Hurricane Katrina, a catastrophic Category-5 hurricane that wrecked New Orleans and killed 1,833 people, struck over two decades ago. It was a complete disaster, and on Sept. 2, 2005, NBCUniversal broadcasted “A Concert For Hurricane Relief,” which included a slew of superstars. Leonardo DiCaprio and Lindsay Lohan were among the guests, as were Harry Connick Jr., Kanye West, and Aaron Neville.
Executive producer Rick Kaplan recalls, “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. Everyone was totally cooperative.”
West was also collaborating. That week, the hip-hop sensation’s second studio album, “Late Registration,” was released. West, who was set to perform with comic Mike Myers, rehearsed his lines with Frank Radice, the show’s senior producer and music director. West, like the other celebrities on the show, was supposed to provide the audience statistics about Katrina’s destruction, the amount of relief help required, and so on.
West made the strongest impact of all the noteworthy personalities that night.
According to the Huffington Post, before they started, West knew he wasn’t going to say what the teleprompter said and told actor Mike Myers, “Yo. I’m going to ad-lib a little bit.” The outcome was one of the most simultaneously humane and divisive appeals for assistance to New Orleanians, with the statement “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Radice noticed anything strange at that point. He had been hearing celebrities chatting in the background throughout the performance up until that point. However, all of the prominent individuals had gone silent at this point. West was the focus of everyone’s attention.
Mark Traub, the show’s senior stage manager, recalls exchanging a “Oh my God” look with host Matt Lauer.
Despite the fact that the comment was certain to generate a stir, several of his celebrity colleagues came out in support of him. According to the Huffington Post, “After West’s comments, Connick, along with country singers and couple Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, walked up to [telethon executive producer Rick] 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.”
In the years afterwards, West has stood by his comments, Bush has referred to them as an “all-time low” in his administration, West has shown regret, and Bush has forgiven him. Mike Myers, who stood bemused next to West as he went completely off script, now says he agrees with the primary message—that the government would not have failed a wealthy city with more white residents in the same way—but you wouldn’t have known it from his expression at the moment.
The speech, decades later, is a sobering look at a catastrophic and horrific situation in Louisiana, but it’s also a fascinating glimpse at the convoluted and unwaveringly honest image West would eventually adopt in his career.
“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….George Bush doesn’t care about black people!”
West’s statements are still remembered by the show’s producers a decade later as a watershed event in live television. In 2005, they didn’t see it that way.
“I remember hearing the words that were coming out of his mouth and looking down at the script and [thinking], ‘this is not—this is not going well,’ ” Frank Radice, the show’s senior producer and musical director, recently told me. Radice then had a second thought. “I remember saying [to someone] ‘it was good TV.’ ”
What made it good TV? “The fact that it was controversial,” he said. “And it stopped everything cold.” The small studio audience that included celebrities like Lohan and DiCaprio was “eerily quiet.”