Like it’s Just You and Me: Hurricane Katrina and Kanye’s Broken Language

Ten years since Kanye West’s infamous condemnation of the Bush administration on NBC’s A Concert for Hurricane Relief, it’s alluring to remember the moment through the prism of contemporary, defiant Kanye. Viewed through that prism, we might be in danger of reimagining West’s damning utterance – “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” – as the capstone to an eloquent, politically astute critique.

This allure is understandable. In the wake of the NBC controversy, his heartbroken, autotuned warbling on 808s and Heartbreak, and the dust up over Taylor Swift’s interrupted award speech in 2009, Kanye has crafted a hardened and perpetually indignant public image, one whose dominant affects are swaggering confidence and a simmering anger directed variously: at the critics who willfully misinterpret his speech as gibberish, or rants, or unbridled arrogance; the paparazzi and media outlets with which he has an antagonistic, if symbiotic, relationship; and the corporate overlords who constrain his creative urges.

West has leveraged this righteous anger into a reputation as a preeminent political and cultural figure. He’s the rare (relevant) rapper who takes advantage of their platform to consistently engage in a sustained (and artfully oblique) critique of white supremacy. This habit culminated most recently in his guerilla unveiling of “New Slaves” and his eerie performance of “Blood on the Leaves” at the 2013 VMAs. He’s styled himself as something of a hip-hop messiah, a politically minded artist in the mold of Nina Simone. For example, go watch his takedown of critics who quibble with his decision to title a song “I Am a God,” where he attacks the kinds of subtle bigotry that make audiences bristle at a black man proclaiming himself anything other than a slave or thug.

2015 VMAs
2015 VMAs

It’s in this context that, over the weekend, we saw Kanye circle back around from pop culture pariah to MTV-approved legend. He punctuated the event with a 13-minute speech that included an attack on the network’s canned awards show drama and a (maybe?) joke announcement of his presidential ambitions – all on a stage where he was once booed. That speech signaled that if pop culture’s gatekeepers haven’t quite caught up to Yeezy, they’ve embraced his irreverent and strident voice after spending long, futile years denigrating it.

We’ve all – some later than others – accepted Kanye as one of culture’s permanent fixtures, a voice whose pronouncements hold weight. Accordingly, the accounts of Sunday night’s speech veer between typical Internet hyperbole (“Amazing!,” “Perfect!,” “Epic!”) and more considered language – Rolling Stone thought enough of the speech to call it “blunt” and “poignant.” In such a climate, it’s no wonder that over the last ten years we’ve re-envisioned Kanye’s excoriation of Bush as a rage-driven, fearless, polished call to arms.

Except that, when you watch the telethon footage, that’s not really what you get. As Michael Eric Dyson observes in Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke, there’s nothing “eloquent” about Kanye’s moment, at least not in a normative sense. Without any prepared remarks, Kanye stumbles and stutters through his speech, using utterance as an opportunity for improvisation, a chance to wind his way towards some kind of expression of grief that hasn’t taken shape in his mind as of the taping.

In the documentary he admits to having thought his remarks up on the fly. As a result, while he makes points about the invisibility of the black poor and the criminal justice system’s racist targeting of black survivors, these points are less important in and of themselves than the form in which they’re expressed. His remarks don’t constitute a speech so much as a string of grievances and misgivings, linked less by logic than a sense of emotional turmoil struggling towards relief, some kind of public expression that will facilitate contact between people of similar feeling.

This is all to say that thinking of Kanye’s speech merely as incoherence puts us in a cul-de-sac and doesn’t do justice to the rapper’s utterance. In this moment, style doesn’t fail to take root as eloquence; instead, grief begins to constitute its own style, an eloquence which “eloquence” fails to name. This style shapes speech according to the needs of an aggrieved community, a community whose pain has been eclipsed by biased news coverage and exacerbated by inept government relief efforts that border on callous.

Viewed within this framework, Kanye’s moment takes on another significance: his public expression of grief creates an insurgent space in which that community begins to emerge, and is always beginning to emerge. I know that, as a high school student watching that moment unfold on live television, it wasn’t what Kanye had to say that captured my attention – it was the knowledge that someone felt the way I did, that someone also experienced the incoherent sense of loss that I experienced that summer. I felt drawn into connection with something diffuse, but nonetheless powerful.

The value of Kanye’s broken speech becomes clearer when we compare it with the maudlin melancholy that NBC meant to manufacture. Watching the telethon, you get the sense that 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. It’s a kind of toothless sentimentality through which a corporate media outlet simultaneously obscures its complicity with a political infrastructure for which black silence is the modus operandi, and reinforces that silence through the disappearing of black victims from the landscape.

That all goes out the window when the camera turns to Mike Myers and Kanye. The moment they appear on screen, it’s clear that something bizarre is happening. Myers looks professional, ready to read his lines off the teleprompter, to do the job he was brought there to do. The rapper, though, is evidently agitated, lingering somewhere on the border between anxiety and sorrow. His agitation is contagious; it makes the entire scene vaguely uncomfortable for everyone involved.

That discomfort only becomes more acute once he speaks, primarily because it’s difficult not to be distracted from his words by his affect. His eyes are large and expressive, so that it’s easy to read in them an overwhelming sadness. His breaths are so short and emphatic that it looks like he might be hyperventilating, and as a result his speech has a halting quality that foregrounds his own discomfort, transfers it to his environment and television audience.

Myers’s body tells you all you need to know: as the rapper goes off script, the actor rotates his shoulders from side to side like a distracted child, bows his head, stares at Kanye with dawning alarm. He realizes not only that Kanye has gone off script, but also that a different sort of feeling has infected the space. The camera, with its belated and jerky cut from Kanye to Chris Tucker, duplicates this contagious affect, as does Chris Tucker’s evident shock once the camera throws to him. Kanye’s mournfulness becomes a bug in the system that disrupts NBC’s false universal, and alights upon the possibility that blackness might constitute another, more capacious universal, a shareable form in which there are no advance guarantees aside from affect’s ability to contaminate.

What we see in that clip is an attempt to expand the purview of NBC’s narrow and implicitly anti-black corporate space. Kanye’s mournful and broken speech erodes the telethon’s universalism, provides a window into black America’s emotional life in the summer of 2005, and reintroduces the viewing audience to that which NBC sought to bury.

In those two minutes in 2005, Kanye embodied and gestured towards the pain, indignation, humiliation, and confusion of millions of black Americans. Which is why, this week, in the shadow of Hurricane Katrina’s anniversary, it is unfortunate that Kanye didn’t take his moment on another national stage to remind the country of its broken promises to black America. His failure to mention either the hurricane or the Black Lives Matter movement that is Katrina’s spiritual offspring raises the question: if Kanye wants to be president, whom would he be leading?

Ismail Muhammad: Almost moved to new york, then came to his senses.