On his Saturday Night Live appearance on the 29th of September 2018, Kanye West spoke on "abolishing the 13th amendment". (This may have been stewing for a while, but that is when I first became cognizant of it.)

13th Amendment
Section 1. 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.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Clearly (I believe) he doesn't desire a literal return of race-based slavery. What indications in his other statements and material are there on his actual meaning?

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

Screen capture of original source

  • 11
    I would like to point out that this question is very close to the line of questions we allow regarding the political opinions of celebrities.
    – Philipp
    Oct 1, 2018 at 13:50
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    @PieterGeerkens In this particular case I would allow the question because it's more about the 13th amendment than about West. I just wanted to point out that this question does not set a precedent for allowing any questions about political opinions of musicians.
    – Philipp
    Oct 1, 2018 at 13:59
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    Isn't Saturday Night Live a comedy show?
    – komodosp
    Oct 2, 2018 at 11:49
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    @TylerH - My point is, if it's a comedy show, then why take anything that Kanye West says on it seriously? Wouldn't it just have been part of the comedy?
    – komodosp
    Oct 3, 2018 at 8:23
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    @colmde He also made the same statement (of abolishing the 13th amendment) outside of SNL, lending credence to the notion that it's not a satirical statement.
    – TylerH
    Oct 3, 2018 at 14:36

4 Answers 4


He seems to have meant amending it (quote below) to remove the clause permitting slavery and forced labour as punishment for a crime.

So let us ask this possibly dicey question: What, exactly, was Kanye trying to say?

There is a fair chance he was referring to what’s called the 13th Amendment’s “exception clause,” as many speculated on Twitter. It’s the part of the amendment that literally allowed slavery and involuntary servitude to continue across the country, on plantations and within the barbed-wire fences of prisons. Scholars and prisoners’ advocates argue that its impact is still felt today through prison labor.

The argument is that:

  • The criminal justice system is strongly biased against poor black people.

  • These people wind up in prisons that are run for profit.

  • Part of the profit made by these prisons comes from forced labour by black people.

  • That profit is partly spent on lobbying for increased use of prison as a penalty for crime, thereby ensuring a steady stream of profitable inmates.

  • Hence this is a continuation of the enslavement of black people under the guise of criminal justice.

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    Did West actually say this, or is the WP guessing that he meant this? (I can't read the article itself, as it's behind a paywall; If West did indeed clarify himself, do you mind including a small quote?)
    – tim
    Oct 1, 2018 at 12:48
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    @tim WP is speculating, but Kanye's clarification seems to imply that's where he was heading.
    – Machavity
    Oct 1, 2018 at 12:59
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    @tim - WP is guessing. A more logical explanation is that Kanye heard a bit about the 13th allowing slavery, didn't look deeply enough into it to properly educate himself on the subject, and thus was wandering around with the idea in his head that the 13th legalized slavery, and should be abolished. This is the danger in having political opinions about things you don't fully understand.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 5, 2018 at 11:58

West later clarified that he thinks that the 13th amendment is "slavery in disguise", so it seems fair to say that he does not want to return to race-based slavery.

Given West's other recent comments and his further explanations in the linked video, it doesn't seem that he has a very clear message yet. As he puts it, it's a "work in progress" based on his feelings, and he has to do more research and get more information. He also said that he will further clarify tomorrow.

If I had to guess, given that he also mentions prisons in the same sentence, he might be alluding to the exception of prison labor in the 13th amendment and it disproportionately affecting black people as well as its link to slavery (see e.g. here). But again, West did not (yet) go into depth; all we can say for certain is that his clarification shows that he does not seem to be a proponent of slavery.


When Kanye tweeted that, he didn't mean actually getting rid of the entire 13th amendment and returning to race-based slavery.

Most prisons are privately owned. These owners are paid by the state to force their prisoners to build roads, bridges, buildings, etc., along with other back-breaking laborious tasks. The prisoners aren't provided any form of reward for this labor. It's one of the ways prisons make money.

This is wrong. Morally and absolutely wrong. It's another form of slavery, just with the face of criminal justice painted on top. I mean this for both white and black people. About a twelth of US prisoners are held in private prisons. Owners are paid by the state or federal government for each prisoner. Some of the States save money by using prisoners as labor source. Prisoners are being paid less than 1 $/hr by these States. That is less than the wages paid to black slaves during the Jim Crowe days of America.

Kanye also mentions that prisons are weighted toward blacks over whites. African-Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites. In five states (Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin), the disparity is more than 10 to 1. Blacks are 3.6 times more likely more likely than whites to be arrested for selling drugs and 2.5 times more likely for possessing drugs, despite drug use & selling happening at about the same rate across both ethnic groups. Black men who commit the same crimes as white men receive federal prison sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer, on average, according to a report on sentencing disparities from the USSC.

Thanks to @BurnsBA for most of the source data.

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    You make a lot of claims which don't seem to be supported by references. I'm not disputing them but it would make your answer better if you could add references (or remove some of the unsupported claims).
    – JJJ
    Oct 3, 2018 at 10:00
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    Most prison in the US are owned and operated by the government. Local, state or national. Prison work crews for road and bridge building are very rare. Many states prohibit the use of prisoners working for a great many tasks, because it is unfair to honest citizens in need of work. For many jobs, it makes little sense, because the jobs require skilled and disciplined workers using expensive machines. Prisons can't reliably provide this. Road and bridge building mostly fall into these categories. While we agree there is a significant unfairness, the facts need to be stated correctly.
    – Pooneil
    Oct 3, 2018 at 18:33
  • 2nd paragraph update with sources: About a twelth of US prisoners are held in private prisons source. These owners are paid by the state or federal government for each prisoner. Some states save money by using prison labor source.
    – BurnsBA
    Oct 5, 2018 at 12:37
  • 2nd paragraph update cont: Pay to prisoners varies by state, but averages less than a dollar/hr across the US source; several states are required to not pay laborers in government-run facilities source (but see previous too).
    – BurnsBA
    Oct 5, 2018 at 12:37
  • 4th paragraph update: "African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites. In five states (Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin), the disparity is more than 10 to 1." source .
    – BurnsBA
    Oct 5, 2018 at 12:54

I think he's referred to what's happening inside US private prisons. Perhaps he means to get rid of private prisons? That's what we did in New Zealand at Mount Eden high sec in Auckland after someone died there. Private prisons don't make a whole lot of sense. They do encourage incarceration though! :)

Update Paul's answer sounds about right: amend it to prevent slavery in the joint.

  • While I'm not a fan of private prisons either, I don't think they are responsible for this particular problem. Chain gangs in the US happened starting with the enactment of the 13th Ammendment back when there were no private prisons (but admittedly lots of corruption in the public ones), and the only curb on them really appears to be that they look bad, which just drives the practice indoors.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 5, 2018 at 11:03
  • I'm unclear how this answer addresses the question. Are you suggesting that Kanye West thinks the 13th Amendment privatises prisons or thinks that abolishing the 13th amendment would force private prisons into public ownership? Oct 5, 2018 at 14:26

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