage in the history of the United States. On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the Gulf Coast and led to the destruction of levees made to protect the high populous city of New Orleans, causing much of the city and surrounding areas to flood severely. More than 1,200 people died as a result of Hurricane Katrina in five different states, but the focus was on New Orleans and the seeming ill-preparedness and horrible response to the entire disaster.
This federal response from President George W. Bush and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on down was disastrous and one of the most embarrassing and incompetent moments ever from our government. There’s no doubt the disaster was magnified by a lack of intelligence and caring from higher ups.
And, one man on a nationally televised telethon in hopes of helping the situation through Red Cross donations had the guts to say what he felt and what in at least some small way was the truth.
Kanye West is a lot of things both good and bad. But, typically most people don’t view him this way. They either view him as all things good or all things bad. West has done and said a lot of stupid things in the decade-plus he’s been in show business that have led to a ton of criticism and even President Barack Obama referring to him as a “jackass.”
But, West’s first foray into public controversy came in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina during the NBC Universal telethon “A Concert for Hurricane Relief” that aired on NBC networks on September 2, just a few days after Katrina made landfall.
This telethon featured celebrities such as West, Mike Myers, Leonardo DiCaprio, Richard Gere, Hilary Swank, Aaron Neville, Harry Connick Jr., Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Claire Danes and more urging Americans to give everything they could to Red Cross to help out with the national disaster.
The telethon would generate $50 million dollars for the Red Cross, but something West would say during his segment on the air would generate countless amounts of controversy, as well.
West was set to appear with comedian and actor Mike Myers on the telecast. The two were to read pre-written statements on a teleprompter. As the two walked out onto the stage, West notified Myers that he was going to ad-lib. Myers read his part off of the teleprompter and when he finished West started into an ad-libbed statement on race and the way this national disaster had been treated because of it.
He said: “I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, 'They're looting.' You see a white family, it says, 'They're looking for food.' And, you know, it's been five days [waiting for federal help] because most of the people are black. And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite because I've tried to turn away from the TV because it's too hard to watch. I've even been shopping before even giving a donation, so now I'm calling my business manager right now to see what is the biggest amount I can give, and just to imagine if I was down there, and those are my people down there. So anybody out there that wants to do anything that we can help—with the way America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible. I mean, the Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realize a lot of people that could help are at war right now, fighting another way—and they've given them permission to go down and shoot us!”
Myers looked flabbergasted by West’s hijacking of the segment and continued on with his script. West let him finish, before uttering the now infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” line before having his microphone muted by the producers of the show. Myers was visibly shocked by the comment and portrayed as a victim by media in the days following.
West was verbally crucified by many media outlets for his impromptu speech and critique of the President, who by this time was already seeing his popularity fade rapidly.
But, what West ultimately said seemed to ring true for so many in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It appeared that President Bush and the government’s lack of action following the disaster had to do at least somewhat with race. Many thought, and likely rightfully so, that the government wouldn’t have reacted so slowly and so poorly had the majority of the victims been affluent white people or even white people in general.
Looking back on West’s comments a decade later they don’t seem like they should be as controversial given the utter disgrace that was the government’s reaction to the horrific situation. West was essentially speaking for a large group of Americans who didn’t feel like their lives mattered as much to the government as those of others. According this Huffington Post piece, one of New Orleans’ most famous sons, Harry Connick Jr., agreed with the statement West had made on the air about the President not seemingly caring about those struggling in the gulf.
West is a man who speaks his mind – for better or worse – and despite the fact that he was so openly ridiculed by many for his statement on the President in the days following Hurricane Katrina what he was saying held at least some very important truths.