It is still funny. I like to imagine a brave PR strategist speaking up earlier in the day to pitch the pairing of the up-and-coming rapper and the family-safe Canadian comedian to a room full of stiff executives who probably couldn’t tell Kanye from Coolio. And later, when Kanye derails the telecast, all of those panicking execs turning wide-eyed to the strategist, while the strategist has to hide his glee for having unintentionally created what might just be the best live television moment ever. If that strategist exists, his idea should still be an emboldened bullet on his resume.
Someone is responsible for it. Someone accidentally choreographed the passing of a meteoric rising star and a dulled, falling one. Poor Mike Meyers, walking into a minute-long live teleprompter reading as the bigger of the two stars and then nearly choking on his status as the sucker punch punchline in what turned out to be the last memorable joke of his career. From any angle of observation, it is still very funny.
Humor, as it turns out, was the easiest way for white, middle class America to sidestep the swift kick to the nuts that Kanye West attempted to deliver in his protest disruption of A Concert for Hurricane Relief, which was televised live ten years ago today to raise relief funds for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Humor wasn’t the only strategy though. It turns out there was a myriad of ways in which our culture avoided looking at the message head on, because to view Kanye eye-to-eye on this topic would mean to admit both our culpability within an oppressive system of configured media language and our having been duped by it.
There were many who outright dismissed the sincerity of Kanye’s concern to his developing reputation as a petulant attention-seeker, a claim strengthened by the fact that Kanye’s second album, Late Registration, had dropped just a few days before the benefit concert. This targeted observation, of course, largely ignores the less-than-heartwarming commercial relationship between all celebrities, the charity events they attend, and the companies that host, promote, and televise them. A cynic could easily point out that several attendees earned free promotion for a current brand or product at the same event that Kanye temporarily hijacked—Faith Hill was shooting for a Country comeback, Richard Gere had a film opening in less than two months, and George Pataki was never one to miss out on a little posturing.
Whether the lucrative and advantageous recital of scripted sympathy is more or less forgivable than well-timed political grandstanding is a moral debate better left for another time. Perhaps a more fruitful discussion would be to consider the way that music fans have always largely ignored the historical commercial value of disobedience, disruption, and protest. When The Doors were banned from The Ed Sullivan Show for refusing to change the lyrics in the line “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher,” the contest between the two worked as a historical commercial benefiting both entities. When the MTV Video Music Awards capture incidents like Kurt Cobain’s ornery playing of the first chords of Nirvana’s “Rape Me” or Rage Against the Machine’s Tim Cummerford climbing onto a stage set piece to disrupt the program, MTV gets the commercial benefit of hosting the edgy and rebellious rock attitude without having to accept direct responsibility for its influence, while the bands get to use the televised platform to “accidentally” market their contrived anti-market aesthetic. In music, everyone is always promoting. But it feels that this particular protest from Kanye was of a different fabric. His was a distinct risk to the totality of his artistic brand, perhaps less like those earlier examples and more like Bruce Springsteen’s open contention with his music and his namesake being used without his permission during Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign.
It’s impossible to quantify how much of an effect the Kanye controversy had on his immediate and long-term record sales, but Late Registration moved into the top spot on the Billboard Charts just a few days later and held the position for two weeks, making it the most successful release of the fall season. The album had already started collecting critical praise before his charity appearance, and there is a possibility that bitter and amused word-of-mouth exposed it to more ears. But there exists no real way to say how much it influenced future stages of his superstar career, the album’s inclusion on Rolling Stones’ list of the greatest albums of all time, West’s 21 career Grammys, or his eventual marriage into a family whose media kingdom, in terms of reach and power, rivals that of his mic-drop Katrina target. But, again, all of that might just be circumstantial anyway. That Kanye may have been speaking with ulterior motive and that Kanye may have been vocalizing a frustrated, desperate, and necessary truth are not mutually exclusive possibilities.
If we blind ourselves to context, leave behind what we know of the rapper’s reputation from before, during, and since, and just read the transcript of Kanye’s initial off-script pre-amble, it becomes more striking:
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 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!
