I Think About This a Lot: Kanye West at the Katrina Telethon

I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.

You know what I think about a lot? Slavery. Also, the song “By the Way” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and how many serial killers I might have sat next to on the subway. And I think about that video of Kanye West, standing next to Mike Myers on an NBC telethon for Hurricane Katrina, blurting out, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

I’m not a comedian, but I believe myself to be a fairly hilarious person, one who thinks quite a bit about how words work. I know we laugh when we’re uncomfortable, and we cry when we laugh; those urges sit in our chests, two-headed. I know the best jokes hurt, that they needle at you slowly, because they are rooted in the most unspeakable truths. I love real shit and sad jokes. And that shit that happened on live television in 2005 was super funny — the stilted and still-eyed way he said it, the certainty of Kanye’s special guest appearance barreling off the rails. He tumbled gracelessly into it, apprehensive but resolved to veer from the vaguely sentimental party-line script that Austin Powers had been so thickly attempting to play as sincere.

After it happened, we watched the YouTube clip over and over in my high-school library during a research period for my AP American Government class. Even my Ronald Reagan–obsessed teacher giggled as he indulged us in yet another viewing. I remember wondering why I was laughing, and if we were all laughing at the same thing. It wasn’t Kanye whom we couldn’t get enough of, though my white classmates and I and the rest of America had been properly conditioned to translate an unpredictable and flashy black rapper as the equivalent of a cartoon banana peel. We were tickled by Mike Myers’s flummoxed reaction, how his stomach — along with his whole world — seemed to drop right out of his body.

I could watch Aghast Mike Myers all day. It’s like watching a live birth — the moment teeming with infinite possibility. As a group, my white conservative class had winced with sympathy for the Austin Powers guy. Stripped of fake teeth and a fake accent, and incongruously paired with a Grammy-winning rapper, he seemed especially normal, even proper. He embodied thoughts and prayers. This also appeared to be the held view of the producers and most other guests of the telethon — a knee-jerk pathologizing of black anger. (They have since revised their opinions.) I could also watch Kanye West say “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” all day. I didn’t have the words then to proclaim through my grin, but now I do: Where is the lie?

If I were teaching the clip in a creative-writing class, I would laud its clean narrative structure. In mere minutes, the viewer can identify the hero and the villain, the realms of status quo and interruption, sane versus insane. The collective gasp comes when Kanye’s speech veers emotional — What is he talking about? Why is he “ranting”? Who is this angry, illiterate person? — and the belly laugh comes when Myers’s gaze juts sideways like a shiver, when he redirects the moment, glossy-eyed with bewilderment, and restores the teleprompted order. Nice save. Kanye West, predecessor of the shoe chucked at George W. Bush’s head during a press conference three years later. Kanye West, disturber of peace.

In The Los Angeles Review of Books, Ismail Muhammad notes how the moment predates the artist’s “crafted” public image as an irreverent, outrageous, and even poignant antagonist. The Kanye West of today has a slew of public outbursts on record. But “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” is a markedly different statement than “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.” It was improvised, not stylized — and its urgency and potency is in its awkwardness. “Kanye’s mournful and broken speech,” Muhammad recalls, “erodes the telethon’s universalism, provides a window into black America’s emotional life.” The shock of Kanye’s leap off-script reverberated beyond the cameras. It’s funny — and it’s scary — because it’s uncomfortable. Because it’s a moment of trespass and rupture.

Kanye’s mama didn’t not raise him right. Though unrehearsed and emotionally fueled, Kanye’s speech wasn’t nonsense. It was messy because grief is messy. It was complex because the truth is. He’s expected to say something along the lines of whatever passive and inoffensive text Myers read off of the teleprompter, but instead he says, “I hate the way they portray us in the media.” He gives examples. He confesses his own complicity. He states facts. He presents a logical conclusion. I often consider the conditions that create revolutions, and the acts that might be deemed revolutionary. How an average person, not otherwise a political actor, might be an agent of change. How maybe resistance looks like interruption.

Muhammad writes of the telethon, “It was meant to subsume the racialized particularity of New Orleans’s tragedy beneath a patina of corporatized, race blind, and false universalism. Celebrities read sanitized scripts while, behind them, screens flash footage of Louisiana’s devastated coastline. But the landscape is curiously bereft of the hurricane’s primary victims: black Americans.”

Except there was Kanye West, a celebrity becoming a Black Person, right there on live TV for all of us to see.

I Think About This a Lot: Kanye West at the Katrina Telethon