"George Bush doesn't care about black people," hip-hop artist and producer Kanye West declared in an unscripted outburst during a live benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina relief broadcast on NBC last Friday.
West's emotional break from the remarks prepared for him really caused a stir. Sharing the stage with actor Mike Myers, West articulated the seething anger that exists within the African-American community not just over the slow response of President Bush and the federal government to the crisis in the Gulf but also the media portrayal of the poor African-Americans trapped in the midst of it.
"I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says they're looting. See a white family, it says they're looking for food," said West. He didn't stop there. He also linked the ongoing war in Iraq to the shoot-on-sight orders given to the National Guard troops with regard to the looters. "We already realized a lot of the people who could help are at war right now, fighting another way, and they've given them permission to go down and shoot us."
By the time West got around to taking a personal swipe at Bush, the network had abruptly cut away to the apparently dumbstruck Chris Tucker. Later, NBC released this statement, essentially condemning West for failing to stick to the script: "It would be 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."
West has been a mercurial presence on the music scene for nearly five years, and his persona has always been full of contradictions. His new album, Late Registration, includes a song about the inadequacy of the healthcare system ("Roses") and another about the deplorable diamond trade in Africa ("Diamonds From Sierra Leone"). Yet it also contains sexist lyrics ("Gold Digger") and shameless self-aggrandizement (nearly every song). Yet on the other hand West has also begun speaking out against the routine use of homophobic slurs in rap lyrics. His turnaround on that issue was the result of a cousin outing himself.
It's difficult to know how to assess the impact of a thoroughly dubious character such as Kanye West voicing harsh but truthful statements about war, disaster and media bias. The hip-hop music genre has been rightfully criticized for glorifying violence, misogyny and hedonism. Yet here is an artist who, while by no means a political leader or a role model, can still reach a very large and impressionable audience. West's remarks on race, homophobia and more will certainly draw media attention to the debates over those issues.
To vent his anger on a network fundraiser was probably not the best career move for West, but still, it's refreshing to see an African-American entertainer be so candid. There are those who've been calling West a "hero" since the NBC show, while some in the blogosphere have decried his statement as "a disgusting display." Regardless of how one may feel about West, it's a good thing that someone so visible in the public eye isn't afraid to cut to the core of an event that has truly highlighted inequalities in our country and incompetence in the White House.