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It seems that every time a prominent rapper is arrested, social media sites are inundated with hashtags advocating for that artist’s freedom. Recently,Twitter and Instagram users have begun to post demands such as, “#freetayk,” or “freeherbo,” or “freeyoungboy.” But all of these rappers were arrested for serious crimes—ranging from kidnapping and sexual assault, to the unlawful possession of unlicensed, loaded, firearms—for which there was an abundance of evidence. The fact that these individuals are famous artists does not and should not give them free reign to break the law as they see fit.
One recently popularized hashtag, however, remains distinct from the others. On Nov. 6, 2017, a judge sentenced Meek Mill to two to four years of prison time, with two years without the possibility of parole. Soon, the hashtag #freemeekmill began to appear on various social media platforms. Meek Mill was arrested on two separate occasions in 2017, once for fighting and once for “popping wheelies”—recklessly riding an illegal bike. He has been unfairly penalized for both crimes—especially considering that both charges were later dropped. To be fair, the reasoning behind the harsh sentence was that these crimes violated his probation, which he received as a consequence of an earlier arrest. But this earlier arrest occurred over a decade ago in 2007, when Meek Mill was just 19 years old. The artist is now 30, and since serving eights months of prison time for his crime in 2007, he has continued to suffer for his offense in the form of an exorbitantly lengthy probation, a situation that would likely not be the case were he not black.
“If his name was John Smith, he wouldn’t be in jail and he certainly wouldn’t be on probation,” Meek Mill’s attorney said to CNN last November, suggesting that this undeserved treatment likely stemmed from racial biases. To put Meek Mill’s sentence in context, in 2015 white Division I swimmer Brock Allen Turner was arrested for the sexual assault of an unconscious student—a crime much more malicious than Meek Mill’s unlawful drug and firearm possession. Like Meek Mill, Turner was 19, but the swimmer was given six months of jail time, followed by a probation term of just three years.
Since Meek Mill’s 2007 arrest, he has earned many accolades for his music, and has amassed a great deal of wealth. But even this success has not shielded him from the institutionalized prejudices of the judicial system. These injustices influence his fans as well. Part of the beauty of rap music, in addition to its entertainment value, lies in rare efficacy as a medium through which underprivileged black youth can see other black Americans at the top of the economic totem pole. Music is one of the few lucrative occupations in which black people have adequate representation. For inner-city kids in circumstances similar to rappers before they achieved fame, these artists demonstrate that with hard work, they too can attain economic success.
This vision is shattered once a teenager’s mistake continues to condemn him years later. And if becoming one of modern rap’s most successful artists is not enough to overcome a mistake made in one’s youth, it is difficult to imagine what could be. Meek Mill’s sentence is therefore egregiously unjust not only to him personally, but also to black youth who see him as an example of achievement. By delivering unjust punishments to Meek Mill, a role model for many inner-city black youth, the judicial system further depletes these children’s hope for the attainment of success.
The exorbitant rates of incarceration of black Americans is an issue that needs urgently to be remedied. Meek Mill’s celebrity status amplifies this issue, and demonstrates that not even affluence can fully shield black Americans from these problems. There is hope, however, that speaking out against such wrongs may eventually effect institutional change. For the sake of this change, and for the sake of Meek Mill, let’s keep these hashtags trending.
—Contributing writer Uzochi P. Nwoko’s column, “Where Rap Meets Race,” explores how predominant motifs in rap impact the black community.
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