Meek Mill‘s ascension to hip-hop stardom has been anything but smooth. Jailed at the age of 19 after being convicted of drug and gun possession, the Philadelphia rapper was subsequently placed on probation for well over a decade until the charges were finally overturned last month (he is now seeking a re-trial for the original 2007 case). This is all charted in the powerful new Amazon Prime Video docuseries Free Meek, named after the campaign which sought to help the 32-year-old artist, real name Robert Rihmeek Williams, escape the trappings of an ever-harsher criminal justice system. Featuring interviews with Jay-Z (who also executively produced the series), investigative journalist Paul Solotaroff and Swizz Beats, the five-episode series charts the highs and lows of Meek Mill’s life story as well as showing viewers just how the US probation system works if you’re black, poor or both — and how Meek is aiming to change it for the better.
Here’s 10 things we learned from Free Meek.
Unsurprisingly, teenage Meek Mill was a brilliant rapper
“Let them all blow, let them all know that I’m back around / Man, I’m taxin’ now…” Within the first minute of Free Meek, grainy archive footage shows a 13-year-old Meek spitting with vim directly down a camera lens. With all the raw energy of a young man not yet aware of the life arc his talent will take him on — think the bullishness served by Eminem’s desperation-tinged Jimmy Smith Jr. in 8 Mile, minus the desperation – the teenage Meek is backdropped by the streets of 2000s Philadelphia as his bops back and forth in front of the lens, explosive lyrics and already seamless style emanating forth. In fact, the entire first episode is interpolated with clips of young Meek rap-battling and performing with contagious energy.
Meek’s rise to stardom was sparked by an early rap-battle loss
The first episode also features a lot of misty-eyed historicism regarding Meek’s early years, but one of the most interesting anecdotes — which is almost lost amid the slew of previously unshared tales — regards Meek’s education in Philadelphia’s rap-battle scene. While in hip-hop circles it is well known that he used to rap-battle under the pseudonym Meek Millz, it is only in this documentary that a revelation regarding the importance of an early loss is shared.
Battling in front of what Meek recalls felt like the whole neighbourhood, the nascent star shares how humiliated he felt after a loss to a 16-year-old with, in the ‘Wins & Losses’ rapper’s own words, “a better vocabulary and more talent”. It was a loss that made him cry, but also one that also sparked the need to improve. “It was a sad day,” Meek explains, “but it was one of the best days of my life because from now on [I’d take] rap seriously.”
Meek is a big horror film fan – with good reason
Born into the slums of late 1980s Philadelphia, Meek’s youth coincided with the height of the American crack epidemic as well as the Reagan administration’s roll-out of unbending sentences for drug offences. At the same time, Meek’s Pennsylvanian location was suffering from widespread post-industrial unemployment which, coupled with the aforementioned drug problem, is described by one of the documentary’s talking heads as decimating the community. It left the young Meek growing up amidst a soaring crime rate — privy to regular murders and with drug dealers as the most likely male role models.
On such a dystopian landscape, Meek describes being in constant survival mode as he uses a famous horror film analogy to explain how scary it was. “It was like watching Friday the 13th,” Meek explains. “You see Jason [the horror franchise’s primary killer] appear every five minutes. Jason is out… seven days a week.”
Social media played a central role in getting Meek his first big break
Meek was already a Pennsylvanian sensation (thanks in large part to his prolific mixtape output) when Florida’s hip-hop hitmaker Rick Ross visited the city to perform in July 2010. Not one to miss an opportunity, Meek reached out to Ross on Twitter asking him to collaborate on a track.
In Meek’s words, 20,000 to 30,000 fans then retweeted his request to the Miami-based boss of the Maybach Music Group label. Ross noticed and agreed, going on to feature on a remix of Meek’s local hit ‘Rose Red’. This collaboration led to Meek being signed by Ross’ label in 2011, giving him access to such stars as Drake, Mary J Blige, French Montana, John Legend and Lil’ Wayne – many of whom guested on his 2012 LP ‘Dreams and Nightmares’. A contract with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation management group soon followed, too.
However, social media hasn’t always helped Meek with his legal troubles
Social media might have helped Meek reach international stardom, but it also created problems for him in regards to the conditions of his probation. For example, the docuseries highlights how a few Instagram posts from a video shoot — which depicted women shooting Meek and his friends with replica guns filled with water — caught the eye of the authorities. However, it was an incident after appearing on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in 2017 that landed Meek in the most trouble.
