Meek Mill walks into a sun-filled room in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge in Old City dressed in a black sweatsuit and sneaks that show off his newly revived Puma sponsorship deal.
A gold Rolex glitters on his left wrist. The diamond-encrusted initials of his Dream Chasers entertainment company hang around his neck.
It would appear things are going immeasurably better for the Philadelphia rapper born Robert Rihmeek Williams on this August afternoon than a few short months ago.
Now, Mill is a free man, back in the business of entertaining hip-hop fans. In July, he released the four-song Legends of the Summer EP that includes the 215 shout-out "Millidelphia." And on Labor Day weekend, he's set to headline Jay-Z's Made in America festival on the Ben Franklin Parkway in his first home show since being released from prison.
Until he was released on bail in April, though, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted him "extraordinary relief" due to questions the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office raised about the the credibility of the arresting officer on a 2007 gun and drug charge, Mill was dressing in orange jumpsuits at the State Correctional Institute in Chester.
In November, he began serving a two- to four-year sentence for parole violations stemming from an altercation at the St. Louis airport (for which misdemeanor charges were later dropped) and an incident in which he was filmed popping a wheelie on a dirt bike in New York and charged with reckless endangerment.
The perceived harshness of the sentence turned Mill into an international cause celebre and a face of the criminal justice reform movement in the United States. In a New York Times op-ed, Jay-Z wrote that Mill was an example of a system that "entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day."
There was euphoria among Mill's fans when the rapper was released and flown in a helicopter with Sixers co-owner Michael Rubin to the Wells Fargo Center in time to ring a faux Liberty Bell before a playoff game versus the Miami Heat.
But does that mean Mill's legal troubles are over? That perception "couldn't be more inaccurate," said Rubin, with whom Mill is set to launch a foundation dedicated to criminal justice reform this fall.
The owner of the sports apparel company Fanatics spoke last week the day after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Mill's motion to remove from his case Judge Genece Brinkley — who his legal team claims is biased against him — after she denied his request for a new trial. Instead, Mill must now appeal the judge's decision through Pennsylvania Superior Court.
Billionaire Rubin has already sunk millions into the fight for his 31-year-old friend, whom he calls "the most resilient person I know." But Rubin says that as long as the rapper remains in a probation system, "he's not free." He called the latest legal development disheartening but says he plans to devote "an unlimited amount of time and budget to fight this. Because it's wrong."
This interview with Mill took place this month before the latest legal developments. The rapper carried himself with quiet swagger but spoke frankly about fears and frustrations with the legal situation that still curtails his freedom more than a decade after he was arrested for a crime he says he didn't commit. He was open to answering queries on any topic except a famous ex-girlfriend: No questions about Nicki Minaj, please!
What’s your life like now?
I'm behind on time. I just did six months in prison, so I'm working a lot. Juggling everything, chasing success.
How did being in jail feel this time? You were facing a potentially long sentence. Was it scary?
It's always scary. My whole family ride off my success, so it's scary not being there. Just knowing everything is on the line, really. A two-year sentence: That's like the death
of Meek Mill, really, as a rapper. You going to put me that far down that deep in the hole?
Were you shocked when the sentence came down last November?
Super-surprised. Two years in the state penitentiary? That sound like criminal talk. That don't sound like somebody who's trying to do good for himself. Not making mistakes like wheelieing a bike or defending myself in an airport. That sound like criminal activity when you get two years.
Being locked in a cell 23 hours a day. I'm what they call a celebrity, so they put me in a holding area where people go that kill cops. Locked in cages, got to walk around with shackles on your feet. It's a nightmare.
That’s to protect you?
It's supposed to protect you physically, but it's hurting you mentally. It ain't no joke.
How did you keep your spirits up?
You just have to go through it. You just have to do it. Because you don't have a choice. You can't cry. Crying ain't gonna help it. I got a chance to follow the Eagles and the Sixers. I was able to celebrate the Eagles in my cell. That was a good day. Even though I was in prison. I was up that day because the Eagles won the Super Bowl.
How aware of the Free Meek Mill movement were you?
I used to see it flash on TV. Seeing my face on CNN and in the newspaper and the news channels was overwhelming.
Do you feel a responsibility to people who fought for your release?
I feel like I got a bigger responsibility. I never had that type of support before. I been going back and forth to jail for these same reasons for 11 years, but nobody ever really paid it any mind. It took people time to come around and say, 'This can't be right.' Not just not right for me, but for anybody that's on probation, or anybody trying to better themselves.
