Two of Hip Hop's biggest names joined forces to address the devastating effects that the criminal justice system has had on their communities and their personal lives during the on the ESSENCE Festival.
Rappers Meek Mill and Remy Ma, joined by journalist Lester Holt, had all eyes on them as they took to the Empowerment Stage in New Orleans' Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Saturday afternoon to discuss their own experiences with the lifelong after effects of our flawed criminal justice system. They also used the powerful moment to share their thoughts on prison reform and how to cope with being disproportionately targeted by the system as a Black community.
Being in the public eye, the two have had their run-ins with the justice system played out in front of the world. Remy Ma served a six-year sentence and was released in August 2014, while Meek Mill recently served a 5-month sentence stemming from an 11-year old case that he believes was being used against him.
The two entertainers kept it honest and unfiltered as they shared their thoughts and experiences with prison, probation, and life after being released.
Midway through the panel, Holt posed a timely question about the importance of post-prison rehabilitation and whether or not access to resources and support for those who have been recently incarcerated affect their chances of sincerely putting their past situation behind them and moving forward.
"Yeah I think so, but this isn’t the way you do it," Meek said. "People say we need to fix the system but, I think it needs to be broken and rearranged. I was there with people who don’t have the resources like me. I was there with young people from college who was serving time for crimes they didn’t commit and ended up taking a deal to avoid serving hard times, but now they have a felony on their record. Can’t get jobs, can’t go back to school."
Going on to tell the audience that his goal was always for him to bring his family out of the hood and employ those around him, the 31-year-old father elaborated on how being in prison for months, or even years, at a time hindered him from doing so. "I didn’t commit any crimes," he said. "I employ people. I do charity; they snatched me away from all of that and I couldn’t cope with this being right."
For Remy, her incarceration came at a time when her rap career was steadily rising. Although the world watched her serve her time, many don’t know the hardships and barriers that most convicted persons face upon release.
"What most people don’t know is that they use probation as another way to keep you in the system and they can even add it on to your sentence," Remy said. "I’m still on probation now. I have an 11 p.m. curfew and I have to have permission to go anywhere. Even to come to an event like this [ESSENCE Festival], I had to have permission and if my probation officer is in a bad mood or anything, she can easily shut it down and say no."
After going through her own struggles with the justice system, Remy was inspired to be an advocate for change and help other women that go through similar situations but may not have the resources and support system she has access to. The female emcee shared that she felt people listening only to what the media pushes out without doing their own research was a major problem.
"Well for one— and I think this was a major problem in Meek's case too—we tend to just listen to whatever the media tells us, and the media, they do things for people to click on their blogs, or they do things for people to buy newspapers."
Continuing to talk about how individuals are judged before all of the facts are presented, Remy also reflected on her personal challenges with the media.
"We have this notion that anybody who's in jail, or went to jail, has to be guilty," she added. "Everybody that's in jail or went to jail isn't guilty, the same way that everyone who is walking around in these streets ain't innocent. What happens is, sometimes you get forced into situations where they tell you, ‘Okay, we can not take this to trial, take three years, take 5 years, and we'll make it all go away but if you go to trial you could get 15 to 25 years.’”
There are so many things to take into consideration, many women have kids, starting families, or taking care of your parents that may be elderly or sick, going away can have a negative impact on all of those people. While advocating for convicted persons, primarily women, Remy speaks on the women she befriended during her time in prison and the different obstacles they would face -- or still do face while adjusting to life after prison.
“My real friends are people that I actually was incarcerated with. I wasn't Remy Ma the rapper or anything, I was just an inmate like everybody else. And I realized that when they came home- some of my friends been home for four years and still in a halfway house, still can't get a job, haven't seen their kids in ten years because they lost their parental rights. And I realized that all the programs that were set up, were set up mostly for men because men have a higher incarceration rate. However, what about the females that come home?”
Wrapping the conversation, Lester posed the question to both rappers, “With the way things are happening, is this a unique time right now and are our politicians paying attention to what is happening?”
“Definitely. When you got the White House paying attention, I think something is going to change. When I was locked up, I was reading articles saying I wasn’t the face of justice reform.. I didn’t want to be the face. This was always my life, before I became famous, I was on probation. But if God gave me this platform and I can speak for my brothers that are in the system, then I’ll be that.”
“I think think the time is way overdue, what happens now, I think all of these young black women and men being killed and abused, you see it now. Now that everyone has a camera... it’s been happening but people are able to see it now. They’re making it a crime to record officers. Nah, we need answers.”
With both rappers encouraging the audience to stay vigilant throughout the process and using every platform they have, Remy Ma and Meek Mill are just getting started and are headstrong about spreading awareness and advocating for those affected by the justice system.