How Meek Mill’s Legal Woes Turned Him Into an Activist for Criminal Justice Reform

Meek Mill never set out to be an activist for criminal justice reform. Nursing a glass of green juice at a Beverly Hills hotel shortly after performing at Staples Center, the 32-year-old sometimes seems like he’d prefer to discuss just about anything else. His rap career, for one, which after nearly a decade of legal stops and starts, finally reached the level it had long promised with last winter’s platinum-certified “Championships.”

But activism — or as he prefers to call it, advocacy — is nonetheless something that’s been thrust upon him, and Amazon’s upcoming five-part docu-series “Free Meek” (it premieres Aug. 9) details how this quick, intense, yet often slyly irreverent rapper from North Philadelphia became the unlikely public face of America’s broken probation system.

“I don’t want to be a rapper who’s just this serious guy all the time,” he says. “I think most activists have it in their heart that this is what they love to do seven days a week. Me, I don’t love to do interviews about reform seven days a week. This wasn’t a part of my life until it became my life experience, but I’ve seen people stand up for me, so I’m gonna use what I’ve built up through my rap career to pay people back and get my message across.”

Perhaps it’s his natural reticence that makes him such an effective spokesman. Up until July 24, when a Philadelphia appeals court finally overturned his 2008 conviction on drug and gun charges and granted him a new trial, Meek had spent his entire adult life in the criminal justice system.

It all started when he was arrested for gun possession as a teenager. He admitted he had a gun from the start, but was stunned to find a 19-count indictment against him, with charges for everything from drug possession to felony endangerment, all of which he has consistently denied. Most shocking to him was an officer’s claim that he had pointed a gun at the arresting officers. (As Meek notes wryly: “I don’t know the data on it, but just speaking from my experience of being a person who’s not crazy, I know pointing a gun at a police officer for a young black kid at night time is suicide.”)

He thought he caught a lucky break when a judge offered him a plea deal (a year in prison, followed by five years of probation), but he quickly found that even out of prison, the system could be just as stifling.

For the next decade, Meek watched as his burgeoning rap career was sabotaged by the conditions of his constantly ballooning parole, which frequently kept him from touring and promoting his music and often saw him back in trouble for minor infractions. This culminated in 2017, when Meek was given a two-to four-year prison sentence for parole violations after being caught in an Instagram video popping a wheelie on a dirt bike.

“I couldn’t see my future in the music business anymore,” he says of the sentence. “If you miss out for two years, your whole career could possibly be over. You can’t really see the future; you can’t see the hope. And your dreams aren’t really the same when you’re locked in a prison.”

The almost farcical discrepancy between the harmlessness of Meek’s violations and the severity of the punishment turned him into a national cause célèbre: Protest marches were held; powerful friends like Jay-Z (whose Roc Nation manages Meek’s career and his Dream Chasers label), Robert Kraft and Philadelphia 76ers partner Michael Rubin demanded his release; and in a show of support, the Philadelphia Eagles stormed the field for the 2018 Super Bowl to Meek’s signature track, “Dreams and Nightmares.”

Despite all that assorted firepower, Meek spent five months in prison before being released on bail, including time in solitary confinement, which he calls “the worst experience of my life. I’ve been around drugs, been around murder, death, funerals, all these things, but being locked alone in a cell 24 hours, seven days, was the worst mental fight I’ve ever been through.”

While Meek was still inside, however, the seeds of “Free Meek” were germinating. Rubin encouraged producer Eli Holzman to develop a documentary on his struggles. Holzman partnered with Roc Nation and journalist Paul Solotaroff, with Amazon soon coming on board.

“Meek was still in jail at that time, and the earliest interviews with him were over the phone from prison,” says Chris Castallo, Amazon’s head of unscripted. “We had no idea if and when Meek would get out, or where the story would lead.”

Meek is well aware that he’s an unusual case — most people in prison for parole violations don’t have billionaires advocating for them on the outside — but by focusing on the particulars of his case, the series illustrates just how easily well-meaning parolees can get sucked back into the revolving door of the system. Meek says he hopes projects like “Free Meek” and Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” will open eyes and raise awareness, all while his recently established nonprofit, the Reform Alliance, is petitioning for more specific changes to the probation system.

Meanwhile, he’s making up for lost time in the studio, “taking my trauma and making it rhyme.”

