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.
While proponents of such systems argue that this work equips inmates with skills and experience necessary to gain employment after release, critics argue that penal labor prioritizes financial gain over rehabilitation for inmates, while prison operators often pocket immense profits while ducking serious safety concerns. While amending the 13th Amendment would go a long way toward preventing some of the abuses of prisoners, it wouldn’t much make a dent in the disproportionate criminalization of Black people, who are incarcerated over five time more than white Americans. The disparity extends to first-time offenses and stems from a variety of sources such as lack of resources and employment, poor education, and inflexible laws like the “Three Strikes Law” which can generate hard time for generally innocuous offenses. Besides all that, there are many federal and state laws in place that specifically allow for prison labor to basically operate as businesses in their own right, even as more and more prisons become private enterprises with a baked-in interest in keeping cells filled like a high-end Las Vegas hotel booking rooms on fight night.
But let’s say that Kanye West wants to join John Legend, Meek Mill, Jay-Z, T.I., and other entertainers from around hip-hop in fighting for prison reform. How could he possibly do that while supporting a President whose pick for Attorney General of the United States was Jeff Sessions? It was Sessions who ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the greatest criminal charges possible for accused offenders. He’s pursued stronger sentencing on marijuana prosecution, supported Trump’s travel ban, and pushed to take away federal funding from sanctuary cities for refusing to comply with Trump’s immigration policies. He basically wants to fill the prisons, not empty them, and Kanye’s good buddy Trump put him in the position to do so.
Trump’s policies take money away from schools and government assistance programs — both of which have been linked to greater opportunities for adults who would ordinarily end up in the prison system. For all the furor surrounding Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s appointment for the currently vacant Supreme Court seat, for Kavanaugh’s sexual abuse allegations, his positions on semi-automatic rifle bans and the separations of powers in the US government could directly undermine any push for prison reform. Increasing the availability of guns just makes gun crimes more likely. Kavanaugh also seems uncomfortably willing to give the President power over various oversight boards designed to protect Americans from corporate malfeasance. If he were confirmed (at it looks disgustingly likely that he will be), he would have power to influence decisions that could theoretically extend to federal oversight of law enforcement as well as business law, both of which are uncomfortably cozy as it is.
It’s clear that the issues are far more wide-reaching and complex than Kanye’s pithy observations are able to encompass, but beyond that, Kanye can’t keep talking out of both sides of his mouth on these things. If he’s really got Trump’s ear, he needs to be bending it nearly nonstop to convince Trump to back off his racist, elitist policies. Instead, he’s wearing the man’s campaign merchandise, saying that he can reclaim “Make America Great Again” from its regressive, dangerous origins when he can’t even properly reclaim “The Sunken Place.” He’s desperately trying to serve two masters that are at war with each other: The natural arc of history toward justice and equality and the childish, would-be tyrant whose every move seems callously calculated to sow dissent, chaos, and bigotry to serve his own selfish interests. Whether or not Kanye has been hypnotized into supporting Trump and his destructive policies, his calls for reform will forever ring hollow as long as he continues to endorse someone who works against that goal at every turn.