How Meek Mill Became a Movement

One year after being released from prison, Meek Mill is making music, hanging with his celebrity friends, and enjoying the life of a hip-hop star. But his biggest impact might come in a different realm: criminal justice reform.

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A look at the life of Meek Mill, one year out of prison. Photograph by Ahmed Klink

It’s the afternoon before Super Bowl LIII in downtown Atlanta, and the College Football Hall of Fame is hosting a party for sports-apparel giant Fanatics. This is no ho-hum affair; it’s one of the biggest throw-downs in a weekend packed with them. A DJ spins hip-hop hits for the cavernous room — decorated in a gridiron theme, complete with turf and a goal post — as a cross-section of celebrities from sports, media and entertainment streams in. You can’t grab a chicken-and-waffle skewer without bumping into someone famous: Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan near the selfie station; Jon Bon Jovi chatting with Patriots owner Robert Kraft; comedian Kevin Hart and CNN’s Van Jones and Yankees phenom Aaron Judge; and a bunch of HOFers who’ve earned one-name status — Julius, Emmitt, Montana.

There are actual models, wannabe models, and nearly $10 billion in combined net worth just between Kraft and the party’s host, Sixers co-owner and Fanatics founder Michael Rubin. Outside on the red carpet, flashbulbs pop as TV hosts pepper incoming guests with dopey questions. And no one causes a bigger scene than one of today’s headlining performers, Rubin’s pal and North Philadelphia’s own Meek Mill.

Dressed head-to-toe in black — jeans, signature “Reform”-themed Pumas, Gucci hoodie — and draped with Mr. T-level gold chains, the rapper poses with Rubin and a new friend — Clara Wu Tsai, co-owner of the Brooklyn Nets and wife of Alibaba co-founder Joseph Tsai. Meek smiles for the cameras and obliges as correspondents from Fox and Extra extend their microphones. There’s so much commotion over Meek that NFL legend Dan Marino, a victim of unfortunate timing, walks by to little fanfare.

I’ve been following Meek for weeks now, hoping to capture what it’s like for him to be in a moment that is — all hype aside — wholly unique. Consider that Meek is one of the hottest acts in hip-hop. In a few days, he’ll drop a video with nemesis-turned-friend Drake, arguably the top MC in the game. Today he’s performing with rap supernova Cardi B and about to launch a 16-city tour, which will include two sold-out nights at the Met on Broad Street. But the lyrics in a song like “Trauma” reveal the less glamorous side to Meek’s story, one that’s ironically placed him in the company of billionaires:

When they label you a felon, it’s like they telling you … not equal
11 years going to court knowing they might keep you or drive you crazy
23 hours in a cell, somebody save me.

As cultural critic and author Michael Eric Dyson sums up Meek’s music, “He’s really the poet laureate of black grief, grime and grit.”

Meek is more than a rapper — he’s become a movement. He went from battle-rapping on the streets of North Philly to prison on drug and gun charges in 2008; then, just as his star was ascending, he was sent back to jail for probation violations in 2017, nine years after his initial — and only — conviction. Meek had reached his nadir only to be lifted up with help from friends like Rubin and Jay-Z, who turned his plight into a cause célèbre and his name into a hashtag: #FreeMeekMill. His release from prison last April made national news. Now he’s in a position unlike any artist who came before him: the face of a new criminal justice reform campaign, author of a New York Times op-ed on the subject, and one of the A-list founding partners of Reform Alliance, which is aimed at changing laws (starting in Pennsylvania) and freeing one million people in five years. “A whole lot of people go to jail,” says Van Jones, who’s also Reform Alliance’s CEO. “Not just rappers — athletes, movie stars. How many have done what Meek’s doing? How many really made the commitment of money, of time, of organization?”

Here in one room, the worlds of hip-hop, Hollywood, Wall Street, sports and social consciousness form a bizarre cultural Venn diagram, with a Philly rapper standing at the center.

Now, though, Meek is about to do what comes more naturally — grab the mic and hit the stage. Rubin introduces him by harking back to the Fanatics Super Bowl fete in Minneapolis a year ago, with his hometown Birds on the verge of a title. “You know what?” Rubin announces. “We were only thinking about how to get him out of prison.” Here in one room, the worlds of hip-hop, Hollywood, Wall Street, sports and social consciousness form a bizarre cultural Venn diagram, with a Philly rapper standing at the center. Bass thumping through the speakers rattles my rib cage, and the ever-expanding Meek Mill industrial complex swirls around us both.

