How Meek Mill opened Sixers owner Michael Rubin’s — and so many others’— eyes to a broken criminal justice system
From counted out to counted on: The rapper’s new freedom comes with reality’s nightmare — and a chance to change lives
And why I’m rappin’ like I got somethin’ to prove…
— Meek Mill, 2017’s “1942 Flows”
But now of course, Rubin — billionaire entrepreneur and minority owner of the New Jersey Devils and Crystal Palace FC, as well as the Sixers — has entered the pop cultural lexicon because of his close friendship with the Philadelphia MC born Robert Rimeek Williams. The two met while sitting courtside at the 2015 NBA All-Star Game in New York City.
But 48 hours before the Sixers’ season officially ended with a 114-112 Game 5 Eastern Conference semifinal loss in Boston, Rubin leaned forward over a round table in the Director’s Lounge at Wells Fargo Center. It was an hour before Game 4’s tipoff and VIPs maneuvered, ordering specialty cocktails.
But Michael Rubin is thinking back to conversations he and Meek had about the polarity of their realities. “Meek used to always say to me, ‘There’s two Americas.” I’d be like, ‘Dude, there’s one America.’ He was right,” Rubin says. “I was wrong. There’s America, and then there’s black America. I didn’t agree with him, but he proved to be right.”
Meek Mill’s lawyer, Brian McMonagle, who represented Bill Cosby before removing himself from that case, knew something was off when he entered the Philadelphia courtroom of Judge Genece E. Brinkley. Everyone was nervous, especially Meek. McMonagle saw six sheriff’s deputies. The hair on the back of his neck stood up.
“That told me she’d made her mind up, independent of any argument she was about to hear,” McMonagle says from his 19th-floor office overlooking Rittenhouse Square. It’s at “the heart of Center City’s most expensive and exclusive” neighborhood, essentially an alternate universe away from the North Philly blocks that cultivated Meek. “And obviously once you heard the sentence, it was like a punch in the throat.” On Nov. 6, 2017, Meek Mill was sentenced by Judge Brinkley to two to four years in the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill on a probation violation. Dirt bike riding (popping wheelies) was involved.
An entire courtroom was in shock. Meek immediately began removing his jewelry. For McMonagle, it was the first time in his 33 years of practicing law that he, the district attorney and the probation department were all on the same page — and the judge refused to accept the will of the parties. The case sparked national headlines and inspired rallies and the hashtag #FREEMEEK. Jay Z slammed the sentence as heavy-handed and pledged to support the rapper. The case simultaneously provided yet another glimpse into a criminal justice system that had haunted Meek since he was 19 — and the community from which he comes for far longer.
During his time in the belly of the beast, Meek became larger than just a cult-y musical icon in his hometown of Philadelphia. He became a local sports Yoda. His 2012 “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro)” had long been revered in hip-hop circles for its energy, fearlessness and unabashedness. So it made sense that the Eagles adopted the record as their theme song en route to the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl victory. Likewise, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Markelle Fultz all visited Meek in prison — as the Sixers made it as close to the NBA Conference finals as they have since Allen Iverson’s apex. James Harden visited Meek as well. Julius Erving, Kevin Hart and several Eagles players showed up at rallies and lent their voices to the cause of securing Meek’s release, and to the larger cause at hand.
But neither money nor celebrity shielded Meek. In many ways, it seemed to make him more of a target. “I would’ve never discussed [the criminal justice system] with my daughter before,” says Michael Rubin, the sincerity in his voice impossible to ignore. “We got in the car and Meek told me a really scary story about how he grew up that I told my daughter last night. She couldn’t believe it. For me, it was eye-opening. Sometimes … you have moments in life that change your perspective.”
Last November changed Rubin’s view of life in America. He says he’s dedicating much of his focus and energy moving forward — and not just with Meek — to addressing what he calls “a completely broken system.”
Meek has been locked up several times before. As he said from the stage in a Tidal One-of-One conversation with Angie Martinez, “I just turned 31; I’ve been on probation since I was 19.”
