Kareem 'Biggs' Burke On The Accuracy Of HBO’s ‘O.G.,’ Prison Reform, And Having A Friend In Jesus
HBO’s groundbreaking prison film O.G. is about lines. Not lines for "the count" or for meals in the dining hall, but hard lines of truth and consequences that become smudged with time and opportunity. The film stars Jeffrey Wright as Louis Menkins, the former leader of a prison gang who is in the final weeks of a 24-year sentence. As with many prison-based dramas, Louis is on the precipice of freedom, yet his release becomes threatened by choices he makes inside to help a young inmate following in his footsteps.
The film is the feature length debut by director Madeleine Sackler and won Wright an award at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018. O.G. was shot in a maximum-security prison and is the first feature film to hire actual inmates to be actors and extras in the production. Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Kareem “Biggs” Burke was brought on as an executive producer to help, in his words, “amplify the message” about rehabilitation and to help inmates transition into civilian life after their release.
However, the story behind the story of OG is as intriguing, and probably deserves its own treatment. But it’s fascinating to consider that a Harlem-born hustler who made his name in the record business would find himself behind bars for trying to get a foot in what is now a very legal and profitable Cannabis dispensary business--for some. And his resulting interest in prison reform would find him attached to a film directed by the granddaughter of Ray Sackler, co-founder of Purdue Pharma, inventors of Oxycontin. When you begin to unravel the intertwined threads of well-meaning philanthropy and the marketing of a legal and addictive narcotic, those lines begin to blur. The urge is to blink twice, rub your eyes and refocus.
Besides, Burke’s own story of rehabilitation while in prison is far more interesting. In 2012 Biggs was indicted and sentenced to serve five years in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana (more on that later). But while in prison Biggs befriended a fellow inmate named Joseph “Chip” Skowron, a Yale-educated physician turned wealthy hedge fund manager who would spend his vacations volunteering his surgical skills for AmeriCares, a nonprofit organization that offers humanitarian aid in troubled areas. However, in 2011 Skowron was indicted and imprisoned for insider trading. This is when he met Burke.
During a 2016 panel for the New Canaan Society, a religious-based support group, Biggs outlines how he met Skowron, asking to pick his brain about a business proposal that was sent to him while in jail. After hours of conversation with Chip, Biggs was a changed man.
“After the count I usually go upstairs to my friend’s room called Harlem,” he says in the video. “We would laugh and joke and eat together. That specific night the guys were looking at me and they asked what’s wrong? And I was like I dunno, I can’t stop thinking about Jesus. When I left the room that night it felt like I was floating, like I wasn’t even touching the floor. So, I told Chip and he said ‘That’s the Holy Spirit! We have to have another conversation.’ Shortly after that we became closer friends and then he started bringing me books to read like Four Loves by CS Lewis, Run Baby Run and a Hole In The Gospel. During those conversations Chip and I got real personal and he would ask me about my life and we began to unpack that.”
Biggs shared his life story with Skowron, which included getting a dog named Cocaine from his drug addicted father when he was just three years old, being evicted from his apartment at age 10 and his aunt’s boyfriend stabbing her 20 times when he was a teen. After having to live in a shelter, Biggs swore that he would never be impoverished again, which lead to him selling drugs at 13. By his late teens he was approached by childhood friends to invest in a record label and the rest his history.
Now Biggs is active in mentoring prisoners inside, counseling them on their transition post-prison, so attaching his name to a film like O.G only makes sense. Who better to speak on redemption for those who have fallen outside the lines of the law? The truth is hard, but it can set you free.
BET: How did you become involved with the OG film?
Biggs: The OG movie was already shot and Wally Eltawashy, head of strategic development at Bolo Media, brought the project to me. And once I seen the project, for me, it was a no-brainer for me to be a part of it. So, I came on as an executive producer mainly to amplify the message. I’m definitely familiar with the dialogue they were trying to create as far as prison reform, social injustice and the restorative process. A lot of these inmates are in prison and they’re coming back to these communities, and we want to talk about the rehabilitation, not just punishment. A lot of these [men and women] get shunned away, and there’s not a lot of programs and things to help them as they transition back into the society. It was something that was important to me because I have a non-profit that speaks to that as well.
What is the name of your non-profit?
NCS-Inside. It’s a beta program that’s been in Connecticut [for] over a year. Every week there’s volunteers who go into prison and just spend time with the inmates and build relationships. [They] speak about daily life problems, things that’s great that’s happening and troubles that they’re going through, just opening up and being vulnerable to the inmates allowing them to use that platform to be vulnerable as well.
