THANK YOU, KANYE! by Fanon Che Wilkins, Ph.D.
Barely a week after rapper/producer Kanye West appeared on the cover of Time Magazine and was branded "the smartest man in hip-hop,: he did, what many believed to be the unthinkable. West used the platform of the NBC sponsored Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort Live Telethon to tell the world that racist media images were depicting Black people as "looters" and whites as "finders" of food and basic necessities.
West’s comments echoed what many have been saying for days after Associated Press images circulated on the Internet with captions describing whites as "finding" and Black’s as "looting".
Visibly nervous, West declared that he found it difficult to watch the news because the overwhelming majority of those facing the harshest consequences from the hurricane and its aftermath were Black. After acknowledging the noble deeds of the Red Cross, West told the world that the recently deployed National Guard and Marines were given permission to shoot and kill "us." Indeed, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco told reporters that the National Guard had M16s that were "locked and loaded." "They know how to kill; they are more than willing to kill, and they will kill," the stern Governor declared.
West was no fool. He made the connection between racist media images and how those depictions would structure the relationship between the military and those labeled as "looters." For West, the dye was cast for the victims to be further victimized by the media and those purportedly there to help. Even more profoundly, West said that America was "set up to help the poor, the Black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible", linking the Bush Administration’s neglect and failure to act, with larger systemic problems rooted in the American body politic.
NBC predictably distanced itself from West’s remarks, stating that "the telecast was a live television event wrought with emotion," and that "…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 went on to say "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."
The desperation of people stranded and homeless in the Gulf region demanded such a vociferous response. Indeed West’s outburst has been vindicated by the voices of those describing the situation there. One man declared that the National Guard was treating them like "rats" in the New Orleans Superdome while others sat in anguish waiting for help that was said to be on the way, but nowhere to be seen. The ghastly scenes of people lying in squalor, dying in the streets and of babies too weak to cry proved over and over again that "the Louis Vuitton Don" (one of Kanye’s rap monikers) was not off the mark.
Kanye West knew that the NBC platform was a precious opportunity to cut the charade and challenge the Federal Government for its failures in New Orleans. Instinctively knowing that only a few seconds remained, a steely eyed Kanye summed up his sentiments in seven words: "Bush does not care about Black people!"
This was a bold move for an artist at the top of a career that few could ever dream of. Though celebrities have criticized the Bush Administration for the so-called "war on terror" and its dastardly militarism in the Middle East, few have been as sharp and direct as West. In standard hip-hop fashion he did not mince his words and stay married to the script. When the stakes were as high as the water was to the necks of those still trapped in their attics across New Orleans, Kanye West presented one of the greatest freestyles ever produced for a live audience. In the tradition of Louis Armstrong and all the great jazz improvisers, West stated what was immediately on his heart and for this we must applaud him.
For many, Kanye’s remarks were shocking and uncalled for. Katrina was a natural disaster that the Feds had simply underestimated. In an age of political correctness West’s opinions were simply wrong. After all, the Bush Administration declared that this was not a time to "play politics." But West, one of our shining geniuses from the "City of Chi" knows that politics was always in play. He, unlike the Bush Administration, also knew that time was of the essence. Desperate times call for sharp clear thinking people to step up to the plate and speak truth to power. Thank God that Time Magazine alerted those who didn’t yet know it that Kanye West is one of the smartest among us.
Fanon Che Wilkins is an Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies and Research Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, September 5, 2005