On Sept. 2, 2005, NBC television broadcast a special one hour telethon designed to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, but the scripted telecast went awry when rapper Kanye West condemned George W. Bush for racism.
I watched A Concert for Hurricane Relief as it was broadcast for the west coast, edited and censored, which was something I didn’t realize until turning to the web for more information on the broadcast.
The show featured more than a dozen musicians and a number of super-star actors, who presented information on the tragedy in the US southern gulf states and invited viewers to make donations to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. The show began appropriately with Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. (both native sons of New Orleans), leading a jazz band that played New Orleans-style Dixieland jazz – the music closely associated with the devastated city.
It was easy to see that the rather somber broadcast was put together quickly on a small budget, with musicians and stars not being given much time to rehearse. With varying degrees of discomfiture stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Glenn Close, Richard Gere and John Goodman struggled with scripted lines they had most likely never read before. The stiffness really didn’t matter, it was the victims of Katrina that one and all cared for.
A number of singers performed, but it was Aaron Neville’s rendition of Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927 that I found especially moving. The song has an eerie resonance today because of its haunting chorus, “they’re trying to wash us away, they’re trying to wash us away.” At that point I couldn’t watch any more. Neville’s performance choked me up and I left the room. Turning to the internet for information about the broadcast, I discovered that Kanye West made an appearance that ruffled some feathers. At first I thought I had missed the controversy by walking out of the room after Neville’s song, but as I read more news reports I realized NBC had censored the time-delayed broadcast for the west coast.
Organizers of the NBC special paired West with comedian Mike Myers for a 90-second segment where the two were supposed to take turns reading a scripted message about the hurricane’s destructive power. Myers opened with his perfunctory reading of the teleprompter, then it became West’s turn to address the nation. Seemingly nervous, he ignored the teleprompter for some pointed barbs on race and class, succeeding also in connecting the occupation of Iraq with the war at home:
“I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food.’
And, you know, it’s been five days [waiting for federal help] because most of the people are black. And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite because I’ve tried to turn away from the TV because it’s too hard to watch. I’ve even 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: and to just imagine if I was down there and those are my people down there.
To anybody out there that wants to do anything that we can – help with the set-up that America’s set up to help the poor, the Black people, the less well off – slow as possible. The Red Cross is doing everything they can.
We already realized how a lot of the people who could help are at war right now fighting another war. They’ve given them [the National Guard] permission to go down [to New Orleans] and shoot us.”
Myers looked consternated by West’s remark, but stuck to his teleprompter script. When his “blah blah blah” recitation concluded, West took over and went out in a blaze of glory by saying: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He delivered his bombshell with the unwavering conviction of someone who knew they were playing the role of upsetter.
There was a brief awkward moment of silence as West simply stared into the camera and Myers turned several shades whiter. The camera quickly cut away to comedian Chris Tucker. The entire segment was aired live on the East coast on a seven-second tape delay, which enabled West to beat the censors and insert a bit of reality into the corporate media giant’s star-studded extravaganza.
The comments were not only broadcast live by NBC, but were also simulcast to tens of millions on MSNBC, CNBC and Pax. NBC completely edited out West’s segment for the taped broadcast aired three hours later on the west coast. Releasing a statement justifying their censorship, NBC said:
“Kanye West departed from the scripted comments that were prepared for him, and his opinions in no way represent the views of the networks. It would be most unfortunate if the efforts of the artists who participated tonight and the generosity of millions of Americans who are helping those in need are overshadowed by one person’s opinion.”
I think it’s safe to say it’s not just ‘one person’s opinion’ we’re dealing with here. The majority of New Orleans’ population – which is 80% African American – is most likely thinking the exact same thing. Moreover, I don’t recall NBC ever apologizing for peddling the Bush administration lies about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction, a fabrication used to drag the American people into a war that has to date taken the lives of almost 2,000 US soldiers, squandered over $200 billion dollars, and killed up to 100,000 Iraqis.
Kanye West’s verbal assault was a historic television moment that corporate entities will now go to great lengths to prevent in the future. Live television broadcasts are rare in the extreme, and the world of corporate broadcasting has become so constricted and edited that spontaneous, unsanitized thoughts never get an airing. West’s unrehearsed lambaste, as rambling as it was, must be seen as a brilliant creative intervention.