Before the doors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Rec Center open at noon on Christmas Eve, there’s already a line of kids and parents stretching across Cecil B. Moore Avenue and around the corner along 22nd Street. Inside, Meek’s throwing a holiday giveaway with support from some 20 friends, family members and employees, along with an army of volunteers. Five hundred bicycles in boxes line the gymnasium walls, and a table overflows with sneakers from Puma, one of his sponsors; a slightly edgier partner, the Philly-headquartered delivery service GoPuff, is also here, and its CEO and Meek share a bro hug. State Senator Sharif Street and City Council President Darrell Clarke are working up as much of a sweat as anyone, sliding long bike boxes across the well-worn hardwood floor to waiting kids. Clad in all black, with a woolly red ski mask in his back pocket, Meek stands in a roped-off area and gets pulled in every direction — by people he knows from the neighborhood calling to him, requests for pics, chats with his crew, and he’s keeping an eye on his seven-year-old son, Rihmeek. Amid the chaos, he laughs with his pals and stays chill.

“His involvement is significant,” says Clarke. “You see how these young people and parents love him. First thing he asked this young kid, ‘Who do you live with?’ He understands that not everyone comes from a two-parent household. His ability to carry on a conversation, give sound advice — people listen to him.”

The crowd here knows that Meek is a product of these streets, for better and for worse. He was born Robert Rihmeek Williams in South Philly; his father, Rob, was shot and killed during an attempted robbery at 31, the same age as Meek is now. Meek was five, and his mother, Kathy, says he barely spoke for a decade after that. She then moved Meek and his older sister, Nasheema, to North Philly, eventually settling at 18th and Berks, a tough stretch just blocks from the MLK rec center to the west and Temple University to the east. “He was a good kid at one point,” says Kathy, who worked three jobs to support her family. “All I had to do was give him a video game and I could go to sleep and wake up and he’s in the same position.” But without a father figure, Meek felt the burden at a young age to be the man of the house. His first run-in with the police was around sixth grade, when he showed up at school despite being suspended and was charged with trespassing; young Meek was just afraid that Kathy would miss work to watch him and had nowhere else to go. He’d eventually drop out of Strawberry Mansion High, one of the most dangerous schools in the country.

Meek broke out of his shell through rap, as if the heartbreak of his father’s murder and the crucible of the street corners where he hung out unleashed something deep inside him. Kathy helped him burn CDs of his music and watched from her window as he’d compete against other aspiring MCs, aggressively trading rhymes with their faces just inches apart. “I worried a lot,” she says about Meek’s battles. She knew, like Meek did, that the rappers and their crew were carrying guns.

His life changed one night in January 2007, when a Narcotics Field Unit raid of Meek’s cousin’s house ended with the then-19-year-old in handcuffs, his left eye swollen shut, a bandage over his right eye and a braid ripped out of his head, leaving a bald spot he still carries today. (Meek would later use his Philly PD processing photo as an album cover.) He was hit with 19 charges, convicted of seven offenses — including two felonies, drug possession and carrying a firearm without a license — and sentenced to two years in county jail with eight years of probation; he served seven months in prison before being released to house arrest. Meek wouldn’t be convicted of another crime, but his struggles with the justice system, along with his success as a rapper, had just begun.

That Meek Mill seems like a completely different person from the guy handing out Christmas presents, especially given the company he keeps now — two powerful city politicians are in this gym, along with his high-wattage Reform Alliance partners. In a photo Kathy took of her son in lockup in 2008, Meek was a beanpole, with toothpick forearms and sculpted cheekbones. The ferocity in his eyes from those rap battles had been replaced by shock and fear. Today, Meek’s six-foot-two-inch frame is full, and an aura of confidence surrounds him when he walks into a room. He’s still angry at the cops who testified against him, but not at the police as a whole; he jokes with the officers at the rec center and joins them for a selfie. When a young boy asks for a pic, then hops up on a bike box and throws his arm around Meek’s shoulder, the rapper can’t help but laugh at the kid’s moxie. “Being as though I got the platform to help out my community, why not do it?” Meek says to a TV news scrum gathered around him. “We wanted to bring our Christmas back to our old neighborhood.”

