“I ain’t committed the crime they say that I did. I never pointed a gun at the police, so I never really made a mistake,” says Meek Mill of the event that shaped his life. In January 2007, aged 19, long before he became a rap superstar, Mill – born Robert Rihmeek Williams – was arrested and charged on 19 different counts of gun and drug violations.
He never denied gun possession: his Philadelphia upbringing was so tough – his father was killed when Mill was five – that he saw it as necessary for survival. “Me carrying a gun in my neighbourhood, which was a high-level murder neighbourhood, where black kids like me die every day, I never really considered that as a mistake”.
The other charges – the serious ones about pointing a gun at police and intention to deal drugs – were false, fabricated by discredited, racially motivated police officers. It would take over 11 years for this to be proven: 11 long years during which Mill suffered intermittent jail time and draconian probation restrictions handed down by Judge Genece Brinkley. The Judge ordered Mill to take etiquette lessons, restricted his travel, placed him under house arrest and sent him back to prison for spurious technicalities (he was jailed in 2017 for doing a wheelie on his dirt bike). His case took ever more surreal turns: Mill claims that Brinkley once requested he record a cover of Boyz II Men and give her a shout-out on the track.
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Throughout this, somehow Mill became one of America’s premier rap stars. Two of his four studio albums, 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money and 2018’s Championships, reached the top of the Billboard charts; he has performed at the Grammys, created a record label, Dream Chasers Records, in a joint-venture with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, and collaborated with Drake, The Weeknd and Cardi B: 2018’s Drake-featuring “Going Bad” has been streamed over 725 million times on Spotify. His fame was further catapulted by his high-profile, two-year relationship with rapper Nicki Minaj, which subsequently made him tabloid fodder on both sides of the Atlantic.
When Brinkley sent Mill back to prison for the last time in November 2017, Mill’s huge fan base began a #FreeMeek campaign, the catalyst for Amazon’s extensive life story-cum-true crime docuseries Free Meek. It gathered such widespread support across all sectors of society – Jay-Z, Kevin Hart, Philadelphia’s sports franchises – that Mill was released just five months into a two-to-four-year sentence.
In August 2019, Mill pleaded guilty to the original gun misdemeanour in a plea deal, allowing all other charges to be officially dropped. Mill is now a free man, unconcerned about the eyes of the law – “my record shows I don’t get into trouble” – and keen to put the ordeal behind him. “I don’t really look back at it. It was something that I went through, but I try not to think about it and keep pushing forward.”
Like most things in Mill’s life, it is documented in his music. From his teenage street-rap battles to his early independent mixtapes through to his 2012 Rick Ross-produced breakthrough Dreams and Nightmares, Mill’s work has reflected his lived experience. The emotive 2012 track “Traumatised” dealt with his father’s death; on “Pain Away”, from last November’s surprise EP Quarantine Pack, he wonders if fame and fortune can fully heal the hurt he has gone through. “I use it as a therapy when I make music, I express myself and anything I’m going through”.
The punchy Championships, released just five months after his last prison stint, railed against the injustice of the system. He was, he said at the time, “at the championship stage of my life”.
“I used that reference because of everything I overcame in that year.” He says this honesty has been a beacon of light for others. “A guy yesterday told me that he was going through a shitty time and he started playing my music and it helped him get through it. When I was in prison I got a lot of fan mail telling me my music had helped them and inspired to get them through a real situation”.
If this all sounds serious, Mill is not above hip hop’s materialistic clichés – he recently tweeted that he wants to have earned $100m (£71m) by the summer of 2022 – nor its beefs: a magnet for small-time controversy, this month alone Mill has had an altercation with long-running rival, Tekashi 6ix9ine, outside an Atlanta nightclub and attracted ire when a leaked snippet of a new track featured an uncharacteristically ill-judged rhyme about the late Kobe Bryant. He has had high-profile spats with Drake (they’ve since made up) and Kanye West (they haven’t, at least not publicly).
He has a fun side, too, as shown on “Conga”, a Leslie Grace-sung cover of the Miami Sound Machine classic, which soundtracks a Bacardi campaign. Mill raps an easy-going verse to producer and long-standing collaborator Boi-1da’s beat. “It’s an energetic track, you know me I’m just on it flowing, doing my thing. We’ve been through a lot this year, I think people want to dance and have fun.”
I wish I was meeting Mill in more ideal circumstances: there are three publicists listening into the conversation, one of whom has to translate my questions as Mill is struggling to understand me. At times it makes for awkward conversation.
Last year’s biting protest track “Otherside of America” was a reaction to the killing of George Floyd, so I ask Mill if he’s hopeful the Black Lives Matter protests will bring about the lasting change America needs: the question is reworded to ask if they’ve “made an impact”.
“Yeah it made an impact, it’s the biggest black movement fighting for people, why wouldn’t it have made an impact? I think that’s a crazy question.” I try to clarify, but he tells me it’s an inappropriate question, so I move on.
Having been a vocal critic of Donald Trump – “Otherside of America” began with a sample of a racist Trump campaign speech that told black Americans they were so poor “what do you have to lose?” from voting for him – I ask what he thinks of Joe Biden. “I don’t follow politics like that, I don’t know these guys. All I know is that Donald Trump, him being president, he’s been showing signs of a gangster.”
I’m surprised at this answer, not least because Mill is rallying so hard to change the system. In January 2019, he began The Reform Alliance with Jay-Z and some of America’s wealthiest businessmen, including Robert Kraft and Michael Rubin. The group lobbies for criminal justice reform, with particular focus on probation and parole laws.
“We’re helping people where we came from, people like me,” Mill says. “Because of slavery, segregation, it’s so hard for us in the black community to get ahead. I actually had a chance to get ahead out of my neighbourhood, but so many people from my neighbourhood go to prison”.
The role of poster boy for criminal justice reform is one Mill has accepted. “It’s not a job calling for me. It’s been placed on my lap, it’s not anything I pursued. But when I was in prison people were standing up for me, so I took the responsibility to stand up for people as much as I can.”
Mill is first and foremost a rapper: his fifth studio album is due this year. He recently teased new music with Lil Baby and Lil Durk. “It took a long time to make, I put a lot into it,” he says. “I got deep into my album and then the pandemic happened. So I had start over. I don’t really like to talk about living and clubbing and making money when you got people going through real things and real life. So I revamped it. There’s all subjects on my album, but it connects to now more.”
At this strange time for everyone, I wonder what stage of life Mill is at now? “I’m winning,” he says enthusiastically. “I’m at the winning stage of my life. Coming out of 2020 I don’t feel like I’m in the championship stage, I don’t really feel like anyone feels like that.
“So I would say grinding mood, hustling mood, a trying-to-win mood. Again.”
“Conga” is out now. For more information on Conga For You, go to bacardi.com