SAN FRANCISCO — Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill performed brilliantly for a packed house of thousands at the Masonic Auditorium. He commanded the stage without sharing the load with a backing band, keeping a rapturous crowd moving as they sang along to every word of every song.
That in itself shouldn’t be a surprise. That’s what veteran musicians do. Except that just over a year ago he was sentenced to two to four years in Pennsylvania state prison.
Meek Mill is a criminal justice reform advocate with a decade of personal experience in what needs to be fixed and why. He was arrested in 2007 by a police officer who was later accused by a whistleblower of repeated misconduct, including in Meek Mill’s case. That led to a decade of everything from mandatory etiquette classes to house arrest to the aforementioned prison sentence for arrests without convictions and failure to communicate travel schedules.
Revocations of travel privileges and direct orders not to work resulted in the loss of millions of dollars from canceled concerts and tours. It may seem like excessive punishment for an original conviction of weapons possession and drug dealing based on an arrest by an officer accused of corruption.
Even more so, since the judge responsible has reportedly been investigated by the FBI for her unprofessional and often bizarre handling of the case. And the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court agreed; he was released from prison pending their review of his original case, leading to The Motivation Tour and his San Francisco appearance.
This brings us back to last night’s performance. He opened with a video of himself, just released from prison, boarding a helicopter owned by Philadelphia 76ers owner Michael Rubin. That led to, appropriately, “Intro” from his latest album, Championships.
It didn’t take long to move into activism. After the third song was a video interview with Bay Area legend Tupac Shakur where he explained that he was only arrested after releasing a record and becoming famous. That was followed by “Trauma,” a song with lyrics like, “They shot that boy 20 times/ When they could’ve told him just freeze/ Could’ve put him in a cop car/ But they let him just bleed” and “They told Kap ‘stand up if you wanna play for a team’/ And all his teammates ain’t saying a thing.”
Almost as impressive as Meek Mill’s command of the stage and the crowd was the show’s balance. While the social justice message remained important, he changed up the themes to keep the set from getting too heavy. Following that block of serious social commentary was “House Party,” which nobody could accuse of being weighty.
Off-stage, the DJ also showed a great deal of balance and restraint. He used modern hip-hop conventions like cutting the audio so the crowd could take a line, but not to excess like so many of his contemporaries. Crucially, he limited his use of the requisite air horn sound effect button to between-song banter.
The show ended with one last weighty segment. After asking if he could “get real in the Bay,” he performed the title track from Championships, a deeply personal song about his history and the problems facing his community. He got visibly emotional as he rapped the lyrics about his father’s murder during an attempted robbery.
It was an apt summary of not just the show but of Meek Mill’s journey to date. He created joy from sorrow, hope from adversity. He gave the crowd a message without sacrificing a good time. Hopefully, his latest appeal breaks his cycle of incarceration, so that he can continue to advocate for breaking that cycle for others—and put on more awesome shows in the future.
Rappers Kash Doll, Lil Durk and Melii opened the show with sets that were entertaining if not memorable.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.