Meek Mill's Life Really Is Like a Movie

He had the biggest names in sports, from Joel Embiid to Kap, callin' out #FreeMeek. Now the Philly rap icon is ready to give you the director's cut, in one of five cover stories in the B/R POWER 50—a celebration of 2018's most influential people in sports culture.

By Rembert Browne


"I really feel like I'm caught up in the middle of a movie. And everybody's watching it."

To hear a rapper—or any young person with a penchant for hyperbole and flashiness—describe their life as "a movie" is unsurprising. The phrase screams overcompensation, but it typically goes unquestioned by whoever is being spoken to. Who, on occasion, doesn't want to think of their life as a movie? There's a perceived invincibility inherent in it—documenting memories, its own form of immortality—and there's something aspirational about it, too. Myth is often larger than real, lived experience, after all.

When I heard these words come out of the rapper Meek Mill's mouth on a recent summer evening in Philadelphia, however, it felt different. This wasn't a man who needed to show off his life—the grime and the excess—as he had done in the past on those now-iconic Maybach Music YouTube vlogs. He was, rather, speaking plainly about the twists and turns his life has taken—a roller coaster the average person might have difficulty trying to fathom.

One of those developments is his rising status in his hometown of Philly, particularly when it comes to the city's sports lore. In a matter of months, Meek has gone from local rap hero to iconic figure of hometown pride to a symbol of an unjust system that the city's athletes have felt compelled to get behind.

This past winter, the intro to Meek's "Dreams and Nightmares"—one of hip-hop's most treasured national anthems—became the rallying cry for the Philadelphia Eagles during their Super Bowl run. Players warmed up to it. They turned up during team meetings and recorded themselves rap-serenading the battle hymn as Champagne flew in the air following their championship win.

Then in April, Meek became part of the NBA postseason soap opera. When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered his bail before Game 5 of the 76ers' first-round playoff matchup against the Miami Heat, rumors spread on social media that Meek was out—and immediately people wondered if he would spend his first free night cheering on his team. Sixers billionaire co-owner Michael Rubin made sure of it, picking him up and taking him to the arena, where he rang the ceremonial bell before tipoff, dressed in a Joel Embiid jersey.

"I talked to Meek on the phone every day, and he kept telling me about this dream," Rubin said. "He was like, 'I keep having this dream where you pick me up in the helicopter.' So when I got the call about Meek's release, we had to make it happen. I knew Meek would want to go and bring that emotional energy to our team to help close it out."

To some of the players, Rubin's idea worked. Embiid, the 76ers' vibrant star center, recalled that it was Meek who had given the squad a boost that night. "When Michael brought him into our locker room before the game, his presence made us even more charged up," he said. "And the fans rallied around him. It was an unforgettable night."

“He was like, ‘I keep having this dream where you pick me up in the helicopter.’ So when I got the call about Meek's release, we had to make it happen."


All of that—the Super Bowl run, the NBA playoffs, the #FreeMeek movement. It did have the feel of a movie. Sitting across from Meek, listening to him recall these events to me in a bright white studio built upstairs at the NOTO nightclub, it was clear that this is what he is beginning to come to terms with: the surreality of it all. He's trying to figure out what happens when you go from a person to a character to a symbol. What happens when you are an active participant in your own narrative while simultaneously watching it unfold in real time. One thing Meek has come to recognize is that there's power in being a symbol. But he's also learned that, like with most things, there's a weight that comes with that power.

As ridiculous as it sounds, were it not for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Meek—nee Robert Rihmeek Williams—might not have become the patron saint of Philly sports. He was in New York City for an appearance on the show last August when he spotted a group of kids out riding dirt bikes and, true to his Philadelphia roots, asked if he could take one for a spin.

The sight wouldn't have surprised most New Yorkers—not in the summer, at least. A group of young black people, cruising the streets, having fun. That one of those people was Meek Mill likely wouldn't have made much difference. He's only Meek Mill, famous rapper, up close; from not-so-far, he simply looks like your average black man with a strong build and even stronger waves. (Cops were in the vicinity and didn't feel the need to do anything either, according to Meek's lawyers.) But when a member of Meek's crew filmed it—capturing him on tape popping wheelies—and put it on Instagram Live, the joyride became evidence of criminality.