Meek met prison’s revolving door in 2008 when, at 18 years old, he was incarcerated for carrying a gun while grocery shopping. Meek told Billboard in 2015 that cops “beat the s— outta me” and he served eight months in jail and placed on five years probation. He returned to prison in 2014 for five months after booking travel outside Philly without Judge Brinkley’s approval. In 2016, he was sentenced to 90 days of house arrest for traveling without permission, told to wear an ankle monitor, banned from recording music or traveling outside of Philadelphia. Others times he was cited for things like an altercation he got into after refusing to take a picture with a St. Louis airport employee. The charges varied, but there was one constant: Every probation violation he had was brought by Judge Brinkley, who is black. Her interest in him has been consistent.
But the root of the entanglement dates back to January 2007 when a member of Philly’s Narcotics Field Unit, Reggie Graham, claimed Meek sold crack to an informant. Family members say it was a case of mistaken identity and that Meek was in a courtroom attending his cousin’s trial. A day later, Meek’s cousins, who were with him at the time, said NFU officers arrested Meek outside his home. The arrest, they said, was abominable. “It was like three cops — two of them had his feet, and one of them had his arms,” Rasson Parker told Rolling Stone this year. “They basically used his head as a battering ram [to break through the door].”
Meek said he was carrying a gun, but ditched it before the incident. Graham said Meek allegedly pointed the gun at him. Officers found approximately $30,000 in cash which belonged to his cousin, William Bailey. Meek would spend several months in the county prison.
After his 2017 sentencing, because of his celebrity status, Meek was placed in a mental health ward instead of in the larger general population of the prison. Incarcerated essentially for participating in a fight he didn’t start, and for popping wheelies on city streets, Meek was living beside people who smeared their own feces on walls. Per McMonagle, early on, Meek entered a prison meeting room appearing disheveled. “I thought while I was in there,” Meek told McMonagle, “that I had gone insane and didn’t know it.”
Even with one gold and two platinum albums, Meek remains rap’s quintessential underdog. It’s a role he’s comfortable in. “I’m in the business of proving people wrong,” he says en route to his conversation with Martinez. “Anytime people went against me, doubted me or actually offended me, it gave me the energy to go harder and win. I always had that drive growing up.” Meek played basketball growing up — but you can see why sports teams would love his energy.
Meek began his rap career street battling. Berks Street in North Philly was his first stage. From there, he created a steady barrage of mixtapes, starting with 2008’s Flamers. He signed to Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group in 2011, and to Roc Nation for management a year later, but the last three years of his career in particular have been a roller coaster. There was a high-profile beef with Drake, a high-profile relationship and breakup with Nicki Minaj. And now Meek has emerged — with help from his lawyers, from Michael Rubin and from the community surrounding him — on the other side of his recent prison stint as a new ideogram for the conversation surrounding criminal justice reform.’
Part of the mantra of his critically acclaimed 2017 Wins & Losses album is that growing up in the ghetto teaches you to cherish the wins and learn from the losses. “[It’s] beautiful,” says Meek. “I come from poverty, living without barely anything to my name, to making money and being able to take care of my family and travel the world. … I always reflect back to where I came from and where I’m at now, and it’s not too bad.”
It’s not without its dramas either. Nearly three years have passed since he and Drake experienced their very public falling-out. Meek, during the summer of 2015, held the No. 1 album in the country with Dreams Worth More Than Money. He also essentially accused Drake of not writing his rhymes (which remains a touchy subject in hip-hop circles), and while Drake was dubbed victorious in the virtual squabble thanks in part to his Grammy-nominated battle record “Back To Back,” Meek’s assertion that he didn’t write his own rhymes has been a thorn in Drake’s otherwise invincible side ever since.
