One of the proudest moments in my life as a political observer was when Kanye West did something that almost no other artist or entertainer would be astute or courageous enough to do. In 2005, as people were dying in the streets of New Orleans, West used the powerful platform provided to him during a Hurricane Katrina telethon to make the statement heard around the world: ”George Bush does not care about black people.”
I applauded Kanye’s remarks, for not since the great Muhammad Ali have we seen any athlete or entertainer willing to look beyond the temptation of a little more bling to actually fight for a meaningful cause. Yes, Kanye could have been more diplomatic, but diplomacy is not the order of the day when dead bodies are floating on every other street.
You can probably imagine my dismay after finding out that Kanye has now backed off of his powerful statement. This week on “The Today Show,” West expressed remorse for his remarks in an apology to former President George W. Bush. Rather than being consistent and firm in his disposition, he’s now part of the establishment, where waffling on your principles is fully expected. Bush deserved no apology, for you don’t apologize to a criminal after repudiating him for an egregious crime.
Kanye missed an opportunity with his public apology. He missed the same opportunity that Muhammad Ali had when he chose between going to jail or signing on for a cushy role in the U.S. military. He missed the same opportunity that Nelson Mandela had when he was offered a chance to get out of prison early by renouncing his political beliefs. Overall, Kanye missed the chance to transcend hip hop and grow into the kind of legendary figure he could have become. Nelson and Muhammad did not fail when faced with even more intimidating moments of truth, which is why the world will remember their contributions forever. Of course, the pressure exerted on West pales in comparison to what Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela were facing, but the point remains the same.
By apologizing for his statement that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” West is effectively arguing that “George Bush does care about black people.” For some reason, that which we deem to be diplomatic is often a direct exchange of the uncomfortable truth for a cozy, graceful lie. Bush led the charge on mass incarceration of black men in the state of Texas and executed more black men than any gang banger in America. He flew over the city of New Orleans in a helicopter while thousands of black men, women and children were left abandoned by a government that considered these “refugees” as nothing more than a nuisance. With all the deaths of black men that George W. Bush has caused during his political career, it is sad and tragic that Kanye West feels the need to validate a tyrant with a public apology.
Since Kanye isn’t strong enough to carry the torch on this issue, perhaps we should carry it for him. So, let’s say it to ourselves right now: “George Bush does not care about black people.” Some may choose to pretend like Katrina never happened. You can try to forget about those dead bodies, lost livelihoods and tortured souls that endured this astonishing tragedy. You can try to act like Bush and his cronies cared for the people of New Orleans the way they would have taken care of the people of Beverly Hills. But you and I know that by letting Bush and his friends off the hook, we’d be showing disrespect to the people who lost their lives. It may be five years later, but we cannot let go of this experience. Katrina must be remembered always.