On Sept. 2, 2005, four days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans with devastating impact, NBC gathered celebrities from TV, film, and music to raise money for the victims. “A Concert for Hurricane Relief” drew 8.5 million viewers and raised a reported $50 million, but that’s not what, 10 years later, it is remembered for. Instead, the benefit, hosted by Matt Lauer and featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, Glenn Close, and Lindsay Lohan, will go down as an important page in the Katrina story for one moment: when Kanye West, channeling a nation’s frustration at the federal government’s failure to help storm victims, looked straight into an NBC camera and said, on live TV, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
In the years since, West stood by his remarks, Bush called it the “all-time low” point in his presidency, West subsequently expressed his regret, and Bush forgave him. Mike Myers, who stood in bewilderment next to West as he went wildly off script, now says he agrees with the essential message—that the government would not have failed a wealthier city with more white people in the same way—but you wouldn’t have known that from the look on his face at the time.
A decade later the show’s producers see West’s comments as a historic moment in live television. That’s not exactly how they saw it in 2005.
“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.”
In the control room, executive producer Rick Kaplan was trying to keep the show moving. It was his decision to let West’s speech—which fluctuated between thoughtful commentary and nervous rambling—run until the infamous Bush line, at which point he cut to the next performer, Chris Tucker, whose own split-second stumble and roving eyes only reinforced the awkwardness of the scene. At the time, an NBC spokesperson explained that the network didn’t use the seven-second tape delay to cut West off because the person in charge "was instructed to listen for a curse word, and didn't realize (West) had gone off-script.” That wasn’t true, according to Kaplan, who said he waited for an appropriate pause in Kanye’s speech to try to move the program to the next scheduled segment. “I’m in the control room and I’m running the show, and I’m sitting there going, ‘I don’t know how to cut this off,’ ” Kaplan said of the transition. While the cut was certainly jarring and looked at the time like it was prompted directly by the provocativeness of the Bush remark, Kaplan insists that he was just looking for a natural out in an extremely unusual situation.
“There was never a thought that we were going to just cut him off,” he said. “This was an extraordinary moment, and however ugly it might turn out to be, you don’t need to make it uglier.”
“Ultimately, it isn’t necessarily an ugly moment, it’s an honest moment,” Kaplan added.
After it was over, Kaplan remembers Myers walking up to him and saying, in the style of Dr. Evil, “Well that went well, didn’t it?”
Matt Lauer quickly wrote a closing speech to put Kanye’s remarks in perspective, saying "emotions in this country right now are running very high. Sometimes that emotion is translated into inspiration, sometimes into criticism," before the show ended with Harry Connick Jr. leading the celebrity cast in a rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In."
Kaplan says he was in “shell-shock” after the show, and West was nowhere to be found. But he says a trio of the show’s musical performers—Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Harry Connick Jr.—took him aside and said, “I know that you’re feeling like it all got screwed up because of Kanye. But you’re going to be really proud that Kanye did what he did.”
“They said we’ve all been to New Orleans and they said it was terrible what’s going on down there, and the lack of support from the [federal government], and we understand the anger, and you’re going to be happy that that element was in the show,” Kaplan told me. “And they were right. … No disrespect to the president or anyone else, but [Kanye’s] emotion and his honesty and what he had to say, it had to be heard, because those people were not being served.”
Someone at NBC did not think it was a good moment, though, and cut the Bush line from the West Coast telecast. "It would be most unfortunate," an NBC statement read at the time, "if the efforts of the artists who participated tonight and the generosity of millions of Americans who are helping those in need are overshadowed by one person's opinion." Kaplan says he had nothing to do with the West Coast cut and disagreed with it, and Radice was surprised to see it removed at the time because the news department, which he believes normally would have kept such material, was integral to the making of the show. “I think it should have been looked at as a news event,” he said.
The network kept the rest of West’s speech, so viewers on the West Coast did hear him talk about disparities in the way the media described black victims versus white victims, criticize the Iraq war, and say “they have given them permission to go down and shoot us.”
“There was a lot of content there that came out of his mouth that looked at in the clear light of day 10 years later was equally as incendiary as the George Bush line,” Radice said. “Even to this day, it’s still something that’s controversial and it spoke to something that—I hate to say ‘truth to power,’ but I can’t imagine that’s not exactly what he was thinking.”