“That beef was pretty much a social media thing,” producer Jahlil Beats says from his South Philadelphia studio. Jahlil has worked with Meek on more than 100 songs, and he’s also a co-producer with Rick Ross and Boi-1da of 2012’s Dreams and Nightmares, the album that features “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro),” an opener to the project that became an anthem — in meetings, in the locker room, on the field — for the Eagles. It’s also been on every Philly music lover’s gym playlist and car speakers for the past six years. I’m ridin’ ’round my city with my hand strapped on my toast/ Cause these n— want me dead and I gotta make it back home/ Cause my mama need that bill money/ My son need some milk/ These n— tryna take my life, they f— around, get killed/ You f— around, you f— around, you f— around, get smoked/ Cause these Philly n— I brought with me don’t f— around, no joke, no. Profane. Intense. It’s the zeitgeist of Meek’s catalog and a serious candidate for the greatest intro in rap history.
Maybe that’s the reason Meek’s most high-profile visitor, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, showed up two weeks before his April 24 release. Kraft witnessed the power of the song firsthand at this year’s Super Bowl as the Eagles charged the field at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. And the Boston Globe headline? “Who is rapper Meek Mill and why is Robert Kraft visiting him in prison?”
Asked perhaps because Kraft is one of the most visible team owners in a league at odds with exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose protests for criminal justice reform helped lay groundwork for the activism around Meek’s recent incarceration and present-day activism. Kaepernick has defended Meek, calling him a victim of systemic oppression — a huge example of why the QB took a knee in the first place. In January, from behind bars, Meek donated $10,000 to Youth Services Inc. — an organization committed to servicing at-risk kids, teenagers and their families — as part of Kaepernick’s Million Dollar Challenge.
A source close to Kraft believes that his prison visit with Meek carried a binary opportunity. One: narrative change. Still suffering from fallout within the team because of his team’s unavoidable tie with President Donald Trump, Kraft may have wanted to demonstrate that he, and hence the Patriots, were in some way committed to the cause of criminal justice reform. Two? To perhaps help a young man he views as a friend. Although he isn’t completely familiar with all the details of Meek’s long, exasperating legal history, Kraft and Meek have social ties that go back at least a few years — as noted in a 2015 Rick Ross Instagram caption as #hoodbillionaire, as well as another this year in which Ross said the Patriots honcho was “signed to MMG.”
Michael Rubin recalls, in particular, a private jet conversation Meek and Kraft had about race, culture and how people treat each other. “Meek was really deep in his thoughts. … [Kraft] was really charged up to go see [Meek],” Rubin says.
“This whole situation is bigger than Meek Mill,” says Jahlil Beats. “We’re fighting for something … fighting for a change … [Kraft] could be [using it as public relations], but it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than whatever people will gain from it. I get it, but I don’t think we should even be focused on that type of stuff. Because at the end of the day, it’s bringing the cause to the forefront.”
Jahlil has been working with Meek since his 2009 Flamers 3 mixtape and has produced/co-produced some of his biggest records: “Make ’Em Say,” “Willy Wonka,” “I’ma Boss” with Rick Ross, “Amen” with Drake and “Burn” with Big Sean. Meek’s time in and out of prison has led to Beats pursuing real estate and entrepreneurship opportunities that includes bringing the first DTLR store to his hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania.
Loyalty to Meek, though, still drives the producer. “We got about 100 records together. I’m so invested in Meek’s stuff that when he takes a hit, we all take a hit. This dude helped change my life. If he’s not out here doing his thing, and I can’t work with him, then how can we eat?”
Meek has survived public embarrassment on multiple fronts. He checked into rehab to battle Percocet addiction. But for Meek, what timelines dub failures are the opposite. As he told Angie Martinez, “If you follow me, you know I stay with ups and downs.”
interesting song choice by Lebron here 👀 pic.twitter.com/rSIeVQbSq4
— Jordan Heck (@JordanHeckFF) July 22, 2017
Travel restrictions and ultimately prison stints prohibited Meek from marketing the brutally honest 2017 Wins & Losses project in the manner it deserved. But W&L did permeate the 12-month news cycle that is the NBA. The album’s second song, “Heavy Heart,” became the soundtrack many speculated LeBron James used to send subliminal shots toward former teammate Kyrie Irving when news broke that Irving wanted out of Cleveland.
