On This Day: Sept. 2, 2005
Apparently, Kanye West can do that on television. Eighteen years ago, the hip-hop star appeared alongside Austin Powers himself, Mike Myers, on the NBC primetime benefit event, A Concert for Hurricane Relief. Days earlier, on Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, La., flooding the city’s levees and unleashing waves of destruction that the region took years to recover from. Major news networks carried around-the-clock coverage of Katrina’s aftermath, as local and federal agency failures contributed to near-lawless conditions on the ground, with stories circulating of survivors stranded in their destroyed homes without aid and widespread looting of businesses.
Amidst the chaos, one leader was notably absent: then-president George W. Bush. The 43rd politician elected to occupy the Oval Office had been on an extended vacation at his Texas ranch when Katrina made landfall, and his staff reportedly declined to let him know the full extent of the damage that had been done. Bush remained in Texas until Aug. 31, when he finally returned to the White House and flew over New Orleans on his way back. Images of him looking down at the destroyed city from Air Force One were circulated widely, but only added to the feeling many expressed that he seemed detached from the tragedy.
That’s definitely how West felt. At that point, the rapper was at the height of his fame, coming off of the mega-albums The College Dropout and Late Registration, which arrived in stores on Aug. 30, the day after Katrina swept through New Orleans. West wasn’t among the performers for NBC’s benefit concert — a list that included Faith Hill, Aaron Neville and Wynton Marsalis — but he did join a list of presenters like Lindsay Lohan, Leonardo DiCaprio and Chris Tucker.
When it was West and Myers’s turn to speak, the Shrek star read the patter that had been scripted for him, describing how “the landscape of the city has changed dramatically, tragically and perhaps irreversibly.” West, on the other hand, clearly went off-script right away talking about the media’s negative portrayals of Black families versus white families, how he felt like a “hypocrite” for not paying full attention to the city’s plight and suggesting that U.S. soldiers have been given “permission” to shoot Black residents. Throughout West’s rambling, but emotional commentary, Myers can be seen looking over at his co-presenter, uncertain of what he would say next.
After West speaks his piece, Myers attempts to move their segment back to the Teleprompter-approved copy. “The destruction of the spirit of the people of Southern Louisiana and Mississippi may end up being the most tragic loss of all.” West then responds with seven words that instantly entered live TV history: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
In the immediate aftermath of West’s remark, Myers glances at the rapper with overt shock in his eyes and the camera quickly cuts away to an equally shocked Chris Tucker. “In the past few days, America has been stepping up to donate money,” the Rush Hour star says moving the show right along to the next presenter.
What Happened Next
Even in those pre-social media days, it didn’t take long for West’s comments to go viral on YouTube — a then nascent video sharing platform. NBC quickly issued a statement distancing themselves from his remarks. “Kanye West departed from the scripted comments that were prepared for him, and his opinions in no way represent the views of the networks,” the network’s statement read. “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.”
Meanwhile, network spokeswoman Rebecca Marks explained that while a seconds-long tape delay was built into the live broadcast, the crew member in charge of that operation “was instructed to listen for a curse word, and didn’t realize [West] had gone off-script.” (West’s rebuke of Bush was heard by East Coast viewers, but edited out of the West Coast replay.)
Tensions understandably ran high on the set of the benefit as well. “People were not happy,” senior stage manager Mark Traub later told The Huffington Post. Myers reportedly yelled, “Well, that went well,” after the incident, while West himself left the stage visibly shaken. Still, the rapper’s comments didn’t seem to interfere with the concert’s fundraising mission: NBC later reported that A Concert for Hurricane Relief raised more than $50 million in pledges.
In the days that followed, West’s off-the-cuff remarks became fodder for commentators on both sides of the political aisle. Fox News talking head Bill O’Reilly characterized them as “simply nutty,” adding, “What do you expect from an ideologically-driven newspaper industry and the world of rap, where anything goes?” Fellow rapper 50 Cent also criticized West, saying, “I don’t know where that came from,” and calling Katrina an “act of God.”
But West’s call-out of Bush did become an anthem elsewhere. On Sept. 6, 2005, The Legendary K.O. — a hip-hop team out of Houston, Tex. — dropped “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People,” which samples West’s hit song “Gold Digger” over fiery lyrics like “Chilling on his vacation sitting patiently” and “He woulda been up in Connecticut twice as fast.” And prominent Black politicians began to question whether racism was playing a role in beleaguered disaster relief efforts. Writing in The Nation on the 10th anniversary of Katrina, author Mychel Denzel Smith called West’s comments “our first relatable expression of black rage on a national stage” for a new generation of Black men and women.
While Bush didn’t respond to West at the time, his administration did ultimately recognize the importance of getting him to New Orleans. On Sept. 11, 2005, he visited the city for the first time — a visit that the junior Illinois Senator, Barack Obama, characterized at the time as a “spin operation.”
Where We Are Now
Eighteen years later, Bush’s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina is widely seen as a pivot point in his presidency, sending his approval ratings plunging just as the political fortunes of Democrats — like future President Obama — were rising. In his 2010 memoir, Decision Points, he admitted he should have “intervened faster” and addressed his notorious Aug. 31 photo taken aboard Air Force One. “The photo of my hovering over the damage suggested I was detached from the suffering on the ground. That wasn’t how I felt. But once the public impression was formed, I couldn’t change it.”
And in an interview with Matt Lauer — who hosted NBC’s benefit concert — that same year, Bush finally addressed West’s role in the fallout over Katrina. “He called me a racist,” Bush said accusingly. “I didn’t appreciate it then, and I don’t appreciate it now… It was one of the most disgusting moments of my presidency.”
Myers, on the other hand, forgave and forgot. Speaking with GQ in 2014, the actor owned up to being completely “surprised” by West’s outburst, adding that the rapper did warn him that “he was going to take some liberties” before they went live. “I didn’t know that the liberty would be calling out the president,” Myers said.
“For me it isn’t about the look of embarrassment on my face, it is truly about the injustice that was happening in New Orleans,” he continued. “I assume that George Bush does care about Black people — I mean I don’t know him, I’m going to make that assumption — but I can definitively say that it appeared to me watching television that had that been white people, the government would have been there faster… I’m very proud to have been next to [Kanye West].”
West continues to be outspoken… but fewer people are listening. In recent years, the rapper has sparked numerous controversies while also publicly struggled with his mental health. Last year, West was dropped by his agency and other sponsors following antisemitic comments and raised eyebrows by wearing a “White Lives Matter” shirt during a Paris fashion show. “Kanye West used to speak truth to power: Now he only speaks for himself” read a Daily Beast headline in 2016 after West revealed that he would have voted for then-president Donald Trump.
Speaking with Lauer in 2010, West seemed to wrestle with the way his 2005 remarks made him a folk hero. “I empathize with [Bush],” he said. “I felt like that the entire time that I was being hailed as a hero… You know in your heart as a person that to in a moment of emotion call someone a name… is just not right.” But he also didn’t go as far as saying he regretted saying “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
“Thinking about it after the fact, I would have chosen different words,” West noted. “My motivation was from a good place… maybe mis-timed, maybe not the right wording… but nonetheless very pure and from a good place.”