Probation is supposed to represent help for people to get back on track, but it don't really look like that. It took somebody in front of the world to show people you can make one mistake, not commit a crime, and go back to prison for a long period of time.
Most people don’t have the network of support you do. Do you feel lucky?
I don't feel lucky. We all got different paths. I been through a lot. Some people on probation actually committed a crime. I actually didn't point a gun at no cop. Everyone's situation is different. I don't feel lucky, but I appreciate everything that's going on in my life and I think everything happens for a reason.
On “Lord Knows,” on your 2015 album Dreams Worth More Than Money, you rapped: “Shout out to the judge that denied me bail / It made me smarter, made me go harder.” Does that thinking still apply?
That always applies. … I always shout out to anyone that gives me the ambition to push harder, because I'm a fighter. Anyone who goes against me, I'll fight back twice as hard. That's what I'm about. I'm in the business of proving people wrong. That's my favorite business.
That goes for the judge as well?
That goes for everybody. They sentenced me to two years in jail. Supreme Court let me out on bail. I haven't done a thing that's wrong since I've been out.
But I'm not a perfect person. I have anger just like everybody else. I come from the streets of Philadelphia. Philly represents toughness. The fighter attitude. I still got that in me, but now … I'm not doing nothing but wonderful things.
Yesterday, I got up at 8 in the morning to go to a meeting about an investment. After that, I had to drive all the way to the middle of Montgomery County to see my probation officer, which is 45 minutes away. After that, I came back to Philadelphia and I gave out tickets for Made in America at a group home for at-risk youth. When I was in prison, me and Colin Kaepernick worked together to put up $10,000 for causes like that. [Mill and Kaepernick each donated that amount to Youth Services Inc. as part of the former NFL quarterback and activist's #10for10 challenge.]
Then I did a podcast with Michael Rubin about criminal justice reform. Then I met with my financial adviser about not spending too much money and living on the wild side.
I fell asleep when on the way to see the kids because I was so tired. But, you know, as a public figure you've got to transfer back into it and let people see your bright side, because some of those kids look up to me.
The only thing that was not normal was driving all the way to Montgomery County to see a probation officer. And my probation officer is a nice person. She plays by the book.
But to have to drive there and show my private parts in front of another man and [urinate] in a cup for something that happened to me when I was 18 years old? It does something to you mentally.
How often do you have to do that?
Once a month. For 11 years, though. [Urinating] in front of different random people. It's not normal.
What do you say to people who say…
… You broke probation, you belong in jail?
Right. Meek Mill is a knucklehead. He knew the regulations, he didn’t respect them and got himself thrown back in jail. He deserves it. What do you say to that?
What are the regulations, though, of wheelieing a motorcycle? I would think I would get a traffic ticket for that. What would you think, a traffic ticket, right?
Or maybe a warning. If you’re white, you might get a warning.
Right, a warning. Michael Rubin and I laugh about that kind of stuff all the time. If you do that, you probably get a warning. If I do that, I probably go to jail.
Do you have power to change the system?
I don't really have no power. But I've got a platform to open people's eyes and see.
Did you believe you were going to get out as quickly as you did?
Hell, no. Michael Rubin and them believed I was going to get out quickly. Because they come from a different walk of life. They like, 'This is not right.' They never even seen [stuff] like this.
Can you travel?
I have travel regulations. I gotta tell them three days ahead of time. If I'm in New York, I can't come home to see my son if I don't give them notice for three days in advance. I can schedule a tour, I just gotta do it ahead of time.
» READ MORE: and the Sixers use it to pump up the crowd.
We was in Miami. [Former Sixer and current Los Angeles Clipper] Lou Williams was in the studio with me. I think I wrote that over a period of days. I didn't expect for it to be giving people adrenaline years later. But that's just the power of music.
I've been a social forecaster all my life. You might hear violence in it. You might hear [stuff] like that. But it's really [about] everything I've been through.
I'm talking about how I gotta make it back home. A lot of people don't feel that feeling. But a lot of people understand it, especially people who come from where I come from as a black man growing up in Philadelphia.
If you watch the news, it's murder and — you see a lot of good, too — but it's also people going to jail for crazy [stuff]. I come from that walk of life and one of those areas where these things happens. That's what I talk about in my songs, like being locked up. All my life I just spit my thoughts out, and people loved it.
How did Philadelphia make you? What makes Meek Mill suited to represent the city?