The next day, Meek was arrested for reckless endangerment. The charges against him would be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor and later thrown out in a New York court. But when Meek got back to Philly, Judge Genece E. Brinkley barred him from performing and traveling outside of the city, citing technical parole violations for popping a wheelie and a dropped 2017 assault charge. She sentenced him to two to four years in prison and cited both dropped charges among the reasons for denying him bail. 

In a matter of months, Meek—seen here arriving at the criminal justice center in Philadelphia—has gone from local rap hero to iconic figure of hometown pride to a symbol of an unjust system. "Yeah, it was kind of crazy," he told B/R. (Photo by AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

For people who have experienced or witnessed or simply read about the inner workings of the criminal justice system, such a ruling might elicit more eye-roll than shock or surprise. But for Rubin—who has known Meek for five years—it was the first time he had seen, at close distance, a person treated that way by a court.

"Had I not been in that courtroom that day and witnessed the judge's behavior, I wouldn't have believed it," Rubin said. "But when I saw the judge completely railroading my close friend, being rude to everyone involved and disregarding the recommendation of both the probation officer and the district attorney, I knew I had no choice but to take a stand. I couldn't allow a[n] obsessed judge and [a] broken system to ruin my friend's life. I have worked too hard in my life to sit back and watch something like this happen."

When Meek was sent to serve his time in a state correctional institution in Chester, Pennsylvania, Rubin and other influential people joined an already strong chorus of grassroots advocacy groups to rally the public to Meek's aid. Colin Kaepernick, the ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback—himself no stranger to being institutionally railroaded—posted an Instagram photo of Meek, calling him "a victim of … systemic oppression." Jay-Z penned an op-ed in the New York Times, writing: "What's happening to Meek Mill is just one example of how our criminal justice system entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day."

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When Meek was sent to prison, Jay-Z was among those rallying the public to Meek's aid. (Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage for 2K Sports)

Meek watched the groundswell happen from the inside. "Somebody called [out], 'Aye, yo, you're on TV' while I'm in my cell," he said. As a famous person, being on television wasn't out of the ordinary for Meek; he had seen his share of attention on music channels and gossip blogs—from releasing hit records to his high-profile relationship with Nicki Minaj to his beef with Drake. But CNN, that was new.

"That was a little different for me, the big news platforms," Meek said. "We had access to the news and TVs in our cells, so I could follow along with what they were saying about me while I was in jail."

The outpouring of support also caught Meek off guard—especially the love from the city's athletes. A few weeks in, Embiid paid him a visit. "Meek was a huge supporter of our team during our toughest moments, so it was only right that we'd show him love and visit him when he was in prison, especially considering how unfairly he was being treated," Embiid said. "Another time Michael [Rubin] went with Ben [Simmons] and Markelle [Fultz] to visit, which I know lifted his spirits, to share stories about our seasons and other fun stuff."

If it were one or two individuals from a team, that'd be one thing. But for Meek, it felt like the support was coming in en masse. "I seen my mom crying on the news, I've seen my son holding up a 'Free Meek Mill' sign, I've seen people marching, I saw the Eagles coming out to my shit at the Super Bowl. ... [When the Eagles won], where I was, they're celebrating to my song from the jail cells. So yeah, it was kind of crazy," he said. "It felt like a big deja vu, of a movie I seen before."

One reason so many in the sports world have taken an interest in Meek's saga may be because they see themselves in his narrative. His story and his "dreamchaser" mantra are things that young kids—especially young black kids—can latch onto and draw inspiration from.

"A lot of kids from Philly—they rally behind me, they got Dreamchasers tattoos," Meek told me. "I think for some of these guys, I'm a bigger influence than many because of what I represent, what I came from."

