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When Kanye Weighs in on the Constitution

Kanye challenges how we talk about the Constitution...for all the wrong reasons.

Saturday Night Live

After stirring the pot with more political rants on social media, Kanye West has prompted us to reconsider our understanding of the Constitution -- but not how he intended to.

When Vanity Fair published "An Incomplete History of Kanye West's Political Views" back in April, West had only begun to don his Trump-signed "Make America Great Again" cap. The evolution of West's pro-Trump politics reached their logical conclusion over the weekend with the artist's controversial tirade post-Saturday Night Live appearance and then a follow-up tweet condemning...the 13th Amendment.

The closing credits of Saturday Night Live's 44th season premiere shut down an extended cut of the musical guest's political rants after West made the unusual move of re-taking the mic after the show. Pacing the stage in his MAGA hat before the visibly upset cast members, he touted pro-Trump sentiments to the bemused live studio audience. "It's so many times that I talk to a white person about this, and they say, 'How could you support Trump? He's racist.' Well if I was concerned about racism, I would have moved out of America a long time ago," he declared.

The rant was filmed and shared on social media by SNL alumnus, Chris Rock, who happened to be present in the audience. West's tirade filled the studio, only punctuated with a few daring claps over a murmur of boos.

While the impromptu speech was not aired on live television, it would have at least provided a public context for the series of tweets published on his Twitter account the following day. A photo of West wearing his MAGA hat on a plane accompanied text lauding the hat as a symbol of "good and America becoming whole again." He continued to condemn outsourcing and praise American-made goods, then jumping to the issue of prison reform, stating, "We will provide jobs for all who are free from prisons as we abolish the 13th amendment. Message sent with love."

Of course, the 13th Amendment is responsible for legally abolishing slavery. Outraged public responses by celebrities and fans alike prompted West to post follow-up Tweets attempting to clarify that "the 13th Amendment is slavery in disguise" and that he meant we should "not abolish" but amend it.

When questioned by TMZ Monday morning, West was asked to explain his Tweet. "What I was saying was that the 13th Amendment is really just slavery in disguise. And it's something we need to look into and we need to open up the conversation." He repeated that his motivation in speaking out so publicly is to "open up the conversation."

Setting aside the vitriolic exchange of political views that West's latest rant fuels on social media, the context of a public figure spouting determined criticism of the Constitution does indeed "open up the conversation" about how informed we are as a culture about the Constitution and how mutable it may be.

This is not to imply that there's a shred of perspicacity to Kanye West's tirades, but the 13th Amendment's full wording does come with some tricky elasticity. The 1865 phrasing clearly makes room for exceptions: "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."

In short, "slavery" is still legally condoned when it comes to convicts and citizens outside the "jurisdiction" of the United States; hence, we have legalized prison labor and job outsourcing held outside the standards of U.S. labor laws. As The Washington Post explores, this loose wording of the 13th Amendment allowed for "the birth of mass incarceration and the 'prison industrial complex.'"

While Kanye West's diatribes contribute no critical thought or research to the conversations he's ostensibly opening up, he does highlight a nexus of pop culture and politics that challenges us to have an opinion on issues like the Constitution in order to stay relevant. On an average day, we may not invest much feeling into the fact that the last time the Constitution was amended was in 1992, or that ratifying a new amendment was designed by the founders to be nearly impossible, or that "amendment proposals today are symbolic; no one takes them seriously," according to Slate's Eric Posner. But occasionally, in order to contribute to the cultural conversation, we have to check ourselves, our opinions, and our knowledge of history in order to speak up -- if we don't, we end up sounding like Kanye West.

In opposition, Chris Evans, in a move befitting Captain America, castigated West for his remarks, tweeting a thoughtful objection to "the level of unapologetic conjecture" that describes many of the rapper's charged harangues.

When TMZ caught up with Kanye West on Monday morning, he was also asked if he was aware that the 13th Amendment was Lincoln's legal abolition of slavery. West's convoluted reply ends with, "I can't confirm if Lincoln was black or white," clearly insinuating that Abraham Lincoln was black, prompting TMZ to note, "FYI, there's no credible evidence to support this theory." The rapper hastily cuts off the interviewer's befuddled follow-up question, and he exits.


Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.



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