What’s Free? A vital text on politics and law…
On Mass Incarceration
Hi Ari here, it looks like there are a bunch of new people who signed up for my writing, so welcome aboard! Today I’d like to share a new piece about culture (also policy and politics)…
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American rhetoric is full of appeals to “freedom.”
We hear about it from the Founding Fathers back in the day, from both political parties now, and as the enduring “purpose” and justification for self-governance. We deserve freedom, we are told; we must expand freedom, many activists say; and our system provides it, they say, unlike in so many foreign countries.
Okay. But as America finally shifted away from the outright oppression of slavery, it leaned into a racist criminal justice system, and Jim Crow segregation, to continue limiting freedom by race. Some aspects of racial oppression have changed over time. The justice system however, largely got more punitive, expanding mass incarceration and disproportionately impacting communities of color and the poor.
That’s a very brief summary of a topic fit for books (like “The New Jim Crow”). I mention it as a key framework, however, to explore an important verse from an artist who has lived this American experience—and more than once.
“Just tell him facts”
Meek Mill has one of those incredible American stories. He made it out of a rough neighborhood in Philadelphia, and past his own legal problems as a teenager, to become an internationally known artist. He signed with Jay Z. Made millions. Toured the world. His youthful legal problems were years behind him, with time served.
Then while recording a music video—what we might call lawful commerce—he was riding a dirt bike and doing “wheelies.” Police came and arrested him for the traffic violation. Then a judge treated it as a “parole violation,” based on his conviction nine years earlier, and hit him with the extremely harsh prison sentence of two to four years! (That sentence was much longer than the original 8 months he had served, for drug and gun charges.)
The sudden crackdown shows how a system can stalk a “reformed,” successful Black American for a decade, and convert what would be a traffic ticket for anyone else into years of lost freedom.
Meek tackles the situation on a powerful song, “What’s Free.” (Listen along by clicking here.)
Here is some of his verse:
Fed investigations, heard they plotting like I ‘trap’
20 mil’ in cash -- they know I got that off [of] rap
Maybe it's the Michael Rubins, or the Robert Krafts
Or the billionaire from Marcy
ain't no way, they got my back
Seeing how I prevailed, now
they try to knock me back
Lock me in the cell for all them nights,
and I won't snap
250 a show, and they
still think I'm “selling crack”?!
When you bring my name up
to the judge, just tell em' facts
Tell em how we funding all
these kids to go to college
Tell him how we ceasing
all these wars, stopping violence
Tryna fix the system, and
the way they designed it
I think they want me silenced - (shush!)
O say, can you see
I don't feel like I'm free
locked down in my cell:
shackled from ankle to feet
judge banging that gavel
turned me to slave from a king
another day in the bing
I gotta hang from a string
just for popping a wheelie!
my people march in the city
from a cell to a chopper view
from the top of the city…
Meek begins by noting how even though he has evolved, the system will not evolve its views of him.
So despite his famously successful legitimate career, police act like he is still dealing drugs (in the “trap”); and judges assume he is a “gangster.” He makes $250,000 per concert, and has millions off of rap, he says, and they still act like it’s from drug dealing.
Meek goes on to proclaim the only defense he needs is the facts—that’s all he wants the judge to know. He cites his own charitable work, and notes the racism and irony of a system trying to bring down someone like him—someone who took the legal route, put crime behind in the rear view mirror, and leads others to do the same (including co-founding a whole organization, the Reform Alliance). But it’s all about power, about politics, he gets that. So if he’s working to fix a system “they” designed, he says, then those people in power still want him “silenced.” (It’s their system, the public pressure to fix it draws attention to its flaws.)
“I don’t feel like I’m free”
Now, remember all that American rhetoric about freedom?
Meek goes right at the historical hypocrisy in this same verse.
He cites lyrics from another poet (early rapper?), the then 35-year-old Francis Scott Key, who wrote the Star Spangled Banner. We all know the lines about “O say, can you see,” and the “land of the free.”
Meek quotes the line to skewer it. He doesn’t feel free; shackled in a cell. He makes the same historical link that so many legal scholars do—that racialized policing replaced the slavery system, likening his incarceration to slavery: “Judge banging that gavel: Turned me to slave from a king.”
