In the moments before he took the stage at NBCUniversal's "A Concert for Hurricane Relief" on Sept. 2, 2005, Kanye West looked calm.
Up to that point, the charity telethon for Hurricane Katrina's victims had gone as well as could have been expected, considering that it had been slapped together in a matter of days. That it happened at all was a credit to executive producer Rick Kaplan's team. Kaplan and his crew had worked hard to make sure things would go smoothly on the set, and celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Harry Connick Jr. and Lindsay Lohan, had agreed to say whatever needed to be said and play whatever needed to be played.
"All the stars we contacted -- Aaron Neville, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill -- I mean, everyone came in and was willing to do whatever they could do," Kaplan remembers now. "Everyone was totally cooperative."
West was cooperating, too. The hip-hop sensation's second studio album, "Late Registration," had come out that week. West, who was scheduled to appear on stage alongside comedian Mike Myers, went over his lines with the show's senior producer and music director, Frank Radice. Like the other celebrities on the telecast, West was slated to provide the audience with facts -- the amount of damage brought by Katrina, the amount of relief aid needed, and so on.
“Yo, I'm going to ad-lib a little bit.”
But by that point, the man whom Time magazine had just named "the smartest man in pop music" knew the words Radice expected him to say would never make the airwaves.
"Yo, I'm going to ad-lib a little bit," West later recalled telling Myers just before they took the stage at 30 Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan. The duo stepped in front of the camera. Then Myers, hands behind his back, launched into the lines streaming down the teleprompter.
"With the breach of three levees protecting New Orleans, the landscape of the city has changed dramatically, tragically and perhaps irreversibly," Myers said. "There is now over 25 feet of water where there was once city streets and thriving neighborhoods."
Myers' opening lines completed, West took a moment and a breath. Hands in his pockets, he cleared his throat, licked his bottom lip, blinked his eyes and opened his mouth.
"I hate the way they portray us in the media," he said. "If 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 that it's been five days 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's, what is the biggest amount I can give, and, and just to imagine if I was down there, and those are my people down there. So anybody out there that wants to do anything that we can help with the set-up, the way America is set up to help the, the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible. I mean, this is -- Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realize a lot of people that could help are at war right now, fighting another way -- and they've given them permission to go down and shoot us."
At that moment, Radice noticed something odd. Until then, he had heard celebrities chattering in the background throughout the show. But now all the famous people had gone quiet. All eyes were fixed on West.
Mark Traub, a senior stage manager for the show, remembers exchanging an "Oh my God" glance with show host Matt Lauer.
Myers looked petrified. The comedian had glanced away from the camera no less than eight times during the minute-plus it took West to deliver his preliminary thoughts. Shaken but still on the air, Myers lifted his right index finger to his face, rubbed below his eye and started through his final lines, this time at a quickened pace.
"And subtle, but in many ways even more profoundly devastating, is the lasting damage to the survivors' will to rebuild and remain in the area," he said. "The destruction of the spirit of the people of southern Louisiana and Mississippi may end up being the most tragic loss of all."
There was barely a moment between Myers' final words and the moment the man in the White House would later call the low point of his presidency. It was a moment that would lead to songs and skits, academic debates and calls to change the way Americans think and talk about race.
“George Bush doesn't care about black people.”
"George Bush doesn't care about black people," West said. The camera had not cut away in time. Millions of Americans heard his words. A somewhat shaken West walked off stage, leaving actor Chris Tucker to try to follow that and Myers to come to terms with what had just happened.
"He just seemed not appalled but almost flabbergasted," Radice recalls of Myers. "I've always thought Mike might have felt that he got sandbagged," Radice added.
"Myers looked like he had been shot in the head," Kaplan said.
Several members of the production team remember Myers turning to whoever would listen off-stage and shouting, "Well, that went well!" (Myers declined to comment for this story.)
The producers were trying to figure out what to think, too. "Everybody kind of went, 'OK ...' like somebody had just dropped a stinking turd on the stage, and we all kind of backed off and let it sit there for a while and moved on to other things and hoped that nobody really noticed," Traub remembers now.
