He looked uncomfortable, his nervousness palpable. So something was definitely about to pop off. As we have observed numerous times during his nearly two-year meteoric rise to superstardom, preppy rapper-producer Kanye West is hardly ever fidgety or unsure of himself in front of a camera. His ego is stunning. There isn’t a camera lens big enough to capture all of its mammoth glory.
But Friday on NBC’s live concert fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina, West looked humbled. Paired with comedic actor Mike Myers, the 28-year-old artist was supposed to read from scripts prepared by the network about Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. But in true hip-hop fashion, West dismissed the script and freestyled, so to speak.
He verbally drop-kicked the media. “I hate the way they portray us in the media,” he said, his face tense. “You see a black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food.’ ”
He even kicked himself. “I’ve been shopping before even giving a donation, so now I’m calling my business manager right now to see what is the biggest amount I can give. . . ”
West threw back to Myers, who looked as if someone had just jabbed him in the back with a shotgun. He read a few lines from the script before West opened his mouth again. This time, he had a little something for President Bush.
“George Bush doesn’t care about black people!”
It was a bold move for the pop artist whose album Late Registration had hit stores just three days before. No, Kanye West isn’t Cornel West, so the rapper’s comments weren’t tightly delivered. But there was no denying the anger underneath them. In that moment, the arrogant star reminded us of what hip-hop used to do: get important messages across in a language that was unapologetically direct.
“He’s filling a void of leadership in hip-hop that’s been empty since Tupac died,” says Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of black popular culture at Duke University. “Hip-hop says what it needs to say in a way that’s not always articulate. Kanye had a lot to risk. He spoke his passion and what he felt. He gets credit for that.”