Even Drake was shouting, “Free Meek!” from Australia a week after his former nemesis was sent to prison. Meek’s energy speaks to the fervor of so many young black men and women from similar upbringings. Some escape their harsh conditions. Some become ghosts of the streets. But the underlying pain in Meek’s music is what speaks to a generation — one seen every day in courtrooms, prison visitation cycles and living in sheer fear of law enforcement. There’s comfort experiencing shared pain together. That’s the story of Meek’s music: fervent, pained, real. It’s the story of being black in America, no matter where you’re from.
Meek’s prison-to-courtside odyssey the day he was released? An instantly classic, and unfortunate, hip-hop moment. Questionably imprisoned rapper gets out of prison, is flown by helicopter to Wells Fargo Center to be welcomed as prodigal son at the clinching game of his hometown team’s first round of the NBA playoffs. It’s one of those hood superhero tales that will expand exponentially as years pass — like Tupac flying straight to Los Angeles, in 1995, to begin recording what became his All Eyez On Me. Or Gucci Mane recording his homecoming ode “First Day Out The Feds” on, indeed, his first day out of prison in 2016. However triumphant, it’s part of the grizzliness of rap, and how society views the art and those who specialize in it, that being incarcerated underlines profiles.
But Meek has re-entered a society with new influence. “I’m different,” is what he told Angie Martinez on Wednesday. “We have hashtags and move on. Let’s not move on from this.” Meek’s philanthropic history is well-documented, even in prison. Now he is even more ready and willing to speak out about an issue that has defined his entire adult life. The magnitude of his support hit him while he was still in prison.
“I saw people standing out in the rain for me when they didn’t even know me. [That] changed my life,” he told Martinez. “They talking about ‘Free Meek’ and some of them got family members in jail? They supported me?”
Freedom is subjective, especially for Meek. “I ain’t felt free since I was 19,” he said. He’ll continue to fight until he’s completely exonerated. But now it’s more about helping those without the luxury of his celebrity. “If that was me in Starbucks, on probation,” he said with regard to the recent racial profiling controversy in his hometown, “I would have actually been found in technical violation.”
This topic can’t just live in the virtual world, though. For Meek, it can’t just be an internet conversation. It has to be rooted in real-life pain and real-life consequences. It’s that responsibility that weighs heavy on him, but one many believe could be the best revelation for him. “Meek is our sacrifice. His words are like scriptures,” says Boom 103.9’s DJ Amir. He and Meek’s relationship dates back to their teenage years. “He had to be held accountable for those actions even though if he ain’t do it [yet] as a boss your workers are still your liability. I think he understands that now. I think everything’s gonna look good for the future.”
That future is now. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf joined Meek in an intense news conference calling for criminal reform. On Tuesday, Meek delivered a ‘powerful’ speech at the Innocence Project gala in New York City. Meanwhile, Rubin promises he and Meek have “some pretty impressive plans” set to be announced in the “not too distant future.”
For Meek — and really for race relations moving forward, period — it’s about having the authentic painful conversations. The systematically inflicted pain Meek shares with so many, along with the passion it has birthed, is his story to tell. Through music, especially. The vehicle that’s driven Meek all the way from the back lots of North Philly to present-day stardom. “Some people trying to put me in a box,” he said. “I’m not going to be Martin Luther King Jr. I’m still gonna be Meek Mill. ”
Yet, he knows music can spread a message donations can’t buy. Jahlil Beats is excited to rejoin Meek in the studio. He compares their chemistry to that of DMX and Swizz Beatz in the early 2000s. “His voice is more important than anything,” says Jahlil. “With this album, it has to be about that. Even down to the requests of the production he’s been asking us to do, it’s a lot of big strings and a lot of uplifting vibes. He really has something to say.
Before getting up, he has one more thought. “I know he been through a lot of things, but this is something different. He’s doing interviews, but the music is how he’s really going to get to the people.”