Kanye West

Kanye West Doesn't Want to Bring Back Slavery. He's Trying to Abolish It for Good.

The 13th Amendment outlaws slavery, but not for prison inmates.


Kanye West, the Trump- and Kaepernick-loving rapper, seems to take pleasure in bridging partisan divides in the most controversial ways possible. Yesterday he put on a red MAGA hat and Tweeted this:

Cue the outrage. This time around, West's critics include Captain America star Chris Evans, Arrested Development actor David Cross, and Matter of Fact anchor Soledad O'Brien. The general sentiment seems to be: Why abolish the amendment that abolished slavery? "Is there making sense of Kanye West's Maddening Slavery Tweet?" blares Esquire's headline. Others, such as singer Lana Del Rey, just couldn't get past the rapper's support for Trump.

But it shouldn't have been hard to discern West's meaning, even if he expressed it in a confusing way. As he later clarified, he doesn't want to kill the whole 13th Amendment—just the passage that still allows involuntary servitude "as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."

Without that change, he writes, the amendment allows "slavery in disguise."

In the years after the Civil War, many black convicts were forced to participate in "convict leasing" programs, where their unpaid labor benefitted private companies. Such programs no longer exist, but as Reason's C.J. Ciaramella noted in August, many states still force inmates of all races to work for nothing or close to it. The Marshall Project reports that "the average pay for a prisoner working a job in a state prison facility is 20 cents an hour." In Texas, Georgia, and Arkansas, inmates aren't paid at all for their labor.

When inmates in more than a dozen states went on strike in August, their demands included "an immediate end to prison slavery." Contrary to popular opinion, "the 13th Amendment didn't abolish slavery," Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for the strikes, told Vox at the time. "It wrote slavery into the Constitution."

Kanye West isn't the first rapper to address this. Killer Mike covered the issue in his 2012 song "Reagan":

'Cause free labor is the cornerstone of U.S. economics
'Cause slavery was abolished, unless you are in prison
You think I am bullshitting, then read the 13th Amendment
Involuntary servitude and slavery it prohibits
That's why they giving drug offenders time in double digits.

And in 2016, the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th explored how inmates are punished with forced labor. That said, 13th director Ava DuVernay doesn't seem to be a big fan of West's views on the subject.

It's possible West's red hat served as a red cape that distracted people from what he was saying. The timing also didn't help, as the post came the day after West defended Trump on the Saturday Night Live stage.

If nothing else, West does us a service by reminding us that a person's views do not have to be—and, outside the professional political world, often aren't—a perfect fit with any political party's. It may seem odd on the cable news channels to support Donald Trump and criminal justice reform at the same time, but the world is larger than the cable news channels.