The opening of his speech is distinctly poignant today, as we move into a modern era in which media constantly seeks to justify the killings of black men and women at the hands of police and neighborhood watchmen, often to unsatisfying degrees, and then too frequently uses a measurably different language set to describe the active protests of white and black citizens. Ten years before the message of #BlackLivesMatter found its most fertile growing conditions in the viral landscape and was lifted by the righteous voices of millions, Kanye West stood up and communicated the same message on his own, on live TV, at the risk of his career.
And then he went after the president.
In a universe of logic and fairness, Kanye West’s rise to success could serve as a very Republican-friendly narrative, a by-the-bootstrap tale that enforces the common right-wing platitude that “anyone can do anything if they want it bad enough.” When Kanye went after George W. Bush on live television, he was a 28-year-old self-made millionaire. Half a decade earlier, West had committed to his dream of becoming a rapper, even after multiple studios declined to sign him because his aesthetic didn’t match the then-contemporary gangster rap trends. He responded by spending four years recording his own album, taking a backpack of his music into short rented studio sessions and turning his two bedroom apartment into his own studio. The result, his debut album College Dropout, is one of the most celebrated and game-changing albums in music history. All of this happened under the reign of our 41st president, who never missed the opportunity to elevate these sort of stories as evidence that America was still, under his policies, a land of endless opportunity.
The Bush era was one marred (and maybe defined) by protest. The critical language used against President Bush was more volatile, vitriolic, and extreme than that faced by any sitting president before him (though that record would be toppled by the culture surrounding his immediate successor). Kanye wasn’t the first, last, or loudest to go after President Bush. When Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maynes denounced the President on foreign soil, the band’s country fanbase turned violently against them, with organized boycotts, album burnings, hate mail, and death threats. In the years since, the band has earned favor once again and their protest has been validated and documented in a critically-acclaimed documentary. Green Day’s album American Idiot, a monolithic punk opera written in protest of the administration and its supporters, made its way onto Broadway. Kanye West’s Bush-specific protest peaked as an early Internet meme. Culturally, it was never really treated any differently than a famous Saturday Night Live skit. And, in recalling a two-term tenure flooded with vocalized dissatisfaction, President Bush recently described Kanye’s comment as the “most disgusting moment” of his presidency.
It is strange looking back on the video. To witness a presentation of Kanye on the outside of how we have to think of him now—the self-assured king of hip-hop who has reigned pretty consistently since and just recently declared his intention to run for President in 2020 after a somewhat absurd, rambling acceptance speech at the MTV VMAs. But in the video of his Katrina benefit appearance, he is terrified. It’s evident that he expects repercussions, though he isn’t sure of what they will be. That he is visibly forcing himself to speak anyway suggests that he believes in what he is saying and knows there is a dire need for it to be said. Seeing him so shaken and vulnerable makes me wonder if the moment has been given the brand of attention it deserves.
Even his defenders often default to expressing their position in phrasing that surrenders full support. “Love him or hate him, you have to respect Kanye’s work ethic/output/musical vision/cultural contributions.” Whatever phrase is used to complete the second sentiment, it is likely warranted. But it is the initial optional clause that is troublesome and worthy of assessment. Why is it that even Kanye fans frequently permit his haters the right to hate? What is it that we collectively feel makes it okay to hate Kanye West?
Traditionally, the mass consumers of the Western pop/rock music industry end up serving as the jury for which stories make it into a band or artist’s legacy and what purpose those stories serve within the collective image. That is how Jim Morrison’s exposed dick somehow serves as an illustration of the mystical poet’s higher artistry. How Johnny Cash’s middle finger has been memorialized as a poster-friendly glorification of the self-destructive, rockabilly outlaw’s defiant attitude. It is how we have decided that Brian Wilson’s juvenile petulance is inextricably tied to his innovative musical vision and the bratty bickering of the band Oasis stems from the same conflict as their songwriting brilliance. And, in a very uncomfortable break in that pattern, it is how the same culture frequently takes Kanye West’s insistence on having his informed-if-not-astute opinions heard and considered and uses it as a means of degrading the value of his art and artistic reputation. The implications are unsettling — to think that even now, ten years later, our culture still is split in opinion on Kanye for reasoning that might boil down to his tendency to “speak out of turn.”