Rapper West Tones Down Politics for Next Performance

Times Staff Writer

A reserved Kanye West, speaking publicly Tuesday for the first time since he lashed out at President Bush during a nationally broadcast telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims, tried to turn down the volume of the controversy.

West did not back off his previous comments but made it clear that his performance Thursday in Los Angeles as part of the National Football League’s opening-week hoopla will be more about music than political message.

“This is entertainment, and a lot of times -- in a time of need -- we need entertainment to lift people’s spirits,” the best-selling rapper said at a brief downtown news conference that featured a panel of music acts set to perform Thursday and some retired football stars. The conference included two questions from reporters -- both of them for West -- squeezed in between canned questions asked by a league executive.


NFL officials appeared anxious about the political subplot and steered questions away from West’s appearance Friday on the NBC telethon. The Grammy-winning West used the broadcast to attack federal and media response to the disaster.

“George Bush doesn’t care about black people” was among his comments heard in the live East Coast broadcast (NBC excised that line from the tape-delayed West Coast broadcast), and NFL officials seemed loath to rehash the issue.

When asked Tuesday whether the NFL had asked him to keep his upcoming performance away from the topics of Katrina response or politics, West said, “I can’t say anything about it or wear any T-shirts that say anything about it.”

But West said he planned to visit the Gulf Coast after the NFL event to lend help firsthand to the victims of the calamity.

“At this point, I’m just doing my job,” the 28-year-old performer said. “Sunday I’ll be able to go down to, you know, where [they need] help and do what I can.”

It’s been a tumultuous few weeks for West. His highly anticipated sophomore album, “Late Registration,” hit stores Aug. 30 and debuts at No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts today. The release has been met with intense press coverage, including a Time magazine cover story titled “Why You Can’t Ignore Kanye.”

In Miami last month, he won the best male video trophy at the MTV Music Video Awards and found his name in news reports when rap mogul Marion “Suge” Knight was shot at a party celebrating West’s new CD. (West was not present when the shooting occurred and had no apparent connection to the incident, police said.)

“It’s definitely been a storm,” West said Tuesday.

No moment was more stormy than his appearance on NBC on Friday. The live forum and West’s unexpected intensity made his comments a lightning-rod moment. There have been other celebrity comments -- actors Sean Penn and Pierce Brosnan have criticized the Bush administration for failing to move faster, the former calling the lag time a case of “criminal negligence” -- but West’s tense remarks have stirred the most interest.

Music stars who make strong political statements from the microphone assume some risk. The Dixie Chicks mocked Bush at a European concert in 2003 and were punished by a near-blackout of their music on country radio stations and jeers from their Nashville peers. But radio airplay surveys by Nielsen Broadcast Data Services show West losing no steam nationally after Friday’s comments. And his marketing deals with Pepsi and the Gap were intact Tuesday despite the dust-up.

More telethons are in the works. On Friday, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, WB and UPN will air “Shelter From the Storm,” featuring Alicia Keys, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Neil Young and the Dixie Chicks, while cable’s BET will present “S.O.S: Saving OurSelves” with West, Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z, Keys and Usher scheduled to appear.

On Saturday, West will jump to MTV to join the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Young and others for “ReAct Now: Music & Relief.”

In addition, pop star Michael Jackson announced Tuesday that he had written a song, “From the Bottom of My Heart,” which he hopes will become an all-star benefit recording in the vein of “We Are the World,” the 1980s hit that raised money for African famine relief.