Seasoned watchers of Meek Mill’s career were unlikely to discover much new in his Dateline NBC interview last Sunday night with Lester Holt. Most of the particulars of his case have been publicly available. In his teens, the Philadelphia rapper had been accused by Reggie Graham, a city policeman, of aiming a gun at him during a narcotics squad raid and convicted on multiple charges. Meek would evade a lengthy jail sentence only through the intervention of his sentencing judge, Genece Brinkley. Judge Brinkley sentenced the artist to a shorter stay in city jail, but imposed a prolonged probation period upon him, the onerous conditions of which— even the slightest infractions would result in harsh punishments and further extension of the probation — ensured that the artist would never escape it. Meek was out of prison, but, trapped indefinitely in the clutches of the law, he could hardly call himself free. The provisional nature of his liberty was never clearer than last year, when the judge, upon discovering that Meek had been arrested (but not charged) for popping a wheelie on a dirt bike in the Bronx, sentenced the artist to two to four years in Pennsylvania state prison.
The story of the early release that allowed Meek to sit down face-to-face with Holt was no less remarkable. Graham, whose sole testimony had resulted in the rapper’s original conviction had been revealed, in the intervening years, to be corrupt and untrustworthy in the extreme, and Philadelphia had recently elected as district attorney Larry Krasner, a civil-rights lawyer determined to reform the city’s justice system; combined with legal support from Michael Rubin, a tech billionaire, part-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, and personal friend of the artist (they had met sitting courtside), Meek had been permitted to leave prison. Much of the Dateline episode is devoted to giddy footage of Rubin greeting the newly freed artist with a helicopter ride so that he can arrive in time to attend a Sixers playoff game on the same night.
The artist may find himself imprisoned once more. His case is still pending, and Judge Brinkley, a figure whose near-unfathomable, borderline Dickensian villainy is astonishing, has refused to relinquish her hold on him. Even if he does stay out, the memories of prison will stay with him. But it’s no less clear that a broad coalition devoted to freeing Meek Mill now exists, extending from Meek’s original street audiences to rap moguls like Jay-Z and Rick Ross to players and fans of Philadelphia pro sports (the Eagles ran out onto the Super Bowl field to Meek’s “Dreams and Nightmares”) and beyond — even Patriots owner Robert Kraft has met with Meek and signaled support. The artist’s freedom has become a popular cause that reaches across class and racial divisions. The Dateline interview seems likely to sway whoever can be swayed within the show’s vast audience; with so much attention focused upon Meek and so much evidence pointing to the weakness of the case against him, the likelihood of dismissal seems high.
It’s not the first time that Meek has tried to reach out to a mainstream audience, but it’s definitely his most successful effort. In June 2015, you could find him in the pages of Time explaining the importance of being an active father to his son for the magazine’s Father’s Day package. Published ten days prior to the release of his sophomore album Dreams Worth More Than Money, whatever impact the piece might have made was soon lost: though Meek would succeed in attracting more public attention than ever before, the attention proved to be almost wholly negative. Not long after Dreams Worth More Than Money’s release, he publicly accused Drake of using ghostwriters, igniting a feud with the Toronto superstar. A few diss tracks and a metric ton of memes later, he was judged the loser. A closer review of the beef in its entirety shows both sides to have lost significantly, but there was no doubt that in the short term, where media cycles are made and broken, Drake was able to maintain a triumphant posture. Meanwhile, Meek was deemed not only a loser in the affair, but a loser in general. His name entered public currency as a synonym for congenital defeat, and no facts — Dreams Worth More going platinum — seemed capable of dislodging the narrative once it was established.
It may at first seem excessive to connect Meek rapidly being judged the loser in a rap beef to Meek’s rapid conviction by the state of Pennsylvania, but taking under consideration the fact that Drake’s fans were openly calling for Judge Brinkley to lock Meek up during their dispute and the fact that the judge repeatedly hindered Meek’s career at crucial junctures, the ties grow more convincing. Neither the justice system nor mass culture is known for being forgiving toward men who look and talk as the artist does when they appear to trip up even slightly. That Meek’s slow exoneration in the courts of law and public opinion can now be pushed, often, by the same sort of people who rooted against him is at once heartening and irritating to behold for those who have always backed him. Is enduring justice possible if the jury (broadly speaking) only faces facts when they’re trendy?
For his part, Meek seems aware in his interviews of how atypical his situation is. He was far from the only poor young man of color pressured by a pitiless judicial machine, but he’s one of the few still trapped within it who also possesses the financial, social, and cultural resources to afford him the hope of getting out for good. To his credit, the artist is using his situation to highlight the situations of those falsely convicted who have less of a presence: giving a speech to a gala for the Innocence Project two nights ago, he spoke of how “I told myself, I told God, the moment that I got out of my situation and got back, feet on the ground, I would participate in being a voice for the voiceless.”
Justice reform won’t be easy. There’s a strong case to be made that abuses of the sort Meek has endured are features instead of bugs, that the police, courts, and prisons treat poor minorities as they do because these institutions carry out the will of the wealthy and more numerous. How does one secure a genuine commitment to abolishing an unjust system from the primary beneficiaries of its injustice? The only certainty is that Meek does have a voice of his own to contribute to the cause; however hesitant he may sound filtering his thoughts through the dialect of the majority, the fluency and power of his native speech is undeniable. Throughout his rap career, it’s been easy to caricature him as a loudmouthed battle rapper, but as his prominence grows, it’s becoming more obvious to all just how much he had to shout over, and how much he’s had to fight against.