I NEVER 'GOT' rap. It just seemed like a musical version of the emperor's new clothes, where everyone around you is saying, "Wow, how outrageously innovative!" and all you hear is the sound a car makes when it's dying. To me, this is not art.
Someone once suggested to me that this aversion to the genre was an innocent form of racism, in which an otherwise well-meaning white person fails to appreciate the nuance of black culture. My answer to that was along the lines of, "I don't believe black culture is all about baby mamas, drive-by shootings and getting high." And to set the record straight, I think the greatest gift to music, hands down, is The Sound of Philadelphia, with Motown coming in a very close second.
Apparently, I am in the minority when it comes to rap and its first cousin, hip-hop. Jay Z is a multimillionaire. Kanye West is still relevant (and I ask, why?) Tupac Shakur is revered as a martyred prophet of the street. And a whole list of women who are not going to make Aretha sweat her legacy have somehow become pop icons.
Philadelphia has always been at the center of the pop-music universe. So it comes as no surprise that a Philadelphian is making his mark on the national scene. Robert Williams a/k/a Meek Mill is a rising star, the darling of Atlantic Records honcho Julie Greenwald and a frequent presence at high-profile concerts and on the airwaves.
But the notable rapper has a notable rap sheet. In 2008, Mill was convicted of drug dealing and gun possession, crimes that surely provided a fertile source for his rap masterpieces. He was paroled after spending six months in jail and has been on probation since 2009.
As anyone who has familiarity with the criminal-justice system knows, a common condition of probation is geographical restriction and reporting requirements. Many on probation are not allowed to travel outside a certain area without getting permission from the sentencing court. It doesn't matter if you're a nobody from Delco hoping to attend his mother's funeral in New York or an up-and-coming rapper from North Philly looking to headline a concert in the Virgin Islands.
Justice, as they say, has cataracts.
Meek Mill got that message this week when a Common Pleas judge rejected his plea to attend several gigs outside of the Philadelphia area in the upcoming month. Judge Genece Brinkley denied the rapper permission to share his musical talent with concert-goers in the Virgin Islands until his probation officially ends next month. I know the judge personally and wasn't at all surprised by her ruling. This woman exemplifies the best qualities of a jurist: intelligence, common sense, a hightened sense of fairness and a dash of good old humor. In ruling against Mill, her honor made the following observation:
"You just can't thumb your nose at me, and they can't thumb their nose at me and think it's OK." She was referring to the defendant's failure to show up for a drug test, his spotty contacts with his parole officer and the fact that he and his handlers had scheduled the island concert despite a prior warning from the bench not to do so.
The judicial slapdown must have come as a surprise to a young man who seems used to getting his way. He and his attorney seemed to argue that the laws don't apply to the talented and famous as they do to Joe "ID No. 12345" Shmoe.
Mill even had the chutzpah to try and persuade the judge with what I like to call the Jean Valjean Defense: "Hey, I'm only trying to feed my family!"
That's pretty much what the rapper said when pleading his case: "My best way of staying out of jail is staying out of the streets. I got bills. I take care of my family . . . I just want to work and do my job."
Imagine that. The only way this fellow thinks he can stay out of jail is by staying off the streets. It's as if he's saying that if we don't let him sing for his supper - literally - he's just going to have to make a living some other way. While most of us would send out a resume or check out the classifieds, this guy is implying that he'll resort to the same activity that put him in jail in 2008.
Mill isn't unique in his arrogant sense of entitlement. Rappers go through a revolving door at the jailhouse. Football players get nailed for shooting themselves in the foot (if not shooting off at the mouth). And Lindsay Lohan is the poster child for "wasted" space.
But Mill is a homeboy. That's why Judge Brinkley's ruling is a welcome ray of sunshine. It teaches us that not every notable gets preferential treatment in the courtroom, and not every judge has stars in her eyes.