The giveaway was scheduled to end at 2 p.m., yet it’s almost three and Meek is still here, posing for a photo with the grinning volunteers. It makes sense to see him so at ease in the environment that shaped him. Next month, though, he’ll be in New York for a week he’ll describe in video-game terms as a personal “leveling up” — one that the young Robert Williams never could have imagined.

Meek is in Manhattan in late January to rehearse for his debut performance on Saturday Night Live. That’s a milestone in any musician’s career, but it’s not even the most significant date on his calendar this week. On this Wednesday morning, at a packed theater inside the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, he’s helping to launch Reform Alliance with a lineup that CEO Van Jones will liken to the Avengers. Along with Rubin, Kraft and Tsai, Meek is joined by billionaire businessmen Mike Novogratz and Dan Loeb as well as a guy in a gray crew-neck sweatshirt and a Yankees cap who’s best known as Jay-Z; his Roc Nation management company handles Meek. It’s been a long time since Jay-Z roamed the Marcy projects in Brooklyn, where he sold crack as a teenager. Meek’s days in the ’hood aren’t nearly so far behind him. The combined start-up investment of the Reform founders is $50 million, including $10 million from Rubin alone. (Meek hasn’t disclosed his contribution.)

Before Meek and his partners take the stage, a short film rolls, featuring story after story of ordinary people living under the “long tail” of the criminal justice system — a man who served 90 days in jail for making an illegal U-turn while on parole; another who missed a meeting with his PO because of a new job he’d started and was sent to prison; a young man who couldn’t take a job in New Jersey because his probation confined him to the five boroughs. To get a sense of the support for Reform Alliance’s mission, consider who’s here in the front rows: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, State Senator Tony Williams, district attorneys from New York and Illinois. Jones acknowledges them by name and says their presence is meaningful. “Elected officials,” he notes, “do not come to events where they do not get to speak.”

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The launch of Reform Alliance in January. Photograph by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

The founders take their seats on the stage beneath a stark black-and-white REFORM logo on a screen, and the moderator asks Jay-Z why he’s doing this. “I think the attention that Meek brought to this issue because of his celebrity and the egregiousness of the [consequences of his probation violations] … is what sparked the match for the nation,” he says. “But for me … I am from Brooklyn, and this has been a part of my life.” Rubin breaks down the math — there are 2.2 million people in jail and 4.5 million on parole. Those numbers became real to him when his friendship with Meek began courtside at Sixers games and was cemented when Meek was imprisoned last fall. “When I hear these stories that a guy like Meek needs permission to be here today or a guy needs permission to see his son … the laws are so antiquated and don’t make sense,” Rubin says. “I think you can dramatically reduce that population while keeping communities safe.”

Among Reform Alliance’s priorities is putting limits on probation in states, like Pennsylvania and New York, where it can stretch indefinitely. That issue is at the heart of Meek’s boomerang relationship with the system and the Philly judge who’s been on his case since the beginning. To this day, Meek admits having a gun and selling weed when he was a teenager but insists he never pointed his pistol at the cops the night he was arrested in 2007, using logic that’s hard to argue with — young black men don’t pull guns on police and live to tell about it. (“That’s suicide,” he’s said.) There’s also a laundry list of troubling issues with the original conviction, ranging from no physical evidence of the crack Meek was alleged to have dealt to the testimony of the arresting officer, who is among 29 cops now barred from testifying in court due to alleged misconduct. District Attorney Larry Krasner has said there is a “strong showing of likelihood of [Meek’s] conviction being reversed.” Meek’s legal team is awaiting a ruling from the state Superior Court on their request for a new trial.

Meanwhile, Meek’s probation violations kept dragging him back before Judge Genece Brinkley. In 2012, a day after reaching number two on the Billboard 200 with his debut album — featuring “Dreams and Nightmares,” the song later used by Eagles players as their Super Bowl season anthem — Meek was pulled over on the way to the airport and arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession. He passed two drug tests ordered by Brinkley, but the judge ruled he was no longer allowed to tour. (Brinkley sets the terms of Meek’s probation and has broad discretion over how to enforce them.) Meek lost nearly $1.5 million in endorsements from Puma and estimates several million more in performance fees as a result.

