Finally, Meek Mill confronts freedom as an artist and an activist
For the first time in his adult life, the rapper can look from the outside at the crippling criminal justice system
or the first time in his adult life, Robert Williams, better known as Meek Mill, is a free man, neither in prison nor on parole with the real risk of returning to prison. That situation, a daily reality for millions of Americans, has been a constant theme of Mill’s art and his activism. So it’s worth considering how freedom will change one of hip-hop’s most battle-tested talents.
We got our first indications almost immediately. “I know you probably got family members in jail, people going through the same thing as me,” Mill told a small crowd that had gathered outside the Philadelphia courthouse Aug. 27 to celebrate the rapper’s freedom after his 12-year-old case ended with a guilty plea to a misdemeanor gun charge. “I will continue to do what I do with the reform movement and help the people that helped me.”
And on Aug. 30, the NFL and Roc Nation announced that Mill, who founded a criminal justice advocacy group with Jay-Z, will headline a free concert Sept. 5 at the NFL Kickoff Experience in Chicago as part of Jay-Z’s new deal with the league.
Mill’s visibility and influence are due not only to his own work but also to the work of many others, said A.D. Carson, a professor of hip-hop at the University of Virginia.
“Now that people have gotten these conversations to our ears and in front of our eyes, Meek Mill is someone who we can hear and see,” Carson said. “And I think that’s work that has been done by years of activism from people who we don’t know and who we don’t see and who often go unheralded for doing that work at the grassroots level.”
Until recently, Mill remained a statistic. One in 55 adults in America (more than 4.5 million people) is on probation and parole, twice the number of men and women who are incarcerated. So even though Mill’s experience was common, his celebrity and eventual access to power brokers gave him the ability to challenge a system that has all too often silenced those whom society deemed voiceless to begin with. Mill, through both his music and the protest surrounding his case, was able to help expose the system’s mistreatment of its citizens.
“Folks might have attempted to disqualify Meek because of his stardom or because of his fame or disqualify how unjust this engagement that this system has with him might be,” Carson said. “But then you remove the fame and then you look at the everyday experiences of a lot of people who have similar situations but no platform and therefore no access to people who might advocate on their behalf.”
“Meek’s a very influential [and] iconic figure in Philadelphia. [He] stands as a beacon of hope,” said Paris Nicole, the program director at Boom 103.9. “Many who look up to Meek as a role model and success story for making it out the ‘jungle’ felt a sense of disparity because how is this public figure doing so much for the community, making so many strides in the music industry, but still being held back. This is a time for celebration. This is a victory for not only Meek but for everyone in Philly and beyond that has supported him and fought this fight.”
Now the conversation turns to social responsibility and social obligation. Is Mill obligated to remain a face of the movement that helped gain his freedom? Is it fair to place the onus on him to try to undo an injustice that he didn’t create?
“It’s totally understandable why a person would not want to be the voice or the face of a particular [issue] because you become trapped in the position of being a spokesperson,” Carson said. “That means you may have to perform your citizenry as a more upright, a more moral, a more upstanding citizen than other people who are performing citizenship because you have this opportunity that other people didn’t get. So maybe you want to opt out of having to continually remind people where you came from in order to get to this space to enjoy freedom the way that other people enjoy freedom.”
Mill clearly felt that tension. “I’m scared to be political,” he told Billboard in 2015. “You get too powerful and more people try to take you out. My son ain’t trying to hear that his dad got put away because he was fighting for the country.”
But if not Mill, then who? Few celebrity activists can speak from direct experience like Mill. In July, two days after an appeals court threw out Mill’s original conviction, YBN Cordae released his debut album The Lost Boy. It featured the track “We Gon Make It,” in which Mill opined on his freedom and what his visibility means to those attempting to hold their heads above water.
“In my city, to them kids, I’m like Jordan/ Every move I make like chess, it’s important/ I just went against the system, spending nights tryna reform it,” Mill waxed. “Lay at night thinkin’ I could lose my life just from doin’ this/ It’s a sacrifice, I know it wouldn’t be right if I forfeit/ But I do it for the young kings that never had no voices, for real.”
This new work marks a transition from front-line reporter to survivor. But the theme, how the criminal justice system has treated ghettos across America as its farm system, remains the same.
“They told us to hate each other before we learn how to walk,“ Mill observed on 2018’s “Stay Woke.” “It’s amazing, this environment we was raised in/ On them papers, one mistake and I’m gettin’ caged in/ You gotta feel me, feel like the system tryna kill me.”
While the giddiness is understandable, it seems unlikely that his new freedom could completely erase the years of trauma he experienced.
Mill’s case began in 2007, when at age 19 he was arrested on gun and drug charges. A year later, he was sentenced to prison and released on parole after eight months. Over the next few years, he violated the terms of his parole several times, usually for traveling outside of Pennsylvania without court approval. After an out-of-town trip in 2014, his parole was revoked and he was jailed for five months. Mill continued to have minor brushes with the law, including an arrest for fighting and riding a dirt bike in Manhattan (charges were dropped in both cases). The length of his probation was repeatedly extended, and in late 2017 he was sent back to prison.
Genece Brinkley, the Philadelphia judge who had been overseeing Mill’s case since 2008, repeatedly clashed with Mill in court. Ordering two drug tests in 2012 after suspected marijuana use that both came back clean but still blocking him from touring. Denying him a new probation officer and mandating etiquette classes in 2013.
