T en years ago, Kanye West publicly accused George W. Bush of thinking that Black Lives Didn’t Matter.
As we look back at the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and the anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, it is amazing how much things have both changed and stayed the same.
On Sept. 2, 2005, during a telethon benefit for victims of Hurricane Katrina, "Austin Powers" star Mike Myers and Kanye West stood in front of a teleprompter and encouraged viewers to donate to the Red Cross.
Whatever the script was, Kanye ignored it. “I hate the way they portray us in the media,” he began in a shaky voice. “If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. If you see a white family, it says they’re searching for food,” he continued. “Those are my people down there … they’ve given [the U.S. military] permission to go down and shoot us.”
Myers waited for a break in Kanye’s nervous speech, and returned to the teleprompter, reciting a line about the spirit of the people of southern Louisiana. When he took a breath, Kanye was ready.
“George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
The camera cut away to a rabbit-in-the-headlights Chris Tucker, but the damage was done. The video immediately went viral, or, as viral as anything could go before Twitter existed, and before Facebook had a News Feed. News of Kanye’s outburst spread in a way that seems almost archaic today: via video file attachments in emails, downloadable clips posted to blogs and word of mouth.
Kanye's comment even became the title of a song – “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People,” by the hip-hop group K-OTIX. Frustrated with watching the footage, the group borrowed the beat from Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” and elaborated on Kanye’s statements. “I guess Bush said [blacks have] been used to dying,” one rapped.
Another line – “[Bush] woulda been up in Connecticut twice as fast” – predicted the findings in a later Pew Research poll. In the 2005 poll taken, 66% of blacks said that the government response to Katrina would have been faster had most victims been white (only 16% of whites agreed).
In an interview with The Times, rapper Damien Randle of the Houston-based group explained that he and his partner had families in the affected gulf states, and wrote the song a few days after watching the telethon. They then uploaded the song to a popular hip-hop blog, and forgot about it. The next morning, they got a phone call from the blog owner – the server had crashed. Within days, drummer Questlove, who would later go on to play with his band The Roots as the house band on "The Tonight Show," was playing the song at live events in New York.
Again, in 2005, music and video streaming services were not readily available. The song was available only via mp3 download from music blogs, who widely re-posted the song on their own servers. It’s hard to know how many listened to the song. “We stopped counting at 13 million downloads,” said Randle. (For reference, Kanye West’s 2015 YouTube video for “Only One,” featuring Beatles singer Paul McCartney, has just under double that number.)
Looking back 10 years later, that song’s virality is proof of the resonance that Kanye’s words had for so many people. Downloading, and listening to the song, became a way to celebrate the fact that someone had finally managed to broadcast a collective sentiment felt by millions: black lives matter.
The gasp of astonishment and jubilation that Randle let out echoed what many black people said when they saw that broadcast: “Oh my God … he said it!”
But for most of America, Kanye West’s statement was not cause for celebration or songmaking. It was a reason to revile him. At the time, he was little known outside of the hip-hop community – his interruption of Taylor Swift at the VMAs wouldn’t come until 2009. But those seven words catapulted Kanye into the national spotlight. When the incident was brought up in the news, he was just as often called a race-baiter as a rapper. Fox News accused him of being a “finger pointer” who was content to “throw around hate.”
Bush himself caught wind of the comment, as well. In Decision Points, the book he published after leaving office, Bush wrote that being accused of racism after Katrina “was the worst moment of my presidency.”
When asked specifically about Kanye’s comments, Bush doubled down. He implied that the insult was even worse than the disaster of Katrina itself: “It’s one thing [for Kanye West] to say, you know, that I don’t appreciate the way that he’s handled his business. It’s another thing to say that this man’s a racist. I resent it, it’s not true, and it’s one of the most disgusting moments of my presidency.”
Immediately after the backlash in 2005, Kanye defended his statements on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." Mike Myers, Kanye’s co-presenter during the incident, later told GQ that he was “proud to have been next to” Kanye.
But in 2010, Kanye West walked back his words – not quite apologizing, as "Today Show" host Matt Lauer pressured him to do, but empathizing with the former president. “I would tell George Bush, in my moment of frustration, that I didn’t have the grounds to call him a racist,” he said.
Many in the hip-hop community did not feel that an apology was necessary. In an interview with MTV, then-online editor of hip-hop magazine The Source said that Kanye seemed like he was “pandering to people that shouldn’t matter to him.” One journalist called Kanye’s change of heart “disappointing.”
And thus, a historical chapter in hip-hop protest history closed with an ignominious footnote. Yeezus had forsaken us.
But it’s important to remember: In 2005, Kanye West did not have a visible support system. Had he made his statements a decade later, he might have felt more confident about sticking to his words.
As the nation watched the unrest in Ferguson after the police killing of Michael Brown, several rappers criticized the government’s response. One of those was Killer Mike, a veteran Atlanta rapper now best known for being one half of the hip-hop duo Run the Jewels.
But instead of being shunned, he was invited onto CNN and Fox News. Billboard hosted an Op-Ed piece in which he talked about “bad policing, excessive force and the hunt-and-capture-prey mentality many thrill-seeking cops have adapted.”
It’s hard to compare Kanye West to Killer Mike, especially today. The former has recently become known for being volatile in interviews, and in 2005, he was nervous, and speaking on the spot. The latter was largely unknown to mainstream audiences before Ferguson and had time to prepare and compose himself for his interviews and written pieces.
But Killer Mike certainly benefited from speaking in the age of Twitter, and specifically, Black Twitter. When Kanye made his comments, many agreed with him, but there was no centralized place to find these voices – at least, not anywhere that the mainstream news media knew to look.
If you were not a hip-hop fan, you probably hadn’t heard the K-OTIX song. And if you didn’t have a Internet Explorer window full of bookmarks to sites that were part of what was starting to be called the “black blogosphere,” you might not have known that Kanye’s comments on media demonization of blacks were a common topic of conversation in many online spaces.
If anyone doubted in 2015 that Killer Mike was speaking a truth that others felt needed to be heard, all one had to do was point to the Internet. Similar voices were right there on Twitter, on Facebook, and even on Instagram.
But in 2005, whether willfully or out of simple ignorance, it was possible to miss out on these voices.
Today, however, Black Twitter is impossible to ignore. If a reporter tries to do so, Black Twitter will notice – and correct them. And if rappers want to speak out about injustice, they know that there is a chorus of voices that will back them up (or, push them to go further).
But looking back at Kanye’s comments, it’s easy to focus on his pitch, and miss the wind-up. Moments before delivering that infamous line, Kanye spoke on unfair media representation of blacks, the militarization of policing of black citizens, and even the link between poverty, blackness and unfair government policies – all topics that have been brought into the spotlight by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Certainly, the Black Lives Matter movement does not owe Kanye any debts. Kanye, for better or for worse, ultimately backed down on his challenge to Bush – and by extension, to America – to reckon with the country’s racism. But more than anything else, that’s probably evidence of a fact that was just as true in 2005 as it is in 2015: Real change does not come from superstars.
It comes from the people.
Follow me @dexdigi for more on the intersection of culture and the Internet.