Meek, pictured here with 21 Savage at the 2018 NBA Awards, has influenced the next generation of emcees, ballers, and entrepreneurs. "Because they believe my story, they start dream chasing," Meek said. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Turner Sports)

He's not making this shit up. A quick survey of the internet reveals Dreamchasers references everywhere. Many of them are in reference to sports. Recently, when Bradley Wanamaker, a 28-year-old Philadelphia native, signed with the Boston Celtics after going undrafted in 2011 and playing seven years overseas, he announced the news with a tweet: "Dreamchaser... 🙌🏾🙌🏾🙌🏾☘☘"

Meek didn't invent the idea of chasing one's dreams, but he helped popularize it as a motto on his mixtape series, Dreamchasers, which he first dropped with DJ Drama in 2011. It was then that he declared the Dreamchasers creed: "There are two types of people … ones who sit around, dream and wait for opportunity and ones who dream, wake up and chase that dream."

“I think for some of these [sports] guys, I'm a bigger influence than many because of what I represent, what I came from.”


Since then, the message has become ubiquitous. Meek, for his part, has helped push the phrase into the zeitgeist, giving shoutouts—implicitly and explicitly—to the people he's inspiring. On "Millidelphia," a track from his latest EP, Legends of the Summer, he boasts:

"For the love of the city (for the city)
All my niggas on the block (on the block)
12 o'clock, we ain't wheeling (we ain't wheeling)
Fuck 12 and the cops (fuck 12)
They wanna see me in the cage
I'd rather see me in a Wraith
I'm motivation on the ‘gram
I'm going live on these bitches on stage, goddamn."

One aspect of Meek's personality that could be easily overlooked is that he's extremely self-aware. He doesn't appear riddled in an identity crisis, when it comes to who he is and what he represents. He knows how important he is, who he's important to and how important he can be, if he remains connected to where he's from. It's about remaining relatable and accessible, reminding those who knew you, and molded you, that you're still you. It's about being authentic.

"They saw me on YouTube with the nappy braids, the big T-shirt when I didn't have a dollar in my pocket to now, that's supposed to inspire somebody. And because they believe my story, they start dream chasing," Meek said. "That's not about rap shit, that's not about no drug-dealing shit, that's about understanding what it means to be from our environment and chase a dream so bad it makes you want to be in the NBA, makes you want to go to the NFL, makes you want to be successful in the rap business."

"I been wheelieing a bike since I was fucking 13 years old and never been to prison for it not one time," Meek told B/R. (Photo courtesy of Meek Mill's "Rose Red" music video.)

It's not just athletes who have found inspiration in Meek. Sure, players listen to him—"We work out to his music all the time," Embiid said—but young up-and-comers have heeded his words as well. Tierra Whack, a Philadelphia native and one of rap's newest rising stars, told me he made her dreams seem more attainable. "That fantasy world of TV and the big stages just seemed so far away. It seemed impossible," she said with a smile. "But seeing Meek do it, he opened up the door and made it so much more real, and then it was like, 'Yo, I could do it too.'"

She added: "He's done so much for the city, and he's so real. There's nothing fake about his story."

The longer Meek was locked away in prison, the more the Dreamchasers—and Philly—seemed determined to maintain momentum for his case. Days turned to weeks, which turned into months, despite repeated attempts by his legal team to win him bail. They threw up every shot imaginable, including a series of allegations against Brinkley: that she had given him "inappropriate personal and professional advice" in a private meeting, which included telling him to re-record Boyz II Men's "On Bended Knee" with a shoutout to her on the track and to drop Roc Nation as his management team; that she had been under investigation by the FBI.

(Through a spokesperson, Judge Brinkley declined comment for this story after multiple attempts to reach her. But in a 48-page judicial opinion filed with the Pennsylvania Superior Court this spring, Brinkley called the allegations "bald" with "no basis in reality." "There is zero evidence to support this claim," she wrote of the Boyz II Men song request. "There is no record of such a conversation ever taking place and thus no evidence to support this claim." Subsequently, federal law enforcement confirmed that there is no active probe into Brinkley's handling of Meek's case. Meek filed a complaint with the FBI in 2016 after the alleged incident. But when the FBI asked him to wear a wire during future meetings with Brinkley, Meek reportedly refused. The FBI then allegedly dropped the review into her conduct.)

