Midway through Episode 3 of Amazon’s new documentary Free Meek, the rapper and entertainment-industry mogul Jay-Z appears on-screen to offer a de facto thesis statement for the five-installment series. He ties the experience of the Philadelphia musician to those of the 4.5 million people whose stories of protracted injustice are less readily heard by wide audiences. “I really believe a lot of people don’t really understand what’s going on, or don’t believe it until they really see it,” Jay-Z, who is also one of the show’s executive producers, says. “Meek is not the only one. You tell people these stories—you can’t believe it, until you hear it from a source and [then] it’s like, this is not fantasy. This is fact. These are just things that are so far that I have to say something.”
Free Meek, which premieres today, follows the ongoing criminal-justice saga of Meek Mill, the rapper born Robert Rihmeek Williams. As its title suggests, the series doesn’t purport to take an ostensibly impartial view of Meek’s original case. It’s more interested in tying the story of the artist’s 12-year legal limbo to that experienced by black people around the country, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, to which Meek is signed, co-produced the series with The Intellectual Property Corporation, and the show’s existence sheds light on the sometimes complicated high-profile efforts to address criminal-justice reform.
The documentary begins by establishing vignettes of Meek’s early life in Philadelphia, where his mother raised him after his “drug-dealer robber” father, as Meek calls him, was killed when Meek was 5—and where he got his start as a young battle rapper. These are some of the show’s most wrenching scenes. Meek speaks matter-of-factly about his life; of his chosen name, for example, he says, “Robert sound like a white guy’s name; Rihmeek sounded more ghetto to me.” But even the lighter moments of this introduction, such as when his aunt recalls the first time she encountered the 11-year-old Meek rapping, carry an ominous tone. The music is sinister, the lighting sometimes quite dark.
Soon afterward, viewers learn of the incident that first caused Meek’s entanglement with the criminal-justice system: In January 2007, Meek was arrested at his home, where he says officers beat him so severely that he lost consciousness. He subsequently faced 19 drug, gun, and assault charges, including the allegation that he had pointed a gun at a police officer. (He admits to having possessed a gun in an attempt to protect himself and his family, but Meek is most indignant about the allegation of pointing it at an officer, noting that doing so as a young black man is tantamount to a death wish.) Meek was convicted on seven of those counts despite flimsy evidence and sentenced to a minimum of two years in prison—and the Philadelphia judge Genece Brinkley has kept him on probation for 10 years. It’s the latter situation that has most deeply ensnared Meek. Early on, Free Meek establishes Brinkley as an unrepentant villain, perhaps fairly so, and the series repeatedly emphasizes the impact of her punitive rulings on Meek’s career and well-being.
The image of a 19-year-old Meek, bruised and battered in his mug shot, is central to the show’s marketing, but the series recreates the initial incidents of violence with surprising visual restraint; it’s not gory or indulgent in its portrayal. Far more run time is devoted to explications of Meek’s cyclical parole and probation sentences, as well as expert analysis. In addition to periodic interviews with Jay-Z, Free Meek also features extensive commentary from the Rolling Stone reporter Paul Solotaroff, who chronicled Meek’s saga in a story published last year; the Black Lives Matter activist Tamika Mallory; the political commentator Van Jones; and several members of Meek’s family. Meek is the most reluctant speaker in the series, noting that he only turned to advocacy because of the audience his rap career affords him. “It gave me a story to tell,” he says somberly of the legal ordeal.
Like the Ava DuVernay series When They See Us, the Amazon documentary is a narrative work that seeks to correct an institutional wrongdoing. It’s a familiar arena for Jay-Z, who executive-produced Time: The Kalief Browder Story, a 2017 documentary about a young man who died by suicide after being held for three years in New York City’s Rikers Island (often in solitary confinement) for allegedly stealing a backpack. Free Meek also includes new information about the now disgraced police officer who was instrumental in Meek’s 2007 arrest. (These new details are revealed by investigators from Quest Research & Investigations, the private firm that was instrumental in HBO’s The Case Against Adnan Syed.) The documentary is a natural platform for the two mega-famous rappers, who are charismatic and convincing, even when subdued. They get their message across: No one should have their life derailed like this.
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.