The few sentences he managed to blurt out contained more biting realism than thousands of hours of commercial news stories spoonfed to us on a daily basis. West tore through the media machine’s veneer of respectability and false objectivity, to reveal a thought shared by hundreds of millions of people around the globe.
NBC’s glaring censorship and frenzied attempt to distance itself from West only provided a lesson on the nature of corporate media and its masquerading as a “free press.” It was Marshall McLuhan who wrote, The Medium is the Massage, a book that foretold the power of media and technology in shaping consciousness… and on Sept. 2nd, Kanye West borrowed a page from McLuhan’s manuscript.
West’s rebelliousness and NBC’s reaction, reminds me of another incident where corporate media butted heads with an outspoken nonconformist.
In March of 1970, antiwar activist and co-founder of the Yippies, Abbie Hoffman, was invited to be taped for an appearance on the Merv Griffin show.
The longhaired Hoffman showed up at the TV studio wearing a suede jacket with fringe, and after being introduced to the audience and fellow guests, asked Griffin if “anyone would mind if I took off my jacket?”
The host naturally said “Go ahead.” The Yippie prankster removed his jacket to reveal a shirt made out of an American flag. The guests were appalled and members of the audience were outraged. It may be hard to visualize this today with every patriot wearing an American flag garment of some kind, but back in 1970 it was considered treasonous, especially if such a garment was worn by an anti-Vietnam War protestor.
Hoffman had already been arrested and put on trial for wearing such a shirt. In 1968 he was subpoenaed to appear before the House Committee on Un‐American Activities, and came dressed in a red, white, and blue shirt patterned after the American Flag. He was arrested for defiling the US flag and sentenced to 30 days in jail. He appealed and his conviction was overturned in 1971.
The mild-mannered Merv Griffin attempted to provoke Hoffman, “How can you claim there’s so much repression in America if you’re allowed on my show?” What no one knew was that prior to broadcasting the taped segment, CBS executives had made a decision to censor the show. Just before airing the tape, CBS apologized to its audience:
“It seemed one of the guests had seen fit to come on the show wearing a shirt made from an American flag. Therefore, to avoid possible litigation the network executives have decided to ‘mask out’ all visible portions of the offending shirt by electronic means. We hope our viewers will understand.”
When the taped show began and Hoffman removed his jacket, the screen suddenly switched to a bright day-glo blue. The host and other guests were shown, but every time the camera moved to Hoffman the screen went blue. The episode was especially amusing since the host’s lecturing of Hoffman on the lack of censorship in the US was itself conducted against a backdrop of electronic masking. That evening over 88,000 people called the station to protest the censorship, and in the week that followed, stores across the country sold out of shirts bearing flag motifs. Why, I bought a flag shirt myself.
Given that no one else in the mainstream media (or the world of pop culture) has publicly drawn a connection between the tragedy in the Gulf States and the occupation of Iraq, West should be congratulated for his outspokenness.
I think it only proper that Kanye West be awarded the “Golden Yippie Marshall McLuhan Award” for best guerrilla media actor in a time of conformity, cowardice and censorship.
2013 UPDATE: During a séance held by a group of spiritualist friends of mine, we were contacted by the spirit of Abbie Hoffman. From the great beyond Hoffman addressed me directly. “Vallen, what’s this about you giving that schmuck Kanye West the Golden Yippie Marshall McLuhan Award for best guerrilla media actor in a time of conformity, cowardice and censorship!?” I sheepishly offered apologetics to the disembodied spirit hovering above us: “Uh, err… Abbie, I am sorry, I have long been embarrassed by giving West that award.”
The shaggy haired apparition muttered, “Feh!” ya got some chutzpah doin that, ya know. I mean, come on, what has that shlemiel ever done besides fool around with that Kardashian chick?”
I told the ghost that I would edit the article, but he interrupted: “Waddaya, a postmodern or sumtin? Look meshugenah, ya can’t alter history like that. Tell ya what, take back the award, Kanye is part of the black petty booshwah, ya dig? He ain’t no rebel.” With that, Hoffman disappeared in a cloud of ectoplasm that reeked of marijuana smoke.
To mollify Hoffman’s spirit, I am retroactively disqualifying Kanye West as a recipient of the prestigious Golden Yippie Marshall McLuhan Award, effective immediately. My original Sept. 2005 piece of writing shall remain online, and unedited, as a matter of historic record.