Each bit of drama only seemed to arouse more outside interest in Meek's case. Yet for Rubin, the longer Meek sat behind bars, the more the ordeal began to weigh on him. "For me, it was depressing and eye-opening," Rubin said. "The visits were tough for me because I kept telling Meek that he'd be free by Thanksgiving, then by Christmas, then by the Super Bowl, then NBA All-Star, then by March to join my family on spring break in the Bahamas, and I was wrong each time."

(L-R) Joel Embiid, Michael Rubin, Meek Mill and his son Papi pose after Philadelphia's playoff win against Miami (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

At some point, a light bulb turned on in Rubin's head. He knew the system was not working for Meek, but the more he saw, the more he began to comprehend that Meek's story was not unique; it was a part of a bigger narrative. "What started as a sole focus to save my boy turned into a much bigger mission as I learned about a completely broken criminal justice system," he said, adding: "Meek always used to tell me, 'Michael, there's two Americas—there's America and then there's black America.' I didn't believe him and I kept telling him there's one America. After going through this experience with Meek, I can tell you he was right and I was clearly wrong. This situation opened my eyes because I would've never understood the criminal justice system's unfair treatment of young black men."

Meek told me that he, too, sensed the change in Rubin. "It's like this, it's real simple—he's a white Jewish billionaire guy and he became friends with a black kid from the ghetto that actually rose up above all that and started doing his own thing. But then when it all happened, he'd never witnessed this side of the system ever in his life, because he was never treated this way," Meek said. "For him, he's like, 'How did my friend just get a four-year sentence for not committing a crime?' For him, it's like, 'I've never seen no shit like this, and it doesn't sit well with me.'" 

Rubin figured Meek could use more people—people in positions like him, people of affluence or power, people who needed their eyes opened—in his corner, so he brought more influential friends with him on his trips to Chester. In April, he invited Patriots owner Robert Kraft to tag along and when they got to the prison, Kraft was deeply moved by what he saw.

“I remember Robert was shocked by how well Meek was keeping it all together," Rubin said. "Robert asked him how he managed to stay strong, and Meek said, 'This has been my whole life. It's all I know, but for the first time, I have people fighting for me. And I'm so appreciative of that.' That really stuck with Robert."

A few weeks later, Rubin brought actor-comedian Kevin Hart, another Philly native, to visit Meek. Then an odd thing happened, something completely unexpected: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered Meek's release. The sports and entertainment world rejoiced. Cue the chopper. Cue the Dreams and Nightmares.

On June 8, Meek threw a thank-you dinner at the overwhelmingly extra restaurant TAO Downtown, in Manhattan. Inside, gallery-esque statues and light fixtures filled up the room. More than 40 people—the sheer number of invitees at this dinner made you realize how large of a team was involved in getting Meek out of jail—gathered near a table set up in the back of the cavernous room that extended the width of the restaurant. There were members of his legal team, reps from Roc Nation and high-profile supporters like Carmen Perez, the executive director of The Gathering for Justice, a nonprofit focused on the racial inequities in mass incarceration. (Rubin was noticeably absent.) It was an ideal setting to be distantly seen, but not overheard.

When Meek showed up, the energy in the room shifted. Everyone paused their side conversations and was either waiting to talk to him or waiting to be introduced. It was an odd sight to behold, initially; a young black man in a sea of powerful—mostly white—people with their hands outstretched. I found myself resisting the easy urge to go straight down the cynical route, one in which I wondered whether Meek should fully trust their goodwill. (What would their favors cost him down the road?) But I also got the sense that those around Meek truly believed he didn't do anything wrong—something Meek confirmed with me later.

"If I committed a crime and I got locked up, Mike Rubin wouldn't be there. Roc Nation wouldn't be there. Nobody would be there because it's my mistake," Meek said. "They'd be like, 'You went out and made a choice and did some fuck shit that you didn't have no business doing.' Wheelieing a bike? I been wheelieing a bike since I was fucking 13 years old and never been to prison for it not one time."

As the dinner progressed, Meek made his way around the table, spending time with each attendee. “I’ve been through a lot of stuff where we didn’t have this type of support. Where we didn’t haven’t anybody really caring about us like that except for our mothers and our immediate family,” Meek would say later. “So to have this type of support, it’s a good feeling.”

