We already know Kanye West doesn’t read books, but a growing pile of evidence is stacking up that he doesn’t really follow movies all that well either. He recently made some comments that suggest that his newfound political engagement may be coming from the wrong place at the wrong time — and thanks to some of his antics lately, he is absolutely the wrong person to advocate for some policy changes.
Consider his recent preoccupation with “The Sunken Place,” a concept from Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking psychological horror masterpiece Get Out. Kanye tweets about the Sunken Place at least once a week these days, ever since he started using his social media accounts to share Fox News and conservative Youtube-inspired missives about how much he likes Donald Trump and Candace Owens. The jokes accusing Kanye of being stuck in the Sunken Place flew fast and furiously online, prompting him to attempt to co-opt them for his own use. However, his stilted delivery of his own re-appropriated jokes suggests he may not entirely understand the basic concept behind the Sunken Place as laid out in the film.
Likewise, his recent Instagram post calling for the repeal of the 13th Amendment — you know, the one that freed African-American slaves, thereby making it possible for Kanye West to become a multi-millionaire on account of not being, well, a slave himself — seems like it might have been prompted by a passing interest in the film 13th, from filmmaker Ava DuVernay. In the film, DuVernay explores the history of racial inequality in the United States through the lens of the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans, which was initially enabled and likely incentivized by the so-called “exception clause” of the 13th Amendment itself.
The film was much discussed online upon its release to Netflix, but again, it seems as if Yeezy only really followed the discussion with half his attention, completely missing the film’s original premise. He recently posted a photo of his signature “Make America Great Again” hat, with a caption that read: “This represents good and America becoming whole again. We will no longer outsource to other countries. We build factories here in America and create jobs. We will provide jobs for all who are free from prisons as we abolish the 13th amendment. Message sent with love.” This incited an outcry from a number of prominent figures on Twitter, including Chris Evans, Soledad O’Brien, and even Lana Del Rey at the suggestion the United States walk back its single most important legislation of the last 150 years.
To be clear, no, I don’t think Kanye wants to bring back slavery. However, his comment was wrong in more than one way. Aside from utterly horrifying idea that the 13th Amendment should be abolished, Kanye’s obsequious fawning over Donald Trump illustrates how poorly he understands how the principles of prison reform are inextricably tied to the office of the President of the United States and his power to nominate Supreme Court Justices who make decisions about the constitutionality of new and existing laws — the laws that have made it possible for private interests to drive the disproportionate incarceration of Black people in America. The Washington Post has an in-depth breakdown here.
For one thing, Kanye almost immediately tried to perform some damage control once he realized he’d put his proverbial foot in his mouth again. “The 13th Amendment is slavery in disguise,” he clarified. “Not abolish but let’s amend the 13th Amendment.” This changes the complexion of his prior tweet, but not by much. He’s right in this much, at least: The 13th Amendment, as written, allows for abuse through a loophole created by one of its clauses. The full text is as follows (emphasis mine):
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
That means that slavery isn’t allowed in the US — unless you are convicted of a crime. Then you’re fair game for the chain gang. Penal labor, which is specifically accounted for in the 13th Amendment, includes manufacturing of goods, raising, processing, and harvesting meat and vegetables, sanitation, transportation, and facility maintenance. According to Vox, prisoners make air filters, clothes, lamps, and office supplies for wages that range from 23 cents an hour to $1.15 an hour. However, in many states, such labor is unpaid, or goes to credits of time off a sentence.
Some inmates in California are “employed” as firefighters, mobilized to help clear brush or actively fight wildfires in exchange for days off their sentence for time spent in “conservation camps” overseen by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In Mississippi, a for-profit plantation operated until the 1970s when prisoner abuse and harsh working conditions were exposed, causing operations to be scaled back, but not closed. Texas, home of the largest prison population in the United States with over 140,000 inmates, generated nearly $90 million in revenue from prison labor in 2014, working inmates in shifts of up to 12 hours per day with no monetary compensation.