Outside the realm of artistic production, though, the rappers’ broader approach to criminal-justice reform is less targeted in its vision. Most notably, Meek and Jay-Z announced the organization they founded with the Philadelphia 76ers partner Michael Rubin earlier this year. (Rubin, who is white, appears throughout Free Meek, often to testify to his prior disbelief in the fact of “two Americas,” as Meek has characterized the country’s racialized system of incarceration.) The Reform Alliance grew out of Meek’s relationship with Rubin and Jay-Z. It also followed the #FreeMeek movement that swelled in support of the Philadelphia rapper after his arrest for violating his parole by allegedly popping a wheelie in New York in 2017. “If you thought my case was unfair, there are millions of others dealing with worse situations and caught up in the system without committing crimes,” Meek said at the time of the organization’s public announcement. “With this alliance, we want to change outdated laws, give people hope, and reform a system that’s stacked against us.” Reform Alliance has thus far publicized its list of celebrity endorsers more widely than any tangible policy campaigns or suggestions.
Jay-Z, too, has tied the creation of Reform Alliance to personal experiences. “I’m from Marcy Projects, I’m from Brooklyn, and this has been a part of my life,” he said when the initiative launched, referencing the fact that he sold drugs before finding success as an artist. “I grew up with this issue.” In a 2017 op-ed for Time, he struck a similar note: “As a father with a growing family, it’s the least I can do, but philanthropy is not a long fix, we have to get rid of these inhumane practices altogether,” he wrote of the bail-bond system that ensnared Browder. “We can’t fix our broken criminal justice system until we take on the exploitative bail industry.” And again in an op-ed for The New York Times later that year: “What’s happening to Meek Mill is just one example of how our criminal justice system entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day,” he wrote. “I saw this up close when I was growing up in Brooklyn during the 1970s and 1980s.”
These are powerful statements made in publications that often do not grant black writers free license to address issues that directly and disproportionately affect their communities. Like Free Meek, they function to raise awareness about the system among audiences who may not be personally familiar with the omnipresent terror that policing can inspire.
It’s disappointing, then, that Jay-Z’s other opportunities to pursue more tangible actions have been somewhat scattered. The rapper’s chosen methods to “get rid of these inhumane practices,” for example, aren’t particularly conducive to ending the system he criticizes. Early last year, he announced that his company, Roc Nation, would be investing in a so-called decarceration start-up called Promise. The app, which raised more than $3 million in its initial round of funding, helps people avoid pretrial incarceration by submitting them to digital surveillance instead. Jay-Z faced stringent criticism from longtime activists who urged him to consider that the company would expand state surveillance of those who encounter the criminal-justice system. (The founder of Appolition, an app that seeks to reduce the harm of the bail-bond system by allowing users to directly contribute to the bail funds of incarcerated people, also tweeted that Jay-Z had chosen not to invest in that organization.)
As a rapper and a businessman, Jay-Z is entitled to invest his money as he wishes. Free Meek is a strong example of what his energies can help produce. As a visible figure who continues to champion criminal-justice reform, his role is largely to listen—not just to people around him who have experience with the system (as well as wealth that helps circumvent some of its ills), but to the activists and incarcerated people without a platform as massive as Roc Nation’s.