By Esau McCaulley
On April 24, 2018, Meek Mill boarded a helicopter. A short time later he arrived at game five of the NBA playoffs, which he kicked off by clanging Philadelphia’s ceremonial bell. Meek had spent the last five months in prison due to a series of court cases that began with a gun charge in 2008. But now he was free. He had the support of his city and of a host of black men and women who saw in his case the echoes of their experiences or the experiences of those they cared about. The high-profile nature of his case led to a wider conversation about sentencing reform and the struggles of people trapped in the criminal justice system.
These events focused attention on his next album. What did Meek have to say about the last five months? The last 10 years? The entire album is not my focus, but one song caught my attention: “What’s Free,” featuring Jay-Z and Rick Ross. The chorus asks a question that takes on fresh urgency when we know who is asking it and what he’s been through.
Free is when nobody can tell us what to be.
Free is when the TV ain’t controlling what we see.
If there is a consensus that unites the disparate parts of the black diaspora in America it is the lack of freedom. But what do we want? What is freedom? How do we get it? This question divides us because different parts of the black community have different definitions of freedom.
What does the church of Jesus Christ have to say about the scope and nature of the freedom that sets us apart? What message do we have when we are being true to our king? These are important questions, but first we need to listen to Meek, Rick, and Jay.
Black Freedom and Black Utilitarianism
Since a lad, I was cunning, Just got a pad out in London
I keep stackin’ my money, I’ll need a ladder by summer. — Rick Ross
Rick Ross had the first verse on “What’s Free,”and he wasn’t there for the black empowerment and prison reform rap that would follow in his wake. He focused on making money by any means necessary. We used to have a phrase that explained any crime or wrong that we might do: “It’s a dirty game.” The system was rigged against us, so the only way to win was to cheat. If you suffered the negative consequences for my cheating, that was the result of being stuck in the game alongside me. Ross embodies the black utilitarianism that arises when we become convinced that our losses are not the result of a lack of effort, but are baked into the system. We do what we must.
But can black utilitarianism bring freedom? No, because it requires a select few to build their fleeting empires on the broken lives of their brothers and sisters. I once attended the funeral of a drug-addict. Many people there (including drug dealers) mourned the addict’s passing, but they never stopped to consider that even though they didn’t sell him the drugs that took his life, they sold drugs to someone else whose life they destroyed. Is freedom free when the car that we bought was paid for with drug money that comes of the expense of the rent money of the family down the road? The game is dirty, but the dirt we do to get what we have does not wash off easily.
Black Freedom, Prison Reform, and Sporadic Black Activism
Locked down in my cell, shackled from ankle to feet
Judge bangin’ that gavel turned me to slave from a king. — Meek Mill
Meek’s vision of freedom is literal. He wants fewer black folks in prison. His case made him the public face of parole reform. His desire for freedom, then, was not hypothetical. He experienced the system, and his activism was born of experience. And he is right. The disparity of sentencing between blacks and whites convicted of the same crime has been documented. The imbalance in death-penalty cases is particularly striking. We could go on, but the justness of this cause is plain enough.
As laudable as these issues are, I wonder if they are in any way connected to a larger vision of justice. How does the issue of criminal justice reform touch on other issues facing our community? For example, shortly after “What’s Free” there is a song called “Splash Warning”that depicts women in ways not fit for print. Are we free if our women are treated as sex objects and parole laws are changed? Are we happy with sporadic black activism rooted in our experiences, or do we need a wholistic vision for the freedom of everybody?
Black Freedom, Black Ownership, and the Bourgeoise
In the land of the free, where the Blacks enslaved
Three-fifths of a man I believe’s the phrase
I’m 50% of D’USSÉ and it’s debt free (Yeah)
100% of Ace of Spades, worth half a B (Uh) — Jay-Z
If black nihilism and sporadic activism won’t get us there, then what is our hope? Jay-Z posits black ownership. He speaks about how when he first entered the rap game he was concerned about Billboard rankings, but now he knows that (white-owned) record labels were taking advantage of black artists who only received a portion of the fruits of their labor. According to Jay, this is part of a larger pattern of the white exploitation of black gifts that began with slavery. Instead of being at the mercy of bosses, we need to own our stuff to be free. Jay is partly right. Black artists and workers are exploited in a system that doesn’t allow us to cooperate economically for the good of our communities. We are too often trapped in a competition when the winner gets the crumbs from the table, never the whole meal.
But questions remain. First, after we have reclaimed the grocery stores, beauty shops, and restaurants that thrive on black money, after we have opened our black banks and black private schools, what kind of ethics will guide the way we run our businesses? What will prevent us from repeating the same exploitative practices that others use? We all know of black businesses that rob black workers.
Second, there is no society in which everybody is an owner. Some of us will have an employee. What does the emerging black middle class (and in Jay-Z’s case the uber-rich) have to say to the black working class — other than Get where we are? What if I can’t own a streaming service? I am reminded of another lyric by Jay-Z: “What’s better than one billionaire? Two.” I might be tempted to say fair wages for the working poor. Again, the vision is not incorrect in what it affirms. The problem is that his vision — even when it speaks about billions — is too small.
Black Freedom and the Gospel of Jesus Christ
It is no surprise that I think that Jesus offers a bigger and fuller freedom. How can I make such a claim, given the periodic complicity of the Church that bears his name in the oppression of the very people I want to free?
First, the stories of the Church and the souls of black folks are more complicated than the memes we see on social media. Yes, if you deny God’s providential ordering of history on the one hand and Christian eschatology on the other (two pillars of all solid theological reflection), it is possible to doubt the good of Christianity for black people. Christianity is good for black people because the tomb is empty and a sovereign God orders the affairs of humanity.
But what of freedom? Why is Jesus’ offer of freedom so compelling? Jesus’ vision is compelling because he offers freedom to all who would answer his call. Jesus claims that all are slaves to sin.
Is he correct? Are there broken desires that distort and corrupt us and those we love?
He rightly recognizes that there is no vision of freedom that does not touch on the brokenness of the human person. But Jesus also sees very clearly that the systems and powers of this world conspire to make life miserable. This misery leaves in its wake a record of wrongs done and lives destroyed. This misery creates a cycle of hate and revenge that leaves us divided. Where can we go to find a way forward that includes plain truth-telling, the righting of wrongs done, and the hope of reconciliation? The best answer that I have encountered is the cross of Christ, through which the truth is told, forgiveness for all is possible, and transformation can be realized. Through the blood we might become friends again.
Thus, Jesus offers us a vision of freedom that includes the creation of a community of free people whose mutual love and deference to one another presents a compelling vision of what it means to live. But there is more.
All our attempts at freedom are hindered by the reality of death. Those we love slip from us. But what if the story is true? What if there is one who has defeated death? Then everything has changed. Jesus is freedom because he is life.
Black freedom, then, will not come if we embrace a nihilistic vision of the world in which we exploit the brokenness of our people for our comfort. Black freedom will not come through sporadic activism that lifts only some. Black freedom will not come when a talented tenth buys a stake in the American dream. Black freedom will not come in a flight from the world hoping for a better future.
Black freedom will come through an open-eyed engagement with the powers of this world with the sure confidence that God is with us because our cause is just. Black freedom will come when we join the community formed by the blood of the beloved Son. He whom the Son sets free is free indeed.