One producer, who requested anonymity, told HuffPost he had warned his colleagues before the telecast that West was known for "making everything about himself."
Afterward, some producers worried West had done just that. "People were not happy," Traub said. "We had worked our asses off on this," said Frank Fernandez, an associate producer for the show. "We didn't even talk about titles. In the credits, that's when we found out what the titles were."
“I was feeling kind of crestfallen when I walked out.”
"I can't speak for everyone, so I'm going to speak for myself: I wasn't going to let him take my moment of trying to help and do a great job," Fernandez added.
The Red Cross, a major recipient of the concert's donations, was particularly furious about West's comments and worried that donors would pull their money as a result, according to Kaplan. (The telecast eventually raised more than $50 million.)
"I was feeling kind of crestfallen when I walked out," Kaplan admits now. "We had worked so hard. The last 72 hours was like no sleep and all work."
Not everyone was feeling down, though. Before West could leave 30 Rock, Sean "Diddy" Combs, who was present at the telethon but did not appear on air, told West that he would have done the same thing, according to a producer with firsthand knowledge of the interaction. (Diddy declined to comment.)
Harry Connick Jr. went further. The singer and actor, a New Orleans native, had been instrumental in the show's success, gathering musicians together to figure out last-minute arrangements. After West's comments, Connick, along with country singers and couple Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, walked up to Kaplan and told him something the producer would never forget: that West's comments wouldn't ruin the show's legacy but would ensure it had one -- that West's comments were important and correct.
"The three of them took me aside privately and said, '[We] know you're probably upset by what Kanye said, but we've all been down there and we promise you that when the dust settles and what Kanye said is thought about and what people learn is learned about, [we] promise you're going to be proud that Kanye ended up saying that on the show,'" Kaplan remembers. "They said, 'We were down there, and [we're] telling you it's not good what the government's doing there. They're not being good. They're not acting properly.'"
"It floored me," he said. "In the end, Faith and Harry and Tim made my night."
NBC's head honchos did not share Kaplan's sense of relief. Without alerting the show's top producers, the network decided to cut West's remarks from a tape of the telethon set to air three hours later on the West Coast. In a tersely worded statement, the network distanced itself from West, stating that "his opinions in no way represent the views of the networks."
But the news was out. Cable networks dissected and debated West's comments for days. Conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly, predictably, called West's remarks "simply nutty." Rapper 50 Cent disagreed with the comments as well. And as noted, then-President George W. Bush later deemed West's accusation of racism an "all-time low" of his presidency.
YouTube, which had launched earlier that year, allowed users, many of them young people, to upload, watch, share and discuss the video -- and draw their own conclusions. In a recent essay for The Nation, writer Mychal Denzel Smith described West's comments as the "first relatable expression of black rage on a national stage" for a generation of black men and women.
"'George Bush doesn't care about black people' was my first political memory," Julia Craven, now a 22-year-old staff reporter for The Huffington Post, wrote in an email. "I didn't really understand the nuances behind what Kanye meant by that, but I knew that historically white people didn't care about black people (mostly because I'm from the south). So it made sense. It was funny more than anything else, though. It never crossed my mind that that was the beginning of Kanye's politicizing or that we'd look back on Katrina and really understand how spot on that critique was. But I was 12."
C.J. Lawrence was a law student at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston when Katrina hit. He remembers not being able to contact his family back in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for days after the storm. "We were deeply concerned," he said.
At the time, Lawrence lived up the street from the Astrodome, where thousands of New Orleans evacuees would come to find shelter.
"I remember driving home one night and seeing a line of, I kid you not, about 10,000 people that were just getting off the buses from Katrina. ... You could smell all they had gone through for miles in the air. You could smell it," he said. "[Katrina victims] didn't have the dollars to wield to influence a Bush or to influence even their local politicians to move in the way that a Kanye West could get them to move."
"Hearing Kanye West say what he said in 2005 -- a lot of us as young people felt empowered," Lawrence said. "West in many ways became a champion for us by speaking out nationally in that way."
