Commentary: How the ‘Hand in Hand’ hurricane telethon turned surprisingly political

Pop Music Critic

As though their star power could restore the electricity to storm-ravaged cities across the South, celebrities of all stripes gathered Tuesday evening for “Hand in Hand: A Benefit for Hurricane Relief,” which aired live on the major television networks and was streamed across various social media properties.

George Clooney, Barbra Streisand, Beyoncé, Julia Roberts, Drake, Luke Bryan, Cher, Tom Hanks — all of them spoke or performed (or at least sat behind a phone) on the hour-long telethon that featured virtually every A-list name in Hollywood, New York and Nashville.

Organized by music manager Scooter Braun (whose clients include Justin Bieber) and rapper Bun B (of the great Texas hip-hop duo UGK), “Hand in Hand” raised more than $14 million, according to a figure quoted by Billy Crystal, for victims of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. And that was before the special was broadcast on a tape delay for West Coast audiences.

Yet it was a star not featured on the show whose presence seemed to hover over it, and that was Kanye West, the polarizing MC who famously declared, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” on an earlier telethon dedicated to those affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.


Demi Lovato and Brad Paisley perform at "Hand in Hand: A Benefit for Hurricane Relief."
(John Shearer/ Hand in Hand / Getty Images)

Here, it was President Trump’s controversial views on immigration and climate change that served as a surprising subtext for the standard do-gooder messaging and the calls for viewers to donate money to folks in desperate need.

Opening the show, Stevie Wonder introduced a typically ebullient rendition of “Lean on Me” by saying, “Anyone who believes there is no such thing as global warming must be blind” — wink, wink — “or unintelligent.”

Beyoncé, a Houston native, delivered a video message in which she described the recent natural disasters as a cruel pile-on at a moment when “violence and racism in this country” have led many to think that “it couldn’t possibly get worse.”


And Braun was almost certainly aiming at Trump when he referred to the “images of hate and division” he said we’re bombarded with these days — hate, he added, that runs counter to an American ideal.

Not everything on “Hand in Hand” had such an edge.

There were kindly performances by Usher and Blake Shelton, who joined forces for a tender “Stand By Me”; Dave Matthews, who did a hushed “Mercy”; and the appealingly unruly quartet of Brad Paisley, Demi Lovato, Darius Rucker and CeCe Winans, who romped through “With a Little Help from My Friends” at the Grand Ole Opry.

The telethon closed with another friendly group effort: George Strait leading Miranda Lambert and Chris Stapleton, among other country acts, through his proud tribute to the Lone Star State, “Texas.”


But Braun seemed to get in one more jab by having Luis Fonsi — whose smash “Despacito” remix achieved Braun’s goal of a Spanish-language song hitting No. 1 in Trump’s time — join his client Tori Kelly for a passionate run through Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

It was a call to action disguised as a prayer for healing.

Twitter: @mikaelwood