What followed was a series of missteps and punishments that shows that while Meek is no Boy Scout, the system is, to be generous, nonsensically unforgiving of even minor slip-ups: Meek books concerts out-of-state and gets grounded; he’s denied a request for a new parole officer and ordered to take etiquette courses after complaining about his PO on social media; he serves five additional months in jail for more unapproved travel and testing positive for Percocet, which he’d used after getting his wisdom teeth pulled. (Meek was eventually given permission to attend rehab, where, he says, he successfully kicked his pill habit.) In 2016, with then-girlfriend Nicki Minaj sitting behind him, he apologized to Brinkley for “embarrassing” the court with his behavior and angry lyrics in his songs about his case. “Early in my career,” he said, “I was caught up between money and success.” Meek’s life coach, Dyana Williams, who’s worked with rapper T.I. and singer Mary J. Blige, testified that he was a changed man. Unmoved, the judge gave him 90 days of house arrest and, worse, extended his probation for another six years. The leash first placed on him in 2008 now extends to 2022.

Meek has a knack for both finding and creating drama, which isn’t a great trait in a guy who’s being watched by a judge and TMZ. The last straws snapped with two arrests in 2017, when Meek broke up a fight in the St. Louis airport, then popped wheelies on a dirt bike with some kids in Manhattan before an appearance on The Tonight Show. The charges were dropped in both cases, but any run-in with the police is considered a probation violation. In November, after those incidents and a disputed positive drug test for Percocet, Brinkley ordered Meek back to prison for two to four years.

Her decision proved to be a flash point that Brinkley likely never anticipated. In the courtroom that day were Rubin and Roc Nation COO Desiree Perez, who both vowed to get Meek out of prison. They weren’t the only ones dumbfounded, says Brian McMonagle, one of Meek’s attorneys. He’d never seen a judge ignore a recommendation when the defense, the prosecution and the DA were all in agreement — in this case, that Meek didn’t deserve jail time. “It was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had,” McMonagle says. “To have his life turned upside down by an unjust ruling — I was sick to my stomach.”

The #FreeMeekMill campaign launched immediately, sweeping across social media and leading to a rally at City Hall a week later with Dr. J, outspoken Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and rapper Rick Ross. Kevin Hart, Joel Embiid and Robert Kraft all made visits to Meek’s medium-security prison in Chester. Some less famous folks also showed their support, including Chad Dion Lassiter of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, who’d never met Meek before visiting him in jail. Lassiter says most of their conversations in more than a dozen visits focused on how to improve education and the criminal justice system. “I found him to be very genuine, very sincere,” says Lassiter, who gave Meek The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois and other books to keep his mind sharp. “I often left choked up with emotion because I saw he had a unique calling on his life.”

Another new friend was former Goldman Sachs exec Howard Brown, who runs a finance firm while teaching entrepreneurship at Northeast High. Brown had given Lassiter a primer on Meek’s music before they met, and in turn, Lassiter encouraged Brown to visit the rapper. “It exceeded all my expectations,” says Brown, who bonded with Meek over their kids. “He did have a genuine interest in improving the community he came from. I was skeptical at first, but I believe he has a genuine passion for prison reform.”

The efforts of Rubin and Perez paid off last April when the state Supreme Court ordered Brinkley to release Meek on bail after he’d served five months. Rubin picked Meek up from Chester in his company’s helicopter — fulfilling an actual dream Meek had in prison — and flew him to ring the opening bell at the Sixers playoff game that night. The sellout crowd erupted as the PA announcer shouted, “Welcome home!” and Meek appeared, hammer in hand and a wide grin on his face.

Today in New York, after the Reform Alliance kickoff ends, the crush of media that follows Meek into a press room speaks to the enormity of his situation. Morning-show anchor and Oprah bestie Gayle King is here, as is Lester Holt; word is that NBC News is planning a justice reform series with Meek as its centerpiece. A film crew working on a documentary for Amazon that’s scheduled to debut sometime this year hovers.