Just days after the telethon, a Houston-based hip-hop duo called The Legendary KO released a song titled "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People," which quickly racked up more than a half-million downloads. (Watch it below.) Damien Randle, one half of the duo, was 31 at the time. "I stood on my couch that evening because I knew that the world would finally hear how others had felt, and it was too late to censor it," he recalls.
Gloria Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of constitutional law at John Jay College in New York City who teaches a class on race and the law, remembers her shock at hearing about the conditions in which New Orleans' black community lived even before Katrina.
"The [conditions] that black people were living in, especially in the Ninth Ward -- it was deplorable that this was taking place within this country, that they were living so poorly in the first place. And then [once Katrina hit], to see them stranded and being abandoned, treated [as] and called refugees in our own country …," she trailed off. "I'm not saying Kanye was a hero because he said it. But because he was a celebrity and he had the floor and he said it in a moment where the nation was not really voicing that opinion, I thought it was very significant."
Some New Orleanians found truth in West's comments, too.
"Let me tell you something, the man told the truth," said Glen David Andrews, a prominent trombonist and a fixture in the New Orleans music scene. "We thought he said the right thing. I just wish he slapped the president, too. It's fucking true. It's fucking true, isn't it?"
“We thought he said the right thing. I just wish he slapped the president, too.”
When people think back to West's telethon moment, the first thing that comes to mind is his seven-word indictment of the sitting president, a stark memory of one of the world's most famous artists accusing its most powerful man of racism. Less remembered are the 200-or-so words that came before that -- words targeted not at Bush, but at the media: "I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says, 'They're looting.' You see a white family, it says, 'They're looking for food.'"
In the days following Hurricane Katrina, an image widely circulated on the Internet contrasted two photos and their captions. In one, a white man and a white woman walked through the high waters left by Katrina. The accompanying AFP/Getty caption explained, "Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store ..."
In the other photo distributed by The Associated Press, a black youth could be seen in a similar situation. The caption, however, read, "A young man walks through chest deep flood water after looting a grocery store ..."
Different agencies wrote the captions. But to many Americans, the contrast between the two represented a larger truth: that the predominantly white media, try as they might to remain evenhanded, were subject to their own racial biases. (An AP spokesman said at the time that the boy fit the description of "looter" since the photographer saw him enter a store to obtain goods.)
Ask Americans now, and it's hard for them to recall West's media criticism; they tend to focus on his comments about Bush. In a HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted in August, just one-third of those with memory of the incident could recall West criticizing the media's Katrina coverage. Two-thirds of them only remembered West accusing Bush of not caring about black people.
"It wasn't just a tirade against George Bush," said Scott Heath, an English professor at Georgia State University who teaches a course on Kanye West. "He was discussing the way that our larger media outlets represent black people in these moments of crisis."
Ten years on and nearly two terms removed from Bush's presidency, it's the criticism of the media that hits home for black Americans. Half of black men and women in the August poll agreed that Bush didn't care about black people, but two-thirds agreed that the media portray black and white moments of crisis differently.
"It was important for Kanye West and others to highlight that the media has the ability to tell the same story in two very different ways," said Lawrence, the onetime law student. "Being underwater for a week, I'm sure you get hungry, so hungry that you will go into a place where you know there is food and get it -- because, one, what's somebody else going to do with the food, with this food at a flooded Walgreens? And two, it's either go in there and get the food that you need to get, or die."
“I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says, "They're looting." You see a white family, it says, "They're looking for food."”
Nearly 60 percent of white Americans believe that the media are racially unbiased or biased in favor of minorities, according to the HuffPost/YouGov poll. But evidence to the contrary isn't limited to anger-inducing anecdotes like the AP's "looting" photo. A study published in the aftermath of Katrina and based on multiple experiments found evidence that "crime news coverage contributes to racial stereotyping," lead researcher Travis Dixon said at the time.
