Sunday night at the VMAs, Kanye West gave a speech that was long-winded, self-important, and absolutely brilliant. He said some things that made no sense, some things that made perfect sense, and, of course, ended it by announcing that he was running for president in 2020. In other words, it was a Classic Kanye Moment.
Of course, we’re used to this by now. We know Kanye is the most outspoken entertainer in the world by a fairly wide margin, and whenever he opens his mouth, he’s going to say something that might shock the senses of the American public. He’s done it countless times before, and he’ll do it countless more times in the future. While he’s been this way his entire career (and maybe life?), the moment the nation as a whole noticed came 10 years ago Wednesday, when he dropped one of the more memorable proclamations in American history: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
It was a truly jarring moment when he said it, an obviously stunned Mike Myers standing next to him with absolutely no idea what to do or say. While Kanye had already released two albums at that point (Late Registration had come out just three days earlier), this feels like the moment we truly met Kanye West, and when we learned that if you put a camera in front of him, he’s going to say exactly what’s on his mind.
Was his famous proclamation accurate? That’s a difficult nut to crack. Generally speaking, most people would likely blame the government’s horribly lacking response to Hurricane Katrina on the incompetence of both President Bush and former FEMA Director Michael Brown rather than any racism on their part, but it’s hard to blame Kanye for being suspicious. When we saw many of the black residents of New Orleans sitting on their rooftops, their homes destroyed, desperately waiting to be rescued, one couldn’t help but wonder if the person in charge of the country actually cared about what was happening. Kanye vocalized that fear in brutally blunt fashion.
Five years later, after being called out by Bush in an interview with Matt Lauer, Kanye apologized for his remarks, saying he wasn’t in the proper position to effectively call President Bush a racist. While he may look back on those remarks with regret, it’s easy to imagine a lot of people admiring him for making such a direct condemnation. At the benefit concert where Kanye’s legendary remark took place, no one was going to address the elephant in the room. Celebrities were going to talk about how the people of New Orleans needed your help, but they weren’t going to say anything about how little FEMA had done to help them. This was just going to be an evening of generic platitudes, not unlike Jenna Maroney’s memorable call to “Help The People The Thing That Happened To” on 30 Rock. Kanye changed all of that.
This was all we could talk about for weeks, and a month later, Kanye and Mike Myers mocked the incident on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live. For any other celebrity, saying the president of the United States doesn’t care about black people would be a career-defining moment, but Kanye was just getting warmed up. Indeed, the unfiltered, I’m-gonna-speak-my-mind-whether-you-want-to-hear-it-or-not opinions of Mr. West have been a consistent presence in our lives for a solid decade now. There was “I’mma let you finish.” There was the time he confronted Jimmy Kimmel about a comedy bit he wasn’t particularly fond of. There was the time he recorded a song called “I Am A God.” You get the idea.
For understandable reasons, Kanye has become an incredibly polarizing figure. To some, he’s an arrogant prick who should just shut up once in awhile. To others, his forceful nature is seen as a virtue. By being an unabashedly confident black man who speaks uncomfortable truths about society, he makes a lot of uptight white people upset. What’s frustrating about these dueling factions is that they both have a point. On one hand, he says a lot of things that he doesn’t seem to think through (Beck doesn’t respect artistry? Really?!) and by his own admission later regrets; on the other hand, he’s said a lot of things that are completely on point. And while many of his white detractors could point to his arrogance as their reason for disliking him, it’s likely that in many cases, they just don’t like seeing a defiantly brash black man speak so honestly about topics like institutional racism.
If you try to pigeonhole Kanye as a hero or a villain, you’re making a critical mistake. He’s both. He’s also neither. He’s a human being with many opinions, some of them misguided, some of them dead-on. Ultimately, he’s going to say what he wants, and if you don’t like it, it’s up to you to deal with it or tune it out. When Kanye dropped his immortal salvo on President Bush, he was showing us, in no uncertain terms, exactly who he was. You can love him or you can hate him, but he’s going to keep on being Kanye, regardless of what any of us think about it.