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Jay-Z, Meek Mill Friends to 21,000 Concert Fans: Vote for Judges, Prosecutors, and Councilmen Who Want CJ Reform

“We have the power to replace these people.”

Gustavo Caballero / Getty Images

Rap star and cultural icon Jay-Z paused for a moment during his concert on the evening of December 1 to deliver a plea for criminal justice reform. As spotlight-soaked mist rose around him, he leaned into his microphone to talk about police brutality, racial oppression, and, of course, his friend and fellow rap artist, Meek Mill — a Philadelphia native who was recently sentenced to up to four years in prison for a probation violation. “When you see a young man get on probation, get f — — — in the ass since he was 19 years old, that man is being stomped by the system,” he said. “It’s a human issue, a human issue. Not a black and white issue, a human issue.” The crowd was mostly quiet, a rare moment during the lively show, though a small choir of concertgoers called out: “Free Meek!”

Meek Mill’s recent sentence has ignited protests locally with reverberations felt across the country. Here, images of the rapper adorn the side of public busses, billboards, and posters hung on street corners with messages to free or stand with him. Jay-Z’s monologue to the 21,000 fans at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center last Friday night continues his recent use of the bully pulpit to bring public attention to the case and to the larger issue of probation — an arm of the criminal justice system often overlooked in discussions about mass incarceration. Two weeks ago, he penned an Op-Ed for the New York Times. He wrote:

“On the surface, this may look like the story of yet another criminal rapper who didn’t smarten up and is back where he started. But consider this: Meek was around 19 when he was convicted on charges relating to drug and gun possession, and he served an eight-month sentence. Now he’s 30, so he has been on probation for basically his entire adult life. For about a decade, he’s been stalked by a system that considers the slightest infraction a justification for locking him back inside.”

About 4.7 million American adults — or one in 52 — are either on probation or parole. This is about twice as many as are incarcerated. The number of people on parole, as Mill was, tripled between 1980 and 2007 to about 826,000. In Philadelphia, about half of those held in the city’s woefully overcrowded jails are locked up because of probation violations.

During his short speech to the packed theater, Jay-Z also expressed support for the NFL players who refuse to sing the national anthem in protest of racial oppression. “Don’t let the press confuse you. This is not about a flag or something inanimate. That shit is about injustice, that shit is about people dying,” he said. He then called his African American fans to action. “Black people in particular, we got to get our shit together, we got to start working together. We come to the table because we ain’t no second-class citizens to anybody. We are the most beautiful, most intelligent people in the world.”

About 200 local criminal justice reform organizers, formerly incarcerated individuals, and loved ones of Meek Mill, were in the audience. They were brought together by the justice reform organizations #cut50 and Color of Change, as well as by Jay Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation and his label, Roc Nation.

Sixx King grew up with Meek Mill’s father, and has known the rap star since he was born. The film producer says he’s hopeful that the attention his friend’s case has garnered, bolstered by Jay-Z’s platform, will make a lasting impact. “The local and national politicians have relied on the ignorance of young people not knowing their political power. I think with Meek being incarcerated has awakened the masses, the youth,” he said. He believes that Meek’s case has served as a civics lesson to his fans. “The majority of people out there didn’t realize that judges were elected — they thought it was an appointment.” But the attention on Judge Genece Brinkley, who Mill’s supporters and his defense attorney believe set the harsh sentence out of a personal vendetta, changed that perception, in King’s view. “I think this puts politicians on notice that they can no longer use their elected office as a throne for tyranny,” he said. “Felons can vote. Young people can vote. We can vote people in and out of office who make this decision that impact our lives: Judges, prosecutors, congressmen, councilmen, governors, lieutenant governors. We have the power to replace these people.”

Philadelphia proved to be fertile ground for this type of mobilization when, one day after Mill was sentenced, voters elected a District Attorney who ran on a campaign to reduce incarceration. (The election was not swayed by Mill’s case — months of grassroots activism propelled the candidate.)

Over a decade ago, King himself spent a few months in jail — including two weeks triple-celled with Mill’s cousin, during which they were only allowed to leave for one hour a day — followed by seven years on probation for gun and drug charges. “It changes you. One night in prison changes you, for the worse,” he said.

Another longtime friend of Mill in attendance, Dawud Bey, told me that he’s glad that Jay-Z is grandstanding, but wishes the mogul would also focus on tangible ways to mend the plight of neighborhoods like the one where he and Mill grew up in North Philadelphia. There, job opportunities are limited and many have a criminal record. “I’d like him to infuse economic development in impoverished communities; to create jobs for guys who don’t have a chance, who can’t even get a bank loan to try and start their own business because of their record,” he said.

Bey’s sentiment highlights an inescapable inequity of the Free Meek Millmovement: millions of Americans face similar limitations imposed by the criminal justice system, but lack Mill’s fame. Further, some critics argue that Mill has been cavalier with the court over the years, believing himself to be above the law because of his celebrity status. The recent charge was his fifth probation violation; the others were mostly for traveling out of state without court approval and missing appointments with his parole officer.

But, King argues, the moment is bigger than Mill’s case. “There is always the question, ‘Why Meek?’ I say, ‘Why not?’ History has taught us we can’t judge or predict what the catalyst of change looks like,” he said. “Whatever we use as a catalyst of change to awaken masses of people, young people, to their political power is amazing. We’re going to rock the nation not only with music — we’re going to rock the nation with political activism; we’re going to rock the nation with appointing people who are not self-serving.”