Research conducted by Media Matters for America and published in March by the lobbying group ColorOfChange.org showed that local New York City TV stations were disproportionately depicting African-Americans as criminals as recently as this past December. The authors of a separate study published in the International Journal of Communication this year found that they could predict an American's level of bias against black people by the amount of local TV news he or she watched. Additional research has provided further evidence that TV can influence how viewers generally perceive African-Americans.
"The underlying sentiment that Kanye West expressed 10 years ago demonstrates the current reality of the way that the media covers people of color," said Charlton McIlwain, an associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. "There are years and mountains of evidence to suggest that over a long period of time -- extending to the present moment -- media tend to put a black face on crime, particularly violent crime."
West's comments, McIlwain said, were "by and large ... accurate and on point."
“There are years and mountains of evidence to suggest that ... media tend to put a black face on crime, particularly violent crime.”
Today, it's not clear whether West himself would repeat what he said 10 years ago. After all, he is more careful now and even apologized to Bush in a 2010 interview on NBC's "Today" show, saying that he "didn't have the grounds to call him a racist."
"He has become more media savvy, very media conscious and deliberate in his appearances and in the things he chooses to express at certain points," Heath, the professor who teaches the course on West, said. "Ten years later, I wonder if even Kanye West would do the same thing, say the same thing. But I think he might."
Many of the people involved in the benefit concert now recall West's comments positively. Myers told GQ last year that he was "very proud to have been next to him." Radice called West's comments "a phenomenal moment in culture, in history." Traub, while still perturbed by West's decision to point the finger so strongly at Bush, agreed that "there was definitely a tremendous problem with the way that African-Americans were treated in that area."
Kaplan, who was so crestfallen moments after West's remarks, now looks back on his decision to stray from the script especially fondly.
"When you look at it in hindsight, boy am I glad he did that," Kaplan said. "['A Concert for Hurricane Relief'] became politically correct [as a result of West's comments]. And I don't mean political correctness. It just became accurate. It became an accurate program, not just a fundraiser."
It hasn't gotten much easier for pop stars to air controversial political views through the mainstream media, though. On Aug. 14 of this year, Janelle Monae took the stage on "Today" to sing an extended version of her hit single "Tightrope." Near the end of her song, Monae took a knee, closed her eyes and opened her mouth. (Watch above.)
"Yes, Lord, God bless America!" Monae said. "God bless all the lost lives to police brutality. We want white America to know that we stand tall today. We want black America to know we stand tall today. We will not be silenced."
At that moment, NBC cut away from Monae, in what the network says was a scheduled commercial break unrelated to Monae's comments.
But with the rise of Twitter and movements like Black Lives Matter, whether it really takes a famous voice like Monae or West to launch a national debate is now an open question.
"One of the things [we've learned] through the Black Lives Matter movement and the actions that take place under that banner is it doesn't really take celebrity," said McIlwain, the NYU professor. "Many of the loudest voices in that movement are people that we had never heard, people who were a year ago in school, in college or working as college administrators."
Lawrence, the former law student, is a partner now at Lumumba & Associates, a law firm in Jackson, Mississippi, near where he grew up. He works on criminal defense and human rights cases. Currently, he's looking into the matter of Jonathan Sanders, a 39-year-old black man who was allegedly choked to death by a white police officer this July.
Last August, in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, Lawrence noticed something that perturbed him. Media outlets were using a photo of Brown in a sleeveless red jersey making a pointed hand gesture -- rather than a more sympathetic image of the soon-to-be college student, like him posing in graduation garb.
Frustrated, Lawrence spliced together two vastly different photos of himself and tweeted them out with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. "I was thinking to myself, 'If I was shot down, how would my story be told?'" he said. "If they gunned me down, how would the media portray me?"
In the first photo in Lawrence's tweet, taken on the day of his graduation from Tougaloo College, he's delivering a commencement speech as former President Bill Clinton laughs in the background. In the second picture -- the one he thinks the media would use if he were killed -- Lawrence is sporting sunglasses and a microphone, and holding a bottle of liquor. It was Halloween, and he'd gone as Kanye West.
Kanye West and George W. Bush did not respond to requests for comment.