Later tonight, Meek will end up in the studio with Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz before heading directly to a Good Morning America interview with Rubin on no sleep. Two days later, he’ll perform three songs on Saturday Night Live, then fly to a vacation in Jamaica, posting clips from a strip club there of twerking booties and dollar bills flying everywhere — something you’ll likely never see on Al Sharpton’s Instagram.

Even on a far-away island, though, he’s still looking over his shoulder. Meek records a video from the side of a road where a few Jamaican cops have pulled his car over. He’s worried he’s in trouble for something, with who-knows-what consequences to follow back home. Turns out the traffic stop is just to ask for a photo.

This is where the situation in Atlanta gets really weird — which is saying something, given that I’m presently at a Super Bowl party and just exchanged concerned glances with former Cowboy Emmitt Smith as Meek’s security detail and surrounding photogs nearly crushed both of us. Meek performs for about 15 minutes, as does Cardi B, who says she needs to leave to visit sick kids in the hospital. (Michael Rubin also shouts her out for donating to Reform Alliance.) The viral highlight of the party turns out to be when Robert Kraft — who will soon win his sixth Super Bowl and then face solicitation charges in a Florida sex-trafficking ring — gets pushed onto the stage and dances to Cardi B’s hit song “Money.” As shots are flowing (largely thanks to Kevin Hart) and crews are growing, Meek asks if we can reschedule our planned interview. It’s clear that this is possibly the worst time in his life to get his undivided attention — he’s free from jail, cameras and the court are watching his every move, he’s trying to make up for lost time and lost money and, while he’s at it, change the American justice system and occasionally get a lap dance.

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Meek Mill hanging out at the Fanatics Super Bowl party with Michael Rubin, Kevin Hart and Robert Kraft. Photograph by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

So I find myself in a downtown Atlanta ballroom later that night, at a front-row table for Kraft’s invite-only pre-Super Bowl gala. Kraft and his girlfriend are at the table next to mine; Bon Jovi’s seated within arm’s reach over my shoulder. Uber founder Travis Kalanick sits between me and Rubin. Meek is scheduled to show up soon and say a few words; his friendship with Kraft has only deepened since his release. (When Kraft was announced as the recipient of Israel’s peace prize, Meek sent him a text that Kraft called “moving.”)

Meek arrives midway through a set by comedian David Spade and sits down at our table. He’s looking relaxed and in good spirits, with a silky black shirt unbuttoned enough to flash some chains, including a “Championships” medallion he’ll end up gifting to Kraft after his win tomorrow night. When Spade’s set ends, Rubin grabs Meek and me to retreat to a small couch in the lobby near the open bar. I’m hoping to finally get some perspective on this moment in Meek’s life. A year ago, he watched his beloved Eagles win the Super Bowl on a jailhouse TV. Tomorrow, he’ll be at the game, celebrating with his billionaire buddies, and later he’ll fly to Los Angeles for a Roc Nation Grammy party with Jay-Z. Meek tells me he texted his mom in disbelief the day after Reform Alliance’s launch. “To have that many people with powerful names and voices who come from different walks of life, it was mind-blowing — I was at that table,” he tells me, moving my recorder closer to him. “She was like, ‘Yeah, I couldn’t believe it.’”

But the interview turns out to be less of a conversation and more of a filibuster on the particulars of his case, which, in his mind, hasn’t received enough attention (aside from a deifying Rolling Stone feature that savaged Brinkley, a Dateline special, and the 692 articles mentioning Meek Mill on, for starters). Halfway through answering my second question, about his SNL debut, he takes a hard turn.

“For people who have been following my story,” he says, “because I always get kickback about, like, me being on probation 11 years and if I deserve to go to jail or not, I just want to start from the beginning of everything. South Philadelphia, the place where my father was killed at, many of my friends were killed at. Do you have any friends that was killed by gunfire?”

“No,” I reply.

“It’s kinda normal in your world. In my world, it’s normal for 30 of your friends your age to die by gunfire.” (Fame hasn’t inoculated him against this phenomenon: Two and a half years ago, his 21-year-old cousin was fatally shot in South Philadelphia.)