I just think it shaped me to be a fighter. Somebody who never gives up. A dream chaser. My friend has got a clothing line. She met some real high-level people in the fashion industry. She was doing it at a lower level without the tools she really needed, and they were amazed by that. That's who we are. That's what Philly is. To take nothing and make something out of it.
Like the average person probably would have folded up if they had to go through what I went through. Not even talent-wise. Mentally. You have to be strong. We take small things and work them into big things. Even in the Rocky movie. If you pay attention, Rocky didn't even win the last fight. But, really, he won the whole thing because of how much of a fighter he was. That's like Philadelphia's story. It took the Eagles forever to win the championship, and when they finally did, the feeling was like 10 times greater. It's just the fighter mentality. The never-give-up, dream-chaser mentality.
Are you worried about going back to jail?
I always worry about that, every day. And I don't like living like that. … Being somebody who pays a lot of taxes, somebody who employs people, who takes care of their family and … Why me? Why do I have to be the person caught up in the middle of this?
I was talking to my friend the other day. He was like 'You can't ride dirt bikes forever? Because we been doing that since we was like 5 years old. And it was like a real question mark, like it equivalent to I can't have sex forever, basically. It's the same thing, the same level. When I get off probation, it's going to be back to riding bikes.
How much more probation do you have?
I get off probation in 2023. The way that my case has been going, it's like embarrassing to the whole justice system of Philadelphia. Every time out-of-town people hear about it, they're like, if the D.A. is not fighting your case, why are you still being charged with anything? Other people had their cases dismissed because a dirty cop testified against them, but mine hasn't. I'm caught in the middle of something that's not usual.
Are you confident justice will be served?
I don't know. I believe on a higher level it will because I have to believe. They let me out of prison. I've got a two- to four-year sentence and I'm out on bail, but it took a lot of work.
You have a lot of powerful people in your corner.
Yeah, but if I didn't, it would have been overlooked. So is it justice?
I just think the times are changing. Michael Rubin, I met him way before this situation. Me and him are nothing alike. This guy's a business mogul. He lives a different life. But who made up the rules that a white Jewish billionaire can't be friends with a black millionaire from Philadelphia —
Are you a millionaire?
I would say so. I made some millions in my life.
How do you feel about being the face of criminal justice reform? You’re a rapper from North Philadelphia, and after you got out of prison you appeared at a rally with the governor of Pennsylvania.
I feel like that makes me a big target. My whole goal is just to not commit crimes and not go to jail. I don't want to be looked at like a perfect person. I want to change the world, make a lot of money, feed my family, and change the way my bloodline was raised.
Because my bloodline was raised in poverty. People dropping out of school. Nobody really going to college. Nobody owning their house. I want to change that. Because that's not what life is all about, and I've seen the other side of that.
I want to work on criminal justice reform. And be a father to my son. But not be perfect. Right now, I have to move perfectly because if I make a mistake, everybody's going to move against me. 'Aw, he made a mistake: Send him back to jail!'
Sounds like a scary way to live.
Yeah, it is. It's kind of rough.
Let’s talk about music. When is your new album coming?
It could happen at any time. I'm going to work on it after this.
You’ve released four new songs since you got out of jail. The Philly anthem’s called “Millidelphia,” and it’s used in a Puma commercial about prison reform. I can’t believe you didn’t think of using that title before. And “Stay Woke” is about the impact of mass incarceration: “Daddy locked in the cell, can’t kiss you night night / Monsters under the bed, feels like it’s fright night.”
I made "Stay Woke" before I went to jail. A lot of people think I came home and just wanted to talk about justice reform, but I actually made that song before I went to jail. The other three I made when I came home.
You didn’t write in jail?
I couldn't think straight. I was depressed on so many different levels.
Did you read?
Yeah. I read that book The Secret [Rhonda Byrne's 2006 best seller]. It talks about manifesting everything you envision in real life. I read 10 Habits of Highly Successful People. I read Kevin Hart's book.
Six months ago, you were in jail, facing up to as much as 3½ more years. Now you’re headlining Made in America. What’s that mean to you, for that to be happening this year, in your hometown?
That's an accomplishment for me. I've been working at this for a long time. To come back to the city and do something good is always great. I did Made in America before [in 2015], but it was an early position. A nice spot.
But years later, no matter that I've been in jail or on probation or house arrest, a bunch of ups and downs through the system, or being stalked by this probation status, I still was able to rise up to another level. So you know that means a lot to me. I'm fired up about it. And I'm expecting it to be all love like its always been.