Mill responded on 2018’s “Trauma,” a venomous soliloquy aimed largely at the judge:
“… my judge black don’t wanna see me do well/ It’s either that or black people for sale/ Gave me two to four years like, ‘F— your life, meet me in hell’ … Tryna impress them people in power when power abusin’ us/ For $44 a hour, you coward they using ya/ Is it self-hate that made you send me upstate?”
On “Oodles N’ Noodles Babies,” Mill provided more insight into their volatile history. “When I went to court, the judge said, ‘Meek, you a menace to society’/ You said you would give me a chance, your honor/ Why would you lie to me? His next bar was indicative of the black hole of despair that convicted felons battle. “Sixteen more years of probation, you know you gon’ get some more time on me.”
The case finally ended this week with Mill pleading guilty to a misdemeanor firearm charge. Prosecutors dismissed all the other counts, and he faces no more prison time or time on parole.
After the appeals court ruling in July, which signaled a possible end to the marathon case, Mill was joined by members of his legal and management teams, Philadelphia 76ers partner Michael Rubin, his engineer Anthony Cruz and a slew of confidants in a conference room at Roc Nation’s New York headquarters. Mill floated around the room in a state of euphoria. The sole witness in his 2007 case, police officer Reginald Graham, was deemed untrustworthy by Philadelphia’s district attorney. The opening Mill had been seeking for years was now available.
Fifteen months earlier, the man born Robert Williams walked out of a Pennsylvania jail and hopped on a helicopter in time to watch his hometown Sixers clinch a first-round playoff victory over Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. Through his own momentum and the conversation of criminal justice reform at the highest it’s been in recent memory, Mill became its pop culture face.
His professional life, too, was trending upward: He released a No. 1. album in 2018’s Championships; launched his criminal justice initiative the REFORM Alliance with Jay-Z and several business leaders, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft; squashed a much-publicized feud with Drake (the two almost immediately released a top-10 Billboard hit with “Going Bad”); and performed at this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. Earlier in August, Amazon’s docuseries Free Meek arrived to critical acclaim.
A bottle of Ace of Spades was uncorked. Mill toasted the team he had assembled. They in turn toasted Mill’s persistence, his ability to weather a storm that had become an unnatural disaster.
“Meek was just over the moon. Between the news of launching his own label [Dream Chasers Records] and sitting next to his idol and mentor Jay-Z [a day earlier], that alone was a huge moment in his career,” said Mill’s publicist, Didier Morais, who was in attendance. “For that to be supplemented by this life-changing event, [Mill kept] saying this was one of the most memorable days of his life.”
Coincidentally or not, the number 24 seems to be significant in the days of Mill’s life. On Jan. 24, 2007, Graham, a member of Philadelphia’s Narcotics Field Unit, used Mill’s head as a battering ram to open a door after handcuffing him for allegedly pointing a gun at him. (Mill says he ditched the gun beforehand.) Mill said the violent assault left him bloody, bruised and suffering from a concussion. His mugshot that day would later be used as the cover for his 2016 mixtape Dreamchasers 4.
“We were actually all joking that ‘24’ is his new lucky number,” said Morais. “He was released from prison on April 24, 2018 … and then … he gets a new trial with a new judge — that comes out on July 24, 2019.”
While Mill celebrated, he also recognized how his new status would change how he practiced fatherhood. The only father he knew how to be was the one his probation would allow for. For instance, life “on papers” wouldn’t always allow him to pick his son up from school — a mere 10 minutes away in New Jersey.
“This is life-changing for me,” Morais recalled Mill saying over and over, “but this is gonna be even better [because I get to] be there for my son.”
Of course, the system and the rage it engenders against the machine long predates Mill. And he isn’t the first rapper to make criminal justice reform a significant portion of his life’s mission. Ice Cube famously confronted the system with 1988’s “F— The Police.” Tupac Shakur had a toxic relationship with law enforcement until his dying breath.
Mill benefits from the work of activists, both famous and unsung. The impact of works from Ava DuVernay, such as 13th and When They See Us, shows there is a receptive audience for the message.
“Hopefully we’re at a point where a story like Meek Mill’s is one that resonates,” said Carson, “because folks have created conditions for it to be something that we understand to be connected to other sorts of more popular culture or larger criminal justice work that’s been put on by other activist groups around the country.”
“I think [Meek’s legacy is] incredibly important because maybe folks feel like … a certain kind of activism doesn’t speak to them because they aren’t experienced in whatever is going on. But if you’re a person who listens to Meek Mill’s music and you thought that criminal justice reform had nothing to do with you at all … that changes because you’re a fan of his music,” said Carson.
“His popularity creates the circumstances for him to be able to spread the message farther than many people who are doing similar work in communities where they’re speaking directly to the people who are in that community. His work in conjunction with those people who are working in communities can be incredibly powerful — in the community, in the public sphere and in popular conversations.”
Four thousand, five hundred and ninety-six days. That’s how long Robert Williams spent entangled with a system that both crippled him and pushed him to find a purpose deeper than his own freedom. The rest of Mill’s life has begun, and deservedly so. But it leaves a daily reminder of what for so many is still far more nightmare than dream.