Four years before he crashed the stage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Kanye West had a message for America that had nothing to do with Beyoncé: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
It was the sentence heard around the world, uttered during A Concert for Hurricane Relief for the victims of Katrina in 2005.
Almost exactly 12 years later, another telethon has been scheduled, this time to support those displaced by Hurricane Harvey.
In today’s charged political climate, it’s not too far-fetched to expect someone during Tuesday’s Hand in Hand: A Benefit for Hurricane Harvey to take a page from Kanye and speak out against President Donald Trump—especially at a time when there’s so much at stake.
Kanye speaks his mind
People paddling in makeshift rafts, homes destroyed, babies being rescued, crowds stuffed into New Orleans’ Superdome—these are the images that were constantly in the news after Katrina.
“I hate the way they portray us in the media,” West shakily said during the Katrina telethon. Comedian Mike Myers stood by, clearly attempting to remain composed despite an off-script ‘Ye.
“If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. If you see a white family, it says they’re searching for food,” West continued.
“Those are my people down there,” he said. “The way America is set up to help the poor and black people…the less well-off [are helped] as slow as possible.”
“They’ve given [the U.S. military] permission to go down and shoot us,” he said, before his infamous line: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
His voice sure and and his gaze fixed on the camera, it was as if he was staring down every citizen and daring them to challenge his statement.
There was something very intentional about his delivery that struck a tone with the country. Even in an era before Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, his comments spread rapidly, sparking conversations about Bush’s response, Kanye’s mental health, and most importantly—whether or not race and politics played a role in the aftermath of the hurricane.
Even without West’s statement, it was hard to ignore the Bush administration’s slow and disjointed response to the Category 3 storm, which caused $108 billion in damage, much of it in predominately African-American communities.
West’s remarks rang so loud that Bush even issued a response. “I didn’t appreciate it then, I don’t appreciate it now,” the former president said in a segment with Today Show that aired five years after the telethon. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t appreciate the way he’s handled his business.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘This man’s a racist.’ I resent it.”
Mike Myers had a different response.
“I don’t mind answering the question [about Kanye] but the emphasis of it being that I’m the guy next to the guy who spoke a truth,” he said to Rolling Stonein 2014. “To have the emphasis on the look on my face versus the fact that somebody spoke truth to power at a time when somebody needed to speak? I’m very proud to have been next to him.”
“I’m very proud to have been next to him.”
Harry Connick Jr., Faith Hill, and Tim McGraw were all apart of the telethon, and according to a report from HuffPost, they privately comforted producer Rick Kaplan and praised West’s remarks.
“‘[We] know you’re probably upset by what Kanye said, but we’ve all been down there and we promise you that when the dust settles … [we] promise you’re going to be proud that Kanye ended up saying that on the show,'” Kaplan said they told him. “They said, ‘We were down there, and [we’re] telling you it’s not good what the government’s doing there. They’re not being good. They’re not acting properly.'”
Now, like back then, we don’t need quiet comfort. We need people with big platforms to make strong statements, to shake America into action.
Disaster relief in the Trump era
With President Donald Trump occupying the White House, white supremacists openly marching, mass incarceration rising, LGBTQ rights under attack and much more, it’s hard to imagine a celebrity of the same stature as West staying silent on camera during a live telethon.
Today, speaking up is the new normal.
If you disagree, take a look at Paris Jackson’s moment during this year’s VMA Awards calling out white supremacy on cable television, Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest, and Kim Kardashian’s support of Black Lives Matter.
And yet, we haven’t seen many celebrities use their platforms to talk about the political implications of the storm. Sure, they’ve used their clout to raise funds and awareness for Harvey relief, but more needs to be said.
It might seem wise to keep quiet in order to protect your pockets and appease a wide fan base— but some celebrities who’ve taken this tack have been mercilessly dragged through the mud online, like Taylor Swift.
A hurricane doesn’t discriminate—but the way cities like Houston and New Orleans are set up physically creates inequalities that in turn influence who is able to recover from natural disasters.
7. Disasters replicate and worsen the social cleavages and inequalities that preexisted them.
— Jacob Remes (@jacremes) August 27, 2017
Basically, everyone most affected by issues like economic and racial inequality are hurt more when their limited resources are stripped even further.
“Within cities, poor communities of color often live in segregated neighborhoods that are most vulnerable to flooding, or near petrochemical plants of superfund sites that can overflow during the storm,” Tanvi Misra wrote in a story about Harvey in The Atlantic.
“Some of the city’s homeless people took refuge in low-lying spaces under highways before the storm hit,” she said, adding, “Many of these areas are now completely submerged.”
Undocumented immigrants are some of the most vulnerable victims of Hurricane Harvey, and had to be reassured by Houston’s mayor that they wouldn’t be deported if they sought shelter. In the path of impending Hurricane Irma, a Florida sheriff threatened to throw people seeking refuge from the storm in jail if they had warrants out for their arrests.
As for President Trump, he pardoned Joe Arpaio—who was found guilty of criminal contempt for ignoring court orders to stop racially profiling drivers—right as Harvey was about to hit. Then Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which meant undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children now have to worry about deportation as they recover from the storm.
Some of the night’s big presenters have histories of being politically active. Beyoncé was a staunch Hillary Clinton supporter during the 2016 presidential race, and has delivered political messages in her music consistently—whether it’s invoking Black Panther imagery or speaking out against police brutality. Clooney has spoken out against Trump in interviews. Oprah is always willing to speak her mind, even when it comes to her opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement.
Because of social media, we might not necessarily need a star to speak “truth to power” like in 2005. But if Clooney or Oprah doesn’t, someone else just might be willing to continue West’s legacy, stare down the camera, and break away from the script once again.
You can tune into Hand in Hand: A Benefit for Hurricane Harvey on Sept. 12 on Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC, as well as streaming on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.