From there, Meek dives deep into his case. There’s the police-brutality aspect that he thinks, fairly, gets lost in the retelling; he claims to still have scars from the handcuffs clapped on when he was arrested in the raid and says police used his head to bash in the front door of the house. There’s a neighbor who was swept up in the raid, was arrested, and is also still on probation to this day, even though Meek says she’s a law-abiding mom who used to hassle his crew for sitting around that house smoking weed.

He also wants to know why one of the cops who arrested him, Reggie Graham, is barred from testifying in court because of “alleged acts of corruption” but still insists he didn’t lie about Meek’s arrest, particularly the gun details. Meek argues that you have to be “criminal-minded” to even think about pointing a pistol at a cop, and that community pillars like Rubin wouldn’t stand with someone who possessed that mentality. He does admit to carrying an unlicensed gun that night. “I don’t regret carrying no firearm in Philadelphia,” he says. “If I didn’t, there’s probably a 99 percent chance I would be dead. Everybody I grew up with, every person you see me with at these shows, have bullet holes in them. … If you was in a neighborhood and had 16 Freddy Kruegers, 17 Jasons, 10 Michael Myers running around, you would carry a gun.”

“Why is a woman of color sitting on the bench calling me a threat to society?” Meek asks. “Why do she view me as that?”

This is a side of Meek I haven’t seen before, one that contradicts the stories from his prison visitors who were amazed by how positive he remained despite his circumstances. It also contradicts Meek’s frequent admission that he feels guilty about being the face of Reform Alliance, knowing there are so many stories like the ones in that film — and that but for the grace of God and Twitter and rich friends, he’d likely still be in jail. Yet he’s not done talking about his own situation, expressing frustration that stops short of rage; he’s simply incredulous, as though his mind, so fit from the mental gymnastics required to spit lyrics, is still trying to untangle how he ended up in a legal nightmare 12 years long and counting. How the system — and a black judge — could do him so dirty. “Why is a woman of color sitting on the bench calling me a threat to society?” he asks me. “Why do she view me as that?”

If that sounds like bullshit — hey, this guy can’t stay out of trouble, he deserves what he got — consider the distinction Van Jones makes when talking about Reform’s mission. “If you’re on probation or parole and you go jack a car, that’s a new crime for which you should be punished,” he says. “But we are talking about ‘technical violations.’ I’ve learned that no one knows what that means. We’re sending people back to prison for non-crimes.”

Meek’s sincerity about helping other people caught in the same revolving door he’s spinning through — that’s harder to question. He peppers our conversation with references to other criminal justice outrages in the news: Did I see the video of the guy who was shot in his car by a cop when he reached into his glove box, after the cop told him to reach into his glove box? Did I hear about the prison in Brooklyn where the power and heat went out for a week? He can relate, he tells me — one of his cells had a broken window, so Meek slept in every piece of clothing he had. Studies have shown that people who’ve experienced urban trauma display symptoms of PTSD. Meek agrees — he can still describe, in vivid detail, the night of the raid, or the sounds of inmates howling when he was placed in a psych ward for several days because prison officials thought his celebrity would make him a target in the general population. “Two years ago,” he says, “I swear on my mother’s soul, I used to say I’d rather die than go back to jail, because it’s been going on for so long in my life. It’s gonna ruin everything I worked for.”

There lies the great irony in the Meek Mill story. Michael Eric Dyson sees it through the lens of Scripture: “In Genesis, when Joseph was jailed, he said, ‘You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.’ His misfortune has been transformed into a powerful opportunity.” Being sent back to jail was the best thing for Meek’s career and might turn out to help millions of people, thanks to his determination and a remarkable social justice awakening buoyed by a group of wealthy superheroes who would never have otherwise united. When his Wikipedia page is complete someday, his legacy as a rapper might pale in comparison to his impact on the prison system.

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Meek Mill performing at the Fanatics Super Bowl party. Photograph by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Rubin ends the interview by yanking Meek back inside the ballroom to say a few words. It’s an awkward moment that Meek fully recognizes — he’s interrupting a party to thank Kraft for his support. “This is about Robert Kraft, not Meek Mill,” he says, keeping it brief and begging off Jamie Foxx’s insistence that he perform “Dreams and Nightmares.” “Give it up for a gracious Meek Mill,” Foxx says, quickly pivoting. It’s a perfect read of the room by Meek, who later admits, “Why should I be screaming the N-word in front of older white people?”