The past six months had clearly taught him a great deal about himself, what he can handle and the type of person he's trying to allow to bubble to the surface. So much of his life, perhaps unfairly, is based on people's perceptions of him, based on what they've heard or what they assume. And he knows those perceptions come down to how he behaves when he's front and center. 

So it had to be  a wheelie, right?

It was two days after the dinner, at New York radio station Hot 97's annual Summer Jam concert at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey—Meek's first scheduled performance since being released on bail. He sat backstage on an ATV, awaiting his moment. When it was time for his set, Meek drove out in front of an electric crowd, revving the engine. "Ain't this what they been waiting for?" The music blasted in the background. Meek, dressed in motocross gear and a gold chain, popped up on the rear two tires—a move that had the entire crowd buzzing—before landing, grabbing a mic and addressing the crowd. "I used to pray for times like this, to rhyme like this," he rapped.

Was it a brash middle finger to a system that he continues to play tug-of-war with? Or was this another act of irresponsibility—a sign that Meek doesn't deserve to be free?

For Meek, the move was a clear refusal to deny aspects of the environment that made him who he is.

"I'm a rapper from 18th and Bridge, North Philadelphia, so to be in a stadium with that many people cheering for you, when you doing something positive, it's one of the biggest blessings," he said. "It was another day at the dream for me. It felt good when I left the stage—shit like that boosts your self-esteem as a person, makes you value yourself more, makes you more confident. ... And because people see me go through trials and shit and still be able to stand tall and hold my chin up high, they buy into me a little bit."

On the morning of June 18, hundreds of supporters convened in front of a Philadelphia courthouse to rally around Meek, who was scheduled to have an evidentiary hearing with Judge Brinkley that afternoon. A stage had been set up so people could deliver pro-Meek speeches, and the atmosphere was loud, angry and fed up.

"I've had two babies and Meek Mill still in court," a man from One Day At A Time, a community-based recovery organization, barked to a round of applause. A few minutes later, the West Powelton Drummers, a well-regarded local drumline that has become a staple at 76ers home games since 2014, arrived. They wore 76ers shirts with "Free Meek" on the back. Following their processional, CNN commentator and Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill took the lectern. "The system is not broken," he said authoritatively. "The system is doing exactly what it was designed to do, which is put poor people in jail."

When Meek showed, he was clad in "Free Meek" paraphernalia of his own—a hoodie—much to the crowd's delight. With about 10 minutes left before his scheduled hearing, he walked on stage to address his supporters. No notes, no teleprompter, fully off the cuff.

"I spent Father's Day with my son last night. And if it weren't for people like y'all, I wouldn't have been able to be here today, so thank y'all," Meek said, to a chorus of cheers. "You know, there's people that's locked behind the walls, caught up in the darkness, who don't have the support. So I hope that we get people behind them like myself. And we stand up for people that's caught up in the system that don't belong there."

After his speech, Meek walked upstairs into the courthouse, followed by a throng of folks hoping to sit in on the proceedings. The scene inside was madness; guests were required to lock up their cellphones. Meanwhile, outside Room 908, Meek checked in with members of his family and stole a few extra moments sitting with his seven-year-old son, Papi. He had the controlled nervousness of someone in the waiting room for an interview and the eagerness of a man ready to take his final test. After one final bathroom break, he and his team of lawyers disappeared inside the courthouse room. The crowd was told to wait outside. The whole process was nerve-racking.

Many on Meek's team assumed the hearing would be a short affair: The defense had no witnesses to call, and the Philadelphia district attorney's office supported a new trial. But the proceedings lasted over two hours. In one respect, this was to be expected: Meek's experience with the unfairness of the justice system stems from a series of interactions he has had with Judge Brinkley in the past. The hearing was just the latest confrontation.

In another way, the lengthy day in court was inevitable. Both sides have reached somewhat of an impasse when it comes to Meek's standing: Judge Brinkley considers Meek "a danger to the community," whereas Meek sees himself as not a threat at all. It's an incredibly layered conundrum—one that, listening to Meek tell it, is as much about criminal justice as it is about race as a function of class.