Driving through New York after the show, Meek was approached by fans on dirt bikes who offered to let him have a ride on one of the vehicles. Video footage of Meek doing wheelies down the street on one of the bikes then, naturally, surfaced online. A day later, Meek was reprimanded by authorities for “reckless endangerment”. Although the case was eventually thrown out, it resulted in another violation of his parole — all thanks to social media.
The weather was a key reason for Meek violating his probation for the first time
The overriding packaging of Meek Mill’s life narrative in Free Meek is his continuing battle with probation and the judge presiding over his case: with good reason, he has racked up nearly 30 court appearances over a decade. The first time Meek broke his probation conditions came in tandem with a freak weather event: the 2012 storm Hurricane Sandy.
One of the conditions at this stage of his probation was that Meek’s people must provide details of where he is (and is planning to be) at all times. However, Hurricane Sandy — which disrupted travel in, out and throughout New York during the Atlantic storm season — meant that to reach an album launch event in Atlanta, Meek had to drive back to Philadelphia and then get a plane from his home city. This differed from the plan given to the judge presiding over his case, Judge Genece Brinkley. Pulled over by a police officer on the way home, he had to spend a night in jail, although he was later released without charge. However, photos of the incident appeared on Instagram, alerting Brinkley to the fact that Meek had violated his pre-agreed travel arrangements. It resulted in a probation hearing and tightening of conditions — just because of the weather!
There are countless questions over the conduct of the judge throughout Meek’s probation
One of Amazon’s successes in choosing to produce a docuseries on Meek’s decade-long schlep through the courts is in highlighting the flaws in the US probation system. With over four million Americans on parole or probation, the perceived injustices incumbent in these arrangements have even lead to a pressure group being set up to advocate for change. It is one backed by the likes of Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin, Jay-Z and Meek himself.
Yet the show’s producers also focus on the character of the judge who oversaw Meek’s probation: the aforementioned Judge Brinkley. She is depicted as having an overly close interest in Meek’s case — even once paying him a visit while he was performing community service — and suggesting things that judges seemingly shouldn’t, including recommending to Meek that he choose a different management group and allegedly asking him to remix a Boyz II Men hit. She is also accused of being incredibly harsh on Meek, pulling him up on technical violations again and again and giving harsher probation conditions each time. Free Meek also reveals Brinkley sued Meek’s own lawyers for defamation, and is involved in almost fifty lawsuits herself.
Meek’s family adore him
If Free Meek leaves viewers with fairly obvious questions regarding the fairness of the American justice system, one thing is clear: Meek’s family love him, and he is equally fond of them. From his drug-dealing cousins who kept Meek on the straight and narrow and in the studio (even paying the electricity bills so he could record) to his mum, who made food to sell to the community in order to raise enough cash to meet Meek’s initial bail when he was first incarcerated, the mutual support is obvious.
Two of the low-key stars of the documentary are Meek’s uncles, Ron and Chris Parker. One of the stand-out scenes of the docuseries features bus driver Chris getting animatedly excited when recounting a tale of him calling a none-too-bothered Meek to make him aware that the most of the kids he ferried to school were either rapping along or listening to one of his songs during the nascent stages of the rapper’s career. His delight, on behalf of his nephew, is charming.
Meek is candid about his struggles with drug addiction
At one point we’re taken to a 2013 gig where a struggling Meek is seen barely able to rap: he’s in the grip of a prescription drugs addiction. What initially started with a wisdom tooth operation spiralled into taking ten Percocet a day, as well as drinking lean (a mixture of codeine-based cough syrup and lemonade). Interviewees describe the stress that Meek was under during this period, with the pressure of having to financially provide for family and friends being exacerbated by being placed under house arrest, preventing him from touring and making money off music. In Meek’s own words, it allowed him to feel mentally numb. Fortunately, he entered drug rehabilitation and now appears to be clean.
“Getting Meeked” is a term used for perceived maltreatment by the American justice system
Followers of the Serial podcast series, particularly those that engaged with season three, will know that narrator Sarah Koenig describes in depth the racial injustices which are geared into the US justice system. Meek’s own experience of incarceration, the courts, and probation is, according to Solotaroff, similar to the experience of many millions of others across the US.
With fans incredulous at Meek’s treatment by the American judiciary and probation system, apparently the term for being “done dirty” in this way is called “getting Meeked”. As Jay-Z explains in the documentary series: “So many people have been through the same thing.”
Free Meek is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.