Memo to Kanye: No Olive Branch For Dubya
Kanye West has spent the better part of the last year attempting to rehabilitate his image. Ever since the interruption heard round the world at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards, the once-seemingly-untouchable rapper has faced an uphill battle in restoring his cred. Nowadays it’s impossible to even mention the man without Taylor Swift on the other side of your tongue, and with a new album dropping soon, the stale paparazzi-talk seems to have completely obscured what it was that made Ye such an icon of hip-hop.
Enter George W. Bush, another man clearly searching for an image reboot. He’s got a book on the way: Decision Points, in which he’s bound to justify each and every “decider moment” that came across his Oval Office desk. Irony is palpable here; the man who coined such little gems as “is our children learning” and claimed he knows “how hard it is to put food on your family” has written a book. I don’t envy his proofreaders.
Maybe Bush sensed blood in the water around Kanye, because in a recent interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, the president who stole an election and fabricated Iraqi weapons of mass destruction called West’s famed lambaste against him “the worst moment” of his presidency.
Bush is referring, of course, to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when Kanye infamously broke script on live TV to tell the world what many already knew: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
“He called me a racist,” Bush told Lauer, “and I didn’t appreciate it then. I don’t appreciate it now. It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t appreciate the way he’s handled his business.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘This man’s a racist.’ I resent it, it’s not true.”
Except for one thing. It is true. Bush’s administration took every opportunity to side against affirmative action, and even chose Martin Luther King’s birthday to officially renounce it. As governor of Texas he oversaw the execution of over 150 prisoners--a disproportionate number of whom were African American. As president he delivered nothing but lip service to the problem of racial profiling, and as he pushed through the Patriot Act backhandedly defended it.
Kanye received endless flak for his live comments. But as the world watched the footage of Black faces stranded on roof-tops while FEMA sat idly by, as the press denounced the “looting” of African Americans struggling to stay alive, it was hard to disagree with Ye’s straightforwardness. His words went viral in the days and weeks afterwards. I remember attending a quarter-million strong anti-war protest in Washington, DC a month after Katrina, where I saw his quote emblazoned on countless signs and placards.
Five years later, Katrina has become one of the many unsavory and criminal moments that define the Bush years. Dubya himself is surprisingly aware of this (insofar as he can be “aware” of anything), as a leaked quote from his book reveals:
“I faced a lot of criticism as president. I didn’t like hearing people claim that I lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or cut taxes to benefit the rich. But the suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low.”
For his part, Ye has responded with a statement uncharacteristically conciliatory in tone, saying he can “understand how he feels.” It’s just one more layer to the evolving public conundrum that is Kanye West, who eight years ago helped reinvigorate a hip-hop scene that was confused and flagging, but today is announcing his intent to perform at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
It stands to reason that Ye himself may still feel greatly cowed by the shit-storm that was slung at him in the wake of the Taylor Swift incident. Let’s face it: if he were a white rock musician then his stunt would have been just another one for the books. But pundits had been calling Kanye a loudmouth for years. They did it when he took Bush to task on TV and when he publicly pledged to take on homophobia in the hip-hop industry. His meaningless and ultimately harmless prank at last year’s VMAs provided all the fodder that was needed to label him an egotistical reverse-racist, and he’s spent the past year as an embattled semi-pariah.
But Kanye owes no olive branch to George W. Bush. At best, the rapper is guilty of rudeness, and he’s been hoisted on the public petard. Bush sat on his hands in Texas while in the next state thousands were abandoned to the fierce elements of a natural disaster, and he has yet to pay for it.
In the swelling of anger that followed Katrina, Ye rightfully felt emboldened to give a brief but needed platform to that same outrage. It shows what he’s capable of when enough folks have got his back. Even more recently, as activists spilled onto the streets to protest Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070 law, he was one of the first artists to join the Sound Strike. Give him a bold anti-racist movement, and we’ll see what he can do.
That’s the one good thing to come out of Dubya’s smug return to the public spotlight: it’s reminded us how necessary voices like Kanye are--and that we need more of them. Bush’s continued resentment shows that while West may be a bit of a loose cannon, he frequently takes the time to point that cannon in the right direction.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and writer living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com) and is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts. He has also written for Z Magazine, PopMatters.com, CounterPunch, SocialistWorker.org, New Politics, and the International Socialist Review.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org