On Friday, Amazon released a five-part docuseries about the legal battle called “Free Meek,” which gets its name from a movement that picked up steam on social media nearly two years ago, when Mill was incarcerated over a parole violation. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) The series, produced by prominent #FreeMeekMill supporter Jay-Z, tracks Mill’s transformation from a battle rapper in North Philadelphia to a chart-topping artist who is now a celebrity face of prison reform.
Here are several takeaways from the powerful series.
“So many people have Meek Mills in their family”
“Free Meek” establishes from the start that the situation Mill, born Robert Rihmeek Williams, found himself in — getting stuck in the criminal justice system from a young age — is one that other families across the nation are likely to find familiar, especially families of color.
“I never really looked at it like a nightmare,” Mill says in a taped interview. “I looked at it as real life for a black kid in America.”
That doesn’t take away from the emotional impact of hearing about Mill’s experience, of course. Paul Solotaroff, an investigative reporter with Rolling Stone who also produced the series, says while discussing what unfolded after Mill’s arrest that he had “never seen a case built on less.”
“This is a story in which there’s injustice in every crack and crevice,” Solotaroff says.
At 19 years old, Mill faced just as many charges
In the interview, Mill tells his story: In January 2007, he left his cousin’s house to go to a nearby corner store, carrying a gun to protect himself. He says he was immediately approached by police officers, upon which he set the gun down on the sidewalk and raised his empty hands.
Mill wound up with 19 charges against him, several concerning his carrying a loaded firearm in public without a license to do so. But the lengthy list of counts also included aggravated assault and drug possession, both of which he denied in court.
The arresting officer — Reginald Graham, who was later put on the Philadelphia district attorney’s office’s “do not call” list to warn prosecutors of past misconduct allegations — claimed to have seen Mill selling crack cocaine the previous day and said Mill had pulled his gun on officers when approached. Graham was the sole witness to testify against Mill during the trial. Later in the series, an officer who previously served in the narcotics unit with Graham says it wasn’t unheard of for officers to make up stories to justify their own actions, such as using excessive force.
Mill has rapped about hardship since his youth
Mill was 5 years old when his father was killed, after which Mill’s mother moved with her two children from South to North Philadelphia. The children grew up surrounded by their extended family, several of whom appear in “Free Meek.”
Mill was a quiet kid, and his aunt Beverly Parker at one point recalls her niece coming in from outside the house to report that “Rihmeek down there spittin.’”
“I said, ‘I know he ain’t down there spittin’ on nobody!’ That’s the first thing I’m thinking, you know,” Parker says. “So I go down there, and he’s battling back and forth with somebody.”
The series features footage from a number of Mill’s teenage rap battles, several of which address what it’s like to grow up in a rough neighborhood: “As a kid, it’s almost hard to survive without expressing yourself,” an adult Mill reflects, adding: “It’s cold at night, and I ain’t talking about the weather.”
Mill’s family tried to steer him away from trouble by encouraging him to channel his emotion into mix tapes, turning him into something of a local celebrity. An uncle who worked as a school bus driver at the time recalls how excited he used to get when he heard kids on board listening to his nephew’s music.
Amid his legal troubles, Mill built quite a career for himself. His debut album, “Dreams and Nightmares,” was released on Rick Ross’s label in 2012 and featured collaborations with other big names, such as Drake, John Legend and Mary J. Blige. Mill released his second and third albums in 2015 and 2017. His fourth, “Championships,” came out last year and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
The judge allegedly asked Mill to mention her on a song
“Free Meek” argues the incompetence of Judge Genece Brinkley, who has overseen Mill’s case since his initial sentencing in 2009. One of her most egregious oversteps, according to the series, was when she allegedly called Mill and his then-girlfriend, rapper Nicki Minaj, to her chambers to suggest that he remake Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” and give Brinkley a shout-out.
The alleged incident preceded Mill’s most recent stint in prison, the latest to result from a technical parole violation — in this case, popping a wheelie on his dirt bike. Brinkley sentenced Mill to two to four years in prison. (He served five months, let out amid the #FreeMeekMill movement.)
At the time, Jay-Z described the sentence as “unjust and heavy handed,” given that it was “against the recommendation of the Assistant District Attorney and Probation Officer.”
Previous parole violations included Mill’s failure to notify his probation officer of a weather-related change in travel plans — he tried to fly out of Philadelphia instead of New York City in October 2012 due to Hurricane Sandy — and his decision to move a music video shoot from one location in Philadelphia to another. Many of Brinkley’s punishments prevented Mill from working. His management estimated in 2018 that he had lost $30 million as a result, per Solotaroff’s Rolling Stone feature on #FreeMeekMill.
Brinkley, who frequently complained of Mill “thumbing his nose” at her, is depicted negatively throughout “Free Meek.” The series argues that she took an unusual personal interest in the case and addresses how, according to court transcripts, she essentially told Mill that he owed much of his success to her. A. Charles Peruto Jr., Brinkley’s lawyer, defends the soundness of his client’s actions in a taped interview, but seems to walk back his own statements while off-camera.
“Let me tell you something, that was hard to do,” he mutters after the interview, still speaking into the microphone. He proceeds to comment on how difficult it has become to defend Brinkley and says she looks “awful” for denying Mill’s appeal for a new trial. (Peruto unsuccessfully sued the producers over their release of this audio.)
Mill’s freedom is still up in the air
Toward the end, “Free Meek” features the January launch of the Reform Alliance, an organization headed by political commentator Van Jones and backed by Mill, Jay-Z, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin, Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai and others. The initiative, which aims to overhaul the probation and parole system, has pledged $50 million to work toward the goal of freeing at least a million people unjustly trapped in the criminal justice system.
Mill, who is out of prison on bail, will find out later this month whether he’ll have to go through another trial for the decade-old case.