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."
West isn't the only one in the hip-hop community responding to the devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina. Sean "Diddy" Combs and Jay-Z, two of hip-hop's biggest moguls, have together donated $1 million to the American Red Cross. And their apparel companies - Sean John and Rocawear - will give clothing to those in dire need. Platinum-selling New Orleans rapper-producer Master P has donated money, food, clothes and shoes and has reached out to companies such as Procter & Gamble, maker of Pampers, and Gerber for product donations.
On Friday, BET, a television channel whose programming has long been tired and irrelevant, will host S.O.S (Saving Our Selves), a hurricane-relief telethon that will air from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Performers such as Stevie Wonder, Ciara, Ludacris, Pharrell Williams, Lil' Wayne and Alicia Keys have agreed to appear.
It's great to see the black pop community pooling its talents and money to help the mostly poor, black victims left behind in New Orleans. And it's almost a shock that hip-hop has responded in the way that it has, that for a moment all the bling-bling and inanity have been kicked aside to deal with something real.
Hip-hop was founded on anguish and struggle. But as the culture has been co-opted over the years, as messages of gross materialism, pornographic sex and cartoonish violence have inundated the airwaves, it's easy to forget that rap used to be the "black CNN," as Public Enemy's Chuck D once called it.
Yesterday, the veteran militant rapper released lyrics to "Hell No We Ain't Alright," a song he wrote in response to what he sees as the federal government's indifference to the victims of Hurricane Katrina: Now all the press conferences breaking news alerts/This just in while your government looks for a war to win ... Walls closing in/Get some help to my kin ...
"Southern rappers like Master P and Juvenile have been on-the-streets reporters about the decay of New Orleans for a decade," says Neal, author of Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation. "There's a need to speak the truth to power."
West's comments before such a wide, diverse audience provided a much-needed jolt for a culture that has been declared dead by many.
I applaud West's boldness, the fact that he put himself aside for once, to say on national TV what I and many others were thinking as insensitive coverage of the natural disaster filled newspapers and TV screens all week. His move, however clumsy and inarticulate, has for a moment rekindled my hope in hip-hop. Maybe it can speak for real people again.