Gospel singer Sylvia St. James needed someone to tell her "who Kanye West is" when last week, as national director of Gospel Brunch for the House Of Blues, she was tasked with gathering a choir to back the top recording artist in the country on his hit, "Jesus Walks," for West's appearance at the Hurricane Katrina benefit that was broadcast by every major network.
"I didn't know who he was," says St. James. "But my little goddaughter came into the room and she had his CD and she knew it by heart. That was my first time hearing the name Kanye West."
As it so happened, St. James had already been reaching out, trying to organize a gospel benefit for the victims of Katrina, and so was quick to agree. Of course, this would be West's second high-profile Katrina benefit, having earlier gone on NBC and uttering his now-famous line: "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
St. James, however, was focused on hearing "Jesus Walks" and she was surprised by the quality of West's meditation on faith and temptation that includes lines such as:
"At war with terrorism, racism, and most of all we at war with ourselves / God show me the way because the devil trying to break me down."
According to St. James, "I got the song and I got the music and I am looking at the lyric, 'Jesus Walks' and wow! So I pulled the choir together and we had our first rehearsal and I didn't expect him to be there but he was—a very quiet young man—but he knew exactly what he wanted. When we did the rehearsals everything was very serious. It is a very complicated piece and there was a lot going on. He knew his string players and was like, 'Take it two measures from here.' Even the day that we got to the shoot, he knew how he wanted the camera angles. We were very impressed with him as an artist and with him as a person."
As for his unscripted comments at the NBC telecast, St. James offers this perspective after meeting West and hearing his music: "He has a lot to say. I had never really listened. But after listening to that song and just feeling the seriousness of his heart, his commitment to the people, he was really hurt by what is happening in New Orleans. That was my take on it."
Still for West, in addition to being a benefit for a cause clearly emotionally important and urgent, because of his earlier remarks, this would also be the most scrutinized performance of his career. West had become a major subject of editorials and commentators across the country. The nation was assured, in fact, that it would be safe to watch this broadcast as there would be a seven-second delay (though Chris Rock did manage to get off a quick: "George Bush hates midgets."). As Rod Stewart finished his rendition of a Curtis Mayfield song, St. James' choir and West prepared:
"We went on, followed Rod Stewart singing 'People Get Ready.' Kanye was looking so serious. They counted down three seconds and they hadn't handed him a microphone yet. One of my singers took a mic off to give to him. It was absolutely maddening for all of us. We had rehearsed all day. And I have to say in all my years as a performer, I have never heard feedback like that. It shrieked so loudly for all of us. And we couldn't hear any of the tracks. But he just kept on going right through the whole thing. He kept going and then we found our way in there. When he ended, it was all I could do to keep from crying, because I knew how he felt. How could the entire day [pass] without anything going wrong until it got to his moment? But he was so graceful. He turned around to all of us and said, 'That was great.' I expected him to fly off the handle. But he was an absolute prince, even in that moment."
To those of us watching on television, little of this chaos was apparent; it only appeared that West's microphone cut out for the first moments of the song. Viewers didn't hear the feedback at all. In fact, if not a triumphant performance, it was a good one and the intensity of West's delivery was far more apparent than the technical glitches.
Sylvia St. James hasn't forgotten the shrieking, however, and she can't bring herself to actually watch the tape of her appearance with West. But she is also quick to point out that the real significance of West's appearance at the benefit transcends their performance altogether:
"When things like that happen, you need to look at the overall purpose. The overall purpose wasn't really for any artist to be there to represent themselves but to represent their concern for fellow Americans. And what happened was that within the first hour they raised $11 million and that was the big picture that everyone was there for."
Richard Abowitz believes Bob Dylan would've made a better FEMA chief than Michael Brown. E-mail him at