My People March in the City
Is there any hope here?
For Meek Mill, with fame, connections and money for lawyers, that extreme parole sentence was later halted in court. The judge was partially overruled, and Meek was released after 5 months.
First, imagine losing half a year of your freedom, your life, for a sentence that was actually invalid and overturned! So that was an injustice, even measured by the rules of the current system.
Second, this was the “revised outcome” for someone in the literal 1%—like the Professor Henry Louis Gates arrest and controversy in the Obama era, these cases underscore how extreme the policing of Black people is in America. This is the outcome for rich, famous, well-connected Black Americans in the current era, this is the “best” the system has to offer. And then there’s everyone else.
The verse begins and ends with reference to the forces that beat the system in this case, and which Meek stresses are not available to all. He has wealthy backers—like NFL team owner Robert Kraft, and Jay Z (“that billionaire from Marcy [projects]”). Plus he has the people behind him (“my people march in the city”).
Meek deftly traces the volatile path that America required of him: from the streets and prison, to the top of society, and then back into shackles, and then back on top again. And as a storyteller, he packs it in concisely, allegorically and literally -- when his sentence was overturned, Kraft dramatically sent him a helicopter to pick him up from prison, fly over the city and take him to a game:
My people march in the city, [went] from a cell to a chopper view from the top of the city
That’s not how most people leave prison, in every sense. One can almost feel Mill’s vertigo in the transition he narrates. So what does it mean for everyone else? The song’s chorus widens out to the pursuit of broader freedom, beyond his story:
Free is when nobody else / could tell us what to be
Free is when the TV / ain’t controlling what we see
That speaks to true freedom for all people, including Black Americans, to have a full shot at being anything—and not being torn back down for it. It also means freedom of thought—where what we see, and what we see as possible, is not “controlled” by corporate television and profits. (There are echoes of Gil Scott Heron here, and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”)
So the whole prison industrial complex is one layer of larger limits on freedom, within an economic and informational system that limits people’s decisions, what’s possible, where they live and what they watch and see.
That’s the chorus and Meek’s verse—the song then turns to a tremendous history lesson from Jay-Z, whose presence also validates the track’s use of an iconic beat from the late Notorious B.I.G, Jay’s friend, from the 1997 song “What’s Beef.” Breaking down the Jay verse could take a whole separate essay (readers who made it this far can comment if you’d read that?... for next time!)
For many, it would be easy to hear this song and think: It’s just “another artist bragging about making money,” or “beating the odds.”
A closer listen reveals a true story, which resides inside the larger history of racism and mass incarceration, and reflects countless other stories that we may never hear—because the people who would tell them are locked away, disappeared. (“I think they want me silenced.”) So the lyrics and music offer something vital, for those willing to listen, and something America must face if it is ever going to try to change.
Do you think people should hear Meek Mill’s story? I’ll respond in the comments per usual…
P.S. After Meek was released from prison, he joined me on The Beat and we discussed his case (though not this song). Here is that interview.
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This important newsletter reminds me of Ava DuVernay’s movie called The 13th. One can feel and visualize Meek Mill’s description of how he was treated by the system through his lyrics.
Do you think people should hear Meek Mill’s story? A big resounding yes because we are still living and fighting the same fight from previous generations.
Your examples are one of many. Through volunteer work, I have heard countless stories like these. The "clients" I deal with are by a large percentage, people of color, economic disadvantage, various sexual orientation, etc. Many of them are party to all three examples. Whether as a pharmacist or volunteer, I have learned my listening skills are invaluable. I gain their trust. The vast majority have lived our unbalanced set of "freedoms". When they question me why should they finish their education, learn a trade, etc as they cannot see what good it does them because the system is askewed against them, I always tell them by not giving up and working hard to change the system, they can work to re-balance our freedoms, inch by inch if necessary. . We discuss Booker T Washington, Frederick Douglas, Rosa Parks , endless etc. With my GED students, this is always followed with a reading of one of these heros and a book report... to their dismay.