Five years ago, Kanye West’s blurting denunciation of George Bush’s handling of the Katrina crisis seemed unimprovable. It was a spontaneous, emotional reaction to a wrenching disaster and an inadequate official response. It coincided with the first year of YouTube, which meant it could be watched around the world instead of just reported. And it did what no protest song was able to do during the Bush years, by condensing widespread frustration and ire into a single, pungent, viral phrase — a perfect two-years-on companion piece to the Dixie Chicks’ “we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” But now Bush himself has planted the cherry on the top by calling it “the worst moment of [my] presidency.”
First off, this makes Bush seem like a callous narcissist who is more hurt by a rapper’s outburst than, oh, 9/11, the fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bank crisis or indeed Katrina itself. It also does Kanye a huge favour by reminding people of a time before he mutated into a hybrid of Tracy Jordan and Patrick Bateman. This was during the same vaguely political period when he recorded Diamonds from Sierra Leone and spoke up for gay rights, and there he was accusing the president of failing in his duty of care to the poor of New Orleans. Four years later, he was accusing one pop singer of having an inferior music video to another pop singer, leading the new president, one Kanye actually liked, to call him a “jackass”. This might be considered a step down.
Whether Bush deliberately misread Kanye’s point or genuinely doesn’t get it, he now defends himself on the safe grounds that he is not “racist”. Look, he implies, some of my best cabinet members were black. Well yes, but given the demographics of New Orleans, it’s obvious that Kanye’s point was more about class than race. A few months after the incident I interviewed will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, who summed it up nicely: “I’m sure George Bush has a lot of black friends. He loves black people with a fuck of a lot of money. He doesn’t care about people that don’t have money. It just so happens that those people are black.” The phrase owed its resonance to timing more than inaccuracy. This was the tipping point for anti-Bush sentiment. Another interviewee, Michael Franti, told me: “After Katrina happened, people in the South saw people starving to death because of ineptitude by the government. And Bush came down and made a bunch of bullshit speeches and everybody was like, What the fuck? And that really changed the attitude of the country overnight.”
Kanye, who seemed as startled as anybody by his outburst, never followed up his moment of accidental glory. This may be for the best — he’s much more articulate on the subject of Kanye West than of politics. But he did inadvertently spur the likes of Lil Wayne and Jay-Z into recording songs about Katrina, and directly inspired one of the decade’s more intriguing protest records, by the Legendary KO:
Protest songs have borrowed popular melodies since the days of topical ballads, because before recorded sound the quickest way to get your message across to the masses was to piggyback on an existing tune. This habit was revived during the civil rights movement, when everything from 19th century spirituals to brand-new soul hits were remade as freedom songs. The Legendary KO, two Houston rappers who worked at shelters housing evacuees from New Orleans, were so wowed by Kanye’s statement that they quickly wrote a song around his hit Gold Digger and sent it to a friend who ran a hip hop website. The borrowing is witty and brazen, and clarifies the class aspect (George Bush “ain’t messing with no broke niggas”), while the new lyrics are pithy and defiant. It was an overnight viral sensation. “Unfortunately a lot of people don’t take to serious songs too easily,” the Legendary KO’s Damien Randle told me. “You almost have to sugar coat it in order to trick people into listening to it.” (A nice chain of coincidence: Gold Digger samples Ray Charles’s I Got a Woman; Charles’s Georgia on My Mind formed the basis of Lil Wayne’s Georgia… Bush; and back in 1961, jailed Freedom Riders turned Charles’s Hit the Road Jack into Get Your Rights Jack.)
It was an exciting moment for political music. Greil Marcus wrily voted the Legendary KO his third favourite single of 2005 and “Kanye West featuring Mike Myers” his first. At the time I thought this could be a way forward for protest songs: the topical ballad reborn in the age of YouTube, social media and a cavalier approach to copyright. But it didn’t really happen, notwithstanding a glut of novelty pro-Obama clips during the 2008 election. This, I think, is the real disappointment of recent years. Never mind record label jitters or airplay bans — anyone can stick a memorable protest song on YouTube. I’d like to see more people take the opportunity.