"You think the Eagles organization would be coming out to my songs if I was a threat to Philadelphia?" he would ask me days after the hearing, impassioned. "You think the owner of the Sixers would be standing behind me if I was a threat to the Philadelphia community? The governor wouldn't be standing anywhere near me if he thought I was a threat to the community. But you got a black lady in the courtroom saying I'm a threat. What it seems like we're really talking about is labeling young black people that come from poverty as a threats to the community."

After two hours, Judge Brinkley decided she didn't have enough information to determine if new evidence presented by Meek's legal team warranted a new trial in his decade-old conviction. When the news made it out to the crowd outside the courthouse, some smiled because she declared the evidentiary hearing a no-decision. Others showed their frustration, claiming the hearing was a complete waste of time. "A circus," many called it as they exited the courtroom.

Word soon spread that Meek was coming down. In the building lobby, members of the family and his inner circle stood, hugging and shaking hands. When Meek emerged from the courthouse elevator, he had shed his "Free Meek" sweatshirt for an orange shirt with photo of an old mugshot. It was an image of 18-year-old Meek, sporting braids and a bandage over his right eye—the cover art from his 2016 mixtape DC4.

Papi was under Meek's arm, and a team of lawyers walked alongside them. After passing through some revolving doors, Meek was met by a sea of reporters and onlookers, with microphones and cellphones extended, hoping to document every moment. One of Meek's lawyers made a statement, and then Meek picked up Papi and handed him off to a family member before taking the stage.

Meek thanked everyone for the continued support, but not before expressing his frustration. "I feel like what went on in the courtroom today is disgraceful," he said at the lectern. (One of Meek’s lawyers said that he observed Judge Brinkley laughing during testimony from an expert witness.) "There was laughing going on, and to me, it's not really a game."

He was then whisked away to go take care of who knows. "At least he came out, because he didn't have to do that," said a woman, who was filming on her flip phone.

Meek Mill seen during 'Stand With Meek Mill' Rally after his court appearance in Philadelphia. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/WireImage)

This was his life now. And it wasn't a movie, because you couldn't invent his story if you tried.  

Luckily for Meek, he seems uniquely built for what's ahead. He's not worried about the negative chatter. "I come from the hood," he told me. "Where I'm from, if your mom on crack, they going to bust on your mom. If you got fucked-up sneaks or clothes or you don't have a place to live, people will fucking torment you and rip your self-esteem apart, seven days a week. So when the internet come with random people just talking shit, for people that come from where I come from—we can handle it."

He's already turning his story—and what's been on his mind as of late—into music. ("They were screamin' 'Free Meek!'/ Now Meek free, judge tryna hold me," he raps on "Millidelphia.") He's trying to carve out time to decompress, to maintain himself the best way he knows. "I'm just always trying to adjust and adapt, switching gears," he told me. "Just trying not to overheat, you know what I'm saying?"

Philly's current superstars are optimistic about what is to come. "I know he came out of this situation stronger than ever and he'll continue to have a positive impact on the Philadelphia community and, really, the entire world," Embiid said. "I look forward to supporting him any way I can." The city's native sons continue to show Meek love. "I've known him since we were kids playing at the same gym," Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry said. "He's a proud man and the things he's been through has only made him tougher and more impactful on the world. And he worked hard to get to the point where he can be able to use his talents to help give back to our community and our city."

Power is influence. There is no indicator of power quite like the ability to change people's minds and actions. Meek has changed a lot of minds. He's not changed others. But there is also power in enduring in the face of those changes. What Meek has proved is that he's a survivor. It's that perseverance that has forced people to care.

Meek, himself, is clear about his aims: He wants to make an invisible population increasingly more seen.

"I had to go to jail for six months to earn people's respect," Meek said. "But, I think right now, my word is more powerful because I was given a platform and have all this light on my situation, and people actually know I've been through some real shit. But if you ask me what I've always been about, I represent the struggle, the streets and the poverty of where I come from."

Rembert Browne is a writer from Atlanta. He currently lives in Brooklyn. In 2017, he wrote "Colin Kaepernick Has a Job" for B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: @rembert