The hip-hop-superstar-slash-change-agent leaves the party and heads out into the Atlanta night for a lucrative club appearance in the wee hours of the morning that requires him to stick around for an hour. I told you this was a weird scene — one that’s now just another day for a guy who’s both larger than life and one slip-up away from heading back behind bars, at least for now.

My last attempt to see Meek in person fails because he’s still in Atlanta, then performing at the NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte before flying to Miami for the kickoff of his tour. I’m finally able to catch him for a tightly monitored 20-plus-minute call from his hotel in North Carolina. He was at the arena for rehearsal this morning at 8:30 a.m. and found time to do an ask-me-anything chat on Twitter. Meek also did an interview for The Ellen DeGeneres Show, with a young fan who, unlike me, was probably not asking for his thoughts on Donald Trump.

This isn’t a clickbait question I’m posing. The president is a Kraft pal and in December signed the First Step Act, a sweeping bipartisan justice reform bill aimed at reducing recidivism and adjusting sentencing laws. Van Jones was among those who praised Trump for what’s been hailed as a generational initiative. But Trump also took frequent aim at Meek’s pal Colin Kaepernick and supporters like Malcolm Jenkins. Meek’s U.K.-born friend 21 Savage was jailed in Trump’s anti-immigration crackdown. More bluntly, many people view Trump as a racist. How does Meek reconcile all of that?

Simply put, he doesn’t. It’s true that he encouraged rapper Travis Scott not to perform with Maroon 5 at the Super Bowl, but only because Meek felt hip-hop always plays second fiddle in those halftime shows — headline it or don’t do it, he advised. For all the nuanced ways Meek can discuss the criminal justice system, he has no interest in the politics that shape it. “I don’t really care about none of that,” he says. “That’s like the other side of America. I come from the streets. I’m dealing with murder in my neighborhood, the drug-infested areas, people’s self-hate, everybody’s strung out on drugs. That’s really my reality. I never really paid attention to politics. I don’t think no president who’s ever been in the White House has represented what I represent.”

It’s not surprising that this newly minted activist isn’t watching C-SPAN. Meek just wants to record club bangers or take his son to Dorney Park or visit his mom in South Jersey without violating a court order. And as someone who’s on Twitter every day, Meek also knows that weighing in on Trump might backfire. “I could get caught up in an interview and say the wrong thing,” he says. “You’re talking about the president of the United States to someone from the ghetto of North Philadelphia. I don’t even know. All I know is, I’m just doing what’s right by my friends. I represent Kaepernick; I stand for what he stands for. I was beat by police before, brutalized by police, falsely accused by police. And I stand for Robert Kraft. He came to see me while I was in prison, put his face on the line, spoke well about me being as powerful as he is. I stand with Michael Rubin. I stand with Jay-Z.” (When news of Kraft’s prostitution charges surface two weeks later, the closest thing to an official statement from Meek is a cryptic tweet with three thinking-face emojis.)

In the days that follow our last conversation, Meek opens the All-Star Game and then his tour in Miami, where paps catch him on the beach with three women in very small bikinis. The role of chart-topping hip-hop star is the one he wears most comfortably, but it doesn’t mean the others — activist, ex-con, son, father, friend — are less genuine. I think back to my conversations with Lassiter and Brown about how much Meek means to the community, and also how neither of them needs anything from him. They’re in the minority — almost everyone in his orbit wants to take his time or protect it; snap a pic or get a quote; shake his hand or help him hand a backpack to a needy child.

Everyone I spoke with agrees on three things — Meek cares about criminal justice reform; he’s authentically himself; and the newfound demands of fame pale in comparison to what he’s already overcome. “What we have is a moment that turned into a movement,” Lassiter says.

Both he and Brown end our interviews excited about what’s ahead for Meek this year, which could include a new trial or a recusal that would end his legal nightmare altogether. They also separately make the same request, asking me to tell Meek to holler at them. It’s been a while since they’ve talked. Maybe he’s changed his phone number. They know he’s been busy.

Published as “Meek’s Moment” in the April 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.