Malbreaux: ‘Make Kanye 2005 Again’
He was a respected icon. Then Trump happened.
Reporters were treated to a one-of-a-kind show in the Oval Office this past Thursday. While it may have been sloppy journalism, the White House spectacle did not fail to cover a wide range of important topics: everything from stop-and-frisk, Chicago and Larry Hoover, to manufacturing, Foxconn and hydrogen-powered airplanes.
All with commentary provided by self-proclaimed experts and activists. There was Jim Brown, the NFL Hall of Famer turned civil rights activist, who calls himself an American first and believes players should stand for the national anthem. There was Kanye West, a celebrity salivating for attention, who never fails to sell himself in the presence of cameras and microphones. And of course, there was President Donald Trump, who, for the first time in two years, was at a loss for words.
Watching the highlights of this episode brings to mind memories of 2005. My family and I were watching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I sat on the wooden floor of my parents’ house, some two hours west of New Orleans. Our power had blacked out for some days, but we were spared the worst of the storm. The sandbags guarding the front door had done their job.
Meanwhile, in New Orleans, entire homes were drowned, save for the rooftops. In the following days, then-Governor Kathleen Blanco held televised press conferences on relief efforts with FEMA authorities. Helicopters filmed National Guardsmen descending into the sunken city in life boats.
And then, a “Concert for Hurricane Relief” aired on NBC. Actors and musicians pledged to donate money to the Red Cross and pleaded the public to do the same. And then there was Kanye. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Those seven words stole the show. Producers could not cut away in time. Everyone had heard it. Then-President George W. Bush would later call this moment, the celebrity accusing him of racism, the worst of his presidency (ostensibly, worse than Katrina’s death toll of nearly 2,000).
There was a subtle, palpable truth to Kanye’s words that those living in New Orleans felt. A key levee breech occurred in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, a majority-black neighborhood, with one of the highest rates of black homeownership in the country. And media coverage in the aftermath treated blacks unfairly. The Associated Press showed a black man trudging through water after “looting” a local store for groceries, while a white man was only “finding bread.”
Kanye even noted the discrepancy during his primetime spot on the telethon. Watching this unfold on my living room floor, I couldn’t grasp what was happening, exactly. However, I distinctly remember my parents’ gasp. Then, there was a pregnant pause, as the camera panned over to a speechless Chris Tucker, with microphone in hand and script ready. That pregnant pause said a lot. While Kanye himself was ineloquent, there was an unspoken accordance with the spirit of his words. One that couldn’t quite be articulated.
All of this is to say that 2005 Kanye was still the attention-grabbing, media-savvy raconteur he still is today. The difference now is that, while he claims to be an independent “free-thinker,” the truth is that he is being used by President Trump. His summit at the White House serves to legitimize Trump’s own nefarious political agenda in the black community, by casting a black man who obsequiously agrees with him. Kanye embraces Trump as someone he “loves.” He denounces the supposed reality that many black people live on a “Democratic plantation” chained to the idea of “victimized” and “welfare” mentality. Yet Trump has called those white nationalists in Charlottesville “fine people,” and has supported failed stop-and-frisk policies that target already over-policed communities. As Charles Blow writes for The New York Times, “The spectacle was watching Trump pretend to care about remedying a problem that he is consciously continuing to not only cheer but worsen.”
But Kanye’s role as perverse pitchman for the White House trying to neatly package and sell harmful policy to black folks is nothing new in the world of politics. Nadifa Mohamed writes in The Guardian about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born American, a woman lauded by the political right and former fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. A self-proclaimed feminist, Mohamed writes that she “conveniently sidestepped her former feminist convictions to support Brett Kavanagh’s nomination to the U.S. supreme court.” Such tactics are also employed abroad. Mona Walter, a Somali-born Swedish activist, condemned the election of a fellow Somali migrant, Swedish MP Laila Ali Elmi. Walter, herself a former Muslim, denounced Elmi on the grounds that her election would bring Sweden one step closer to a complete “Muslim takeover of the country.”
It would be a mistake to dismiss Kanye as an aberration. His words are consequential, and he has the platform — and now, the political agency — to back it up. While it is unclear how this will all play out, the American people, particularly black people, must remain vigilant, so as to not be fooled by the grand show of faux friendship between Kanye and Trump.
Maybe, some day, after Trump leaves office, Kanye will abandon the political limelight altogether and return wholeheartedly to his music. I, for one, just wish he was 2005 again.