Perhaps the most fascinating element of his last album, “Championships,” was how boldly it managed to encompass his own struggles and newfound role as a political advocate, without letting those struggles define him as an artist. There’s plenty on the album that addresses Meek’s causes, with tracks like “Trauma” and “What’s Free” offering vivid, nuanced accounts of both the justice system and the larger conditions that cause so many to fall into it. But there’s also a gleefully obscene Cardi B feature, a radio hit with Drake, and plenty of wild, perfectly-timed insults that recall his teenage days as a battle rapper. For Meek, there’s no reason that his visibility as an advocate should lead him to compromise or blunt his rougher edges in the studio.

“Rapping, no matter what it’s about, it’s art,” he explains. “You go an art museum and you might see butt-naked people in a painting, then you go to another room and it’s a picture of a tree. They’re both art, right? That’s what I do. I try to always deliver enough [substance] to get my message across, but to still have fun, and have no boundaries on my music. Just because I represent reform, I didn’t want to make it look like that I couldn’t talk about what I wanted to, rap about what I wanted to rap about, and be the artist that I used to be.

“Because in my life I’ve been probably making good money for myself from the age of 23 on up, but before that my life was full of trauma, full of seeing violence, full of failure. So that was basically my lifestyle. And being in the streets is almost like a religion, so that’s still installed in the back of my brain somewhere, and when I make music I still talk about it. But the idea now is to try to balance it out.”

In a bitterly ironic way, it was only after so many setbacks, heartbreaks, and missed opportunities thanks to his long nightmare in the justice system that Meek developed into such a fully dimensional artist.

“Do I think about what it cost me? Sure,” he says of his protracted legal battle. “But at the same time, it all comes together. I overcame it, and it gave me a great story, and hopefully it inspires people later on. It kind of made me into who I am now.” 

More Music

  • Biggest Scandals Feuds and Apologies of

    Biggest Scandals, Feuds and Apologies of 2019

    Variety looks back on some of the biggest scandals, feuds and apologies of 2019: College Admissions Scandal Wealthy parents including Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were charged with bribing school officials to get their unqualified kids into prestigious universities. Shane Gillis Executives at “SNL” hired, then fired, Gillis in September, before the new season started, [...]

  • MODEL RELEASED Mixer, assistant at computer

    Women Who Man the Boards: Five Engineers Powering Today's Hitmakers Sessions

    Women behind the boards at recording studios is hardly a new phenomenon. Susan Rogers famously engineered some of Prince’s most beloved albums in the 1980s; Linda Perry first made a name for herself as a producer at the turn of the millennium; there wasn’t a console Imogen Heap didn’t command; and, last year, Emily Lazar [...]

  • The Two Popes Netflix

    'Two Popes' Walk Into Abbey Road Recording Studio (No Joke)

    The soundtrack to Netflix’s “The Two Popes” is the tonally diverse product of Grammy Award-winning musician Bryce Dessner who was tasked by director Fernando Meirelles to score the film, generating large-scale cinematic energy to unseen, intimate moments between religious figures.  Scheduled for release on Friday, Dec. 20, “The Two Popes” explores the friendship between Pope [...]

  • And released by the Chicago Police

    R. Kelly Faces Charge of Bribery for Obtaining Fake ID to Wed Underage Aaliyah

    Among the many numbers that R. Kelly is finding do matter: the growing number of charges pending against him. One more significant one has been added: a charge that the singer bribed a public employee to obtain a fake ID for his then-15-year-old bride, Aaliyah, in 1994. Her marriage to Kelly, who was 27 at [...]

  • Julia MichaelsJulia Michaels in concert, O2

    Julia Michaels on Working With Selena Gomez: 'You Had a S---ty Ex-Boyfriend Too?'

    Julia Michaels could brag about being the voice behind several No.1 hits like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and, most recently, Selena Gomez’s “Lose You To Love Me.” But she won’t — the singer and hit songwriter is too humble. Michaels — who will receive the Citi Voice of Impact Award at Variety’s Hitmakers event on Saturday [...]

  • Assistant Attorney General, Antitrust Division nominee

    DOJ Sides With Irving Azoff Against Radio Stations

    The Department of Justice is taking sides in another hot-button antitrust battle, this time siding with Irving Azoff’s upstart music licensing firm against a group representing 10,000 radio stations. The DOJ Antitrust Division filed a brief on Thursday arguing that the Radio Music License Committee may have engaged in illegal price-fixing when it refused to [...]

  • Dua Lipa

    Green Day, Dan + Shay, Dua Lipa Among 'New Year's Rockin' Eve' Performers

    Green Day, Dan + Shay, Dua Lipa, Paula Abdul, Kelsea Ballerini, Blanco Brown, Ava Max, Megan Thee Stallion, Anthony Ramos, Salt-N-Pepa and SHAED will perform on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest 2020,” dick clark productions and ABC announced today. The broadcast will also feature Ciara as West Coast host, who said, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content