Born Robert Rihmeek Williams, he was 19 when he first “caught his case,” when he was arrested in his hometown of Philadelphia in 2007. He uses the word caught because, despite serving his time, and for some crimes he has always denied committing, those charges have plagued him for the past decade. Even while recording his much-anticipated new album, which he will release on November 30, he felt the stress of being on probation: “It’s a dark shadow over the top of your head on a daily basis.”
Meek Mill’s case attracted mainstream attention when he was sent back to jail in November 2017 by Judge Genece E. Brinkley,who has presided his fate since 2008. Meek Mill was a huge successful rapper at the time. His first album Dreams and Nightmares had debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 in 2012, after he signed with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation management, He had his Dream Chaser imprint, and also dated Nicki Minaj and got into a feud with Drake.
So it was big news when Brinkley sentenced Meek Mill to a shocking two to four years for parole violations, both of which stemmed from incidents in which charges were eventually dropped or dismissed—in one, the rapper had popped a wheelie on a motorcycle while filming a music video in New York City. “I didn’t even think I was going to court when I stepped in court,” he says about that day. “And next thing you know, my mind frame has to switch from sleeping in my bed to being locked in a concrete metal cell for 23 hours a day for weeks.” Fans and other famous supporters started the #FreeMeekMill campaign.
Growing up in North Philadelphia, Meek Mill and his sister were raised by his mother after his father was killed when Meek was 5. He participated in rap battles as a teenager, and recalls listening to artists talk about transcending poverty in their music: “That always made me ambitious, that I’d be like the savior of my family.” Despite achieving that dream, he hasn’t forgotten growing up near Temple University, where the college was buying properties for students. He was exposed to racial bias and inconsistencies in the system at a young age. “Our neighborhood has been gentrified by Temple,” he says. He remembers going to college house parties where he saw drugs and fighting, but never police. One time when they did enter a house, Meek Mill says he saw a white student scream at them and remain unharmed—“I thought to myself, If I said that, he would have beat the shit out of me.”
Meek Mill knows that injustice is still the plight of millions of Americans who don’t have his wealth and notoriety. When asked about whether he is worried about becoming political, he says his motivation is, in fact, personal. He brought up Kanye West’s recent support of President Trump: “I don’t represent what Kanye is talking about,” he says. “I represent people on the inside, because I am one of the people on the inside.” Of some of West’s controversial tweets, he says, “I see Kanye said something about the 13th Amendment, but, you know, they say if you go to prison, you’re allowed to be basically treated as a slave. I was actually shackled from ankle to wrist.”
A year after his last sentencing, things have never looked brighter for the rapper. After we spoke, Meek Mill headlined a Tidal benefit concert at the Barclays Center, in support of criminal justice reform organizations; a few weeks later, he gave a talk at Georgetown University. He is starring in a Jada Pinkett Smith–produced film about a Baltimore bike crew. His son, Papi, is 7 years old. And there is his new album. “I’ve been writing myself since I was probably, what, 8 years old,” he says of this latest work, which will tackle—as he has before—his experiences and the issue of social justice.