Saturday Night Live had to know it was taking a chance this weekend, inviting Kanye West to be the musical guest of its season premier. West has been on a hot tear even by his standards lately, courting controversy and think pieces in a MAGA baseball cap, and nobody really expected him to just dutifully show up to SNL and play a couple new songs because that’s just not what West does. He did perform a couple new songs (one of them in a Perrier costume for some reason) but he also spent the time usually dedicated to cast members hugging each other at the curtain call to launch into a lengthy rant about President Donald Trump.
He capped off the rant with a tweet that only further muddied the waters.
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 pic.twitter.com/a15WqI8zgu
— ye (@kanyewest) September 30, 2018
He sent a follow up tweet that read: “the 13th Amendment is slavery in disguise …meaning it never ended …We are the solution that heals.”
Leaving everything else aside here — a big ask, we know — what’s going on?
The 13th Amendment was one of three different amendments passed in the aftermath of the Civil War intended to give black Americans equal rights. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship and equal protections under the law, while the fifteenth granted voting rights. The 13th Amendment has an infamous “exception clause,” and it’s a safe bet that this is what West is referring to. The exception clause is often cited by scholars as a pro-slavery sleight of hand that permitted slavery to continue. The exception clause reads:
“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.” [emphasis ours]
Many Americans take prison labor for granted today, but it was hotly contested during the Reconstruction Era, with many politicians, most notably Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, suspecting it to be little more than loophole to keep slavery alive in America. Recently, Ava DuVernay’s exquisite Netflix documentary The 13th traced the impact of the exception clause to today’s scourge of mass incarceration.
“There’s a reason why this was written into law,” Dennis R. Childs, an associate professor at the University of California at San Diego told the Washington Post. “They needed to have a legal cover for [re-enslavement], and the best way to do that was to use [African Americans’] poverty, landlessness, joblessness — their collective dispossession — and the Jim Crow legal system as an excuse to re-enslave that population.”
This isn’t new to Kanye West. In 2013, his song “New Slaves” covered the topic pretty incisively: “They tryna make new slaves/See that’s that privately owned prisons/Get your piece today.”
But for her part at least, DuVernay isn’t interested in parsing what exactly West meant.
“I’m consciously choosing to tweet about plant-based burgers and not current statements about the 13th Amendment from a certain MAGA follower,” she tweeted. “Respectfully, please don’t @ me. I can’t do nothing for him.”