Early in the 1991 classic movie New Jack City, Detective Scotty Appleton, played by rapper Ice-T, places all his marbles in drug addict Bennie “Pookie” Robinson, played by Chris Rock.
Appleton has personally steered Pookie through his torturous crack addiction to sobriety, and now he wants to use Rock’s character to infiltrate and bring down the Harlem crack empire of drug lord Nino Brown.
Placing Pookie in such close proximity to the piles of cooked cocaine he would be required to bag inside of Brown’s massive crack house is an extraordinarily risky proposition, and ultimately it fails as Pookie tragically gives into his addiction and it costs him his life.
Appleton wanted Brown behind bars because he had killed his mother when he was a teenager. But he also viewed this as a pathway to redemption for Pookie, giving him a chance to bring down the man who contributed greatly to his addiction.
The same is true of Philly rapper Meek Mill, who last week was freed on bail by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after it was determined by the District Attorney’s Office that a cop who helped convict him on gun charges has credibility issues.
As Mill walked out of State Correctional Institution Chester and into a waiting helicopter that spirited him away to a courtside seat at Wells Fargo Center where he took in an NBA playoff game alongside Kevin Hart, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, it was already clear whom Mill owes.
He owes the powerful advocates who expedited his release by making it ground zero in the fight against the criminal justice system’s tendency to excessively punish Black men. However, he owes exponentially more to the Black men still wallowing behind bars in similar circumstances who don’t have the money for hire-priced attorneys or millions of fawning fans with the fortitude to continue these protests now that #FreeMeekMill is an expired hashtag.
Mill has said as much in a tweet following his release: “I’m grateful for your commitment to justice. I understand that many people of color across the country don’t have that luxury and I plan to use my platform to shine a light on those issues.”
And this is where it gets tricky.
Mill, now 30, is living the double life that many Black male hip-hop artists are trapped in, just as Pookie was one moment of weakness away from addiction. Mill lyrics can be brilliant, as evidenced in the cautionary 2017 track “Young Black America,” in which he writes soaringly about institutional racism, violence and other societal ills that feed the voracious appetite of the prison industrial complex.
It is impossible — moreover, it is not fair — to say which musical style best describes who he is as a person, but it is reasonable to deduce that he and his music are byproducts of his life experiences. Additionally, while his probation being extended over 10-year-old gun and drug charges is clearly an overreach, any Black man remotely aware of the punitive nature of American justice who violates the terms of his probation five times in the last six years is either out of touch with reality or believes, foolishly, that he is above the law. That’s for him to figure out.
What’s not up for debate is that the vast majority of his musical catalogue much more closely resembles “Levels” than it does “Young Black America,” and that leaves him with a choice to make.
The easy way out for him is to go back to making music like “Levels.” It’s his comfort zone; it’s buttered his bread, and it has made him millions. But if he opts to keep his lyrics close to the gutter and there is no clear evidence of growth and evolution, ultimately it will destroy his credibility, paint him as a hypocrite, and render it virtually impossible for him to be of any aid to those he has promised to help.