The Civil Rights Movement had many faces. The 1960s ushered in a legion of firebrand political orators, most notably Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Musicians and sportspeople also shaped the ways in which the cause was both heard, viewed and understood. Nina Simone funnelled her magnetising artistry into the cause, releasing her defining Mississippi Goddam in response to the bombing of an Alabaman church that killed four black children. The raised, leather-gloved fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave an international platform to a domestic crisis at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
While African-American political structures were eroded and undermined through conscious FBI efforts and the ensuing lack of black leaders - most of whom killed or in exile - athletes and musicians have continued to use their platform to champion black causes. These figures are part of a re-energised and rising tide of black political organisation brought about by the Black Lives Matter movement. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick's year-and-a-half long protest against police brutality has seen him gain plaudits and scorn in equal measure. However, an unlikely figure has arisen in America's civil rights story. Meek Mill, a North Philadelphian rapper, is liable to spend two to four years in state prison for probation violations that have been tacked onto him since 2008. The infringements in question? Getting into a fight and doing wheelies on his dirt bike. Despite the prosecution urging against incarceration, Judge Genece Brinkley laid time on the rapper, a decision that I think is cruel and unnecessary in equal measures.
The rapper isn't the most obvious civil rights figure: in 2015, he admitted to Billboard's Ben Detrick that he was "scared to be political". However, his plight has been fashioned into a genuine cause, most notably by Jay-Z who published an awareness video via Roc Nation and Tidal, his entertainment company and music streaming platform respectively. On Monday, hundreds gathered outside Philadelphia's Criminal Justice Centre to voice their support for the rapper. An online petition calling for the review of his sentence needed 50,000 signatures to reach Tom Wolf, the current Governor of Pennsylvania: it has reached over 350,000 in just under a week.
He is not without his fair share of controversies; the rapper was shown making a homeless man do press-ups for $20 this past February. However, as the GatheringForJustice web-page emphasises, the battle for the rapper's freedom should never be considered in isolation. As Kaepernick tweeted, "Sadly there are Black folks going through the same radicalized injustice(s) within the justice system that Meek Mill has experienced for over a decade EVERY SINGLE DAY. This requires more than just gradual reform in laws--It requires a swift overhaul."
Unlike Kaepernick, the rapper has unwittingly stumbled into the realm of politics, the draconian verdict laid upon him summarising black Americans' malignant connection to the prison system, chillingly referred to by Michelle Alexander as "the New Jim Crow." The rapper's entanglement with the law is yet another footnote in the nation's bleak and punitive legal system, one that continues to engulf black America at a frightening rate. A glance over the 2015 American Community Survey shows us that blacks and African-Americans account for 12.6% of the nation's population, yet as of this year make up a harrowing 37.9% of all those incarcerated.
The decision is currently being appealed, and the FBI are investigating Brinkley's conduct during the trial; in a bizarre turn, the judge is said to have asked the rapper to remix a Boyz II Men track and shout her out on the song, a request he bluntly refused. It is unlikely that public momentum will completely overhaul a legal system in desperate need of reformation. In uncertain times, however, it is promising that people are now standing up and making their voices heard: the fight for the rapper's freedom is a part of a much bigger picture.