Can you tell me a bit more about NCS (New Canaan Society), the program that it spawned from?
NCS started about 22 years ago by a friend of mine in his living room. It was built on a friendship with Jesus at the center. It was about men coming together. In the marketplace Wall Street men and people of high wealth in different forms of business were given a place where they could trust and be vulnerable to talk about things that they go through. Whether it be their wives, their office, things like that. It grew to about 20,000-plus men with 60-something chapters, and it changed into something different. In the New York chapter, every week there’s a speaker and the center of it is relationships. You don’t have to be a Christian to come, you can be part of any religion. But it’s about coming and forming a friendship. Because a lot of times in prison people coming home and think that if they’re married or have a job, things will change. That doesn’t stop you from going through daily life struggles. And that relationship helps you get through some of those hurdles. Somebody you can call at midnight and be an ear for you. Or just pray with you.
For the movie OG itself, were there specific things in it that reflected your experience that made you want to be a part of it?
The first call I had I [was told] that it was done in a prison and I was curious to know where it was. And all the nuances that happened in the movie are like real things that happen in jail. I was wondering how they hit the nail on the head. Come to find out this movie is the first movie ever done in a prison with over 150 of the inmates as actors in the movie. That’s never been done before. So, to have them be part of the process and then see Jeffrey take on that role, and the challenge of playing an inmate alongside other inmates…he took the same pay that the inmates made, I don’t have the exact amount, but it’s [basically] pennies. He wanted to make sure he was being treated as an equal.
I know the movie was already done when you were brought on, but did you get to speak with Jeffrey or the inmates afterward?
Yeah, both. Jeffrey and I spent quite a bit of time talking about the project afterwards, the inmates, too. When Jeffrey won Best Actor at the Tribeca Film Festival, we had panels after the screening and had inmates Skype in and allowed the audience to do a Q&A with them.
Will there be a chance for viewers to hear from the inmates as well?
It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It is a documentary with the inmates in the film, actually directed and produced by them. They are interviewing themselves and talking about their childhoods and what brought them there, some of the mistakes they made. And doing that on camera can hopefully help some of the kids going down that road. The same actors in The OG are in it, and it comes out the same day on HBO.
You went to prison for marijuana-related charges, but more and more people are creating businesses around cannabis as it gets legalized. How does that make you feel?
For me, it opened my eyes to the injustice system and how they’ve actually set people up. Seeing what’s happened with the legalization, for me it was like being a soldier at war. I’m the guy that suffered in the camps with the POWS and did all these things. But I’m still happy to see [the change]. I knew it was moving toward legalization, which is why I was trying to open dispensaries early on back as far as 2010. I thought I was being ahead of the game but made the mistake of connecting two people and them speaking to buy marijuana across state lines. I didn’t see it as a conspiracy at the time, but the guy I knew was being investigated by the Feds. So, I just got wrapped up in that.
Streets Is Watching was your gateway to film making. What did you learn about Hollywood making that film, and how has the industry changed to you?
I don’t know if SIW gave me any insight into movie making. That was something we did strictly as a music project to tie us back into the streets after going too far left with the “Sunshine” single. But I would say State Property, Paper Soldiers, Death of a Dynasty, Paid in Full, Shadow Boxer, financing Lee Daniels first film with Helen Mirren, those gave me a little more insight on producing, marketing, financing. That gave me a little deeper insight. I’m a little more familiar with the process now.
What do you want people to take away from seeing The OG?
To start a dialogue. There’s no change unless people start speaking about it. I hope people look at the criminal justice system as something that we all know is broken. There are people that look like us going to prison more than anyone else for some of the crimes other people are doing. And there is no rehabilitate process to that, it’s just about punishment. And to think about when these people are coming back into society and what they’re coming home to. And the restorative process, people who made mistakes as young adults. Sometimes you make a bad mistake but it doesn’t make you a bad person. Changing the system won’t be easy. It’s like making a u-turn with the Titanic in a small space. I just hope the dialogue is something we can use to start some change.
We’ve been hearing about prison reform, particularly in hip-hop, since the '90s with Slick Rick’s case. Does it frustrate you at all to see rappers like Bobby Shmurda and Tekashi69 still getting caught up?
I would say anything frustrates me when these young kids make mistakes that could take them away from their kids or families for a period of time. The statistic is that once the parent goes to jail, there is a 50 percent chance that your kid will go to jail as well. But I want to focus on the positive, like what Jay-Z is doing and Puff’s campaign and Meek Mill being the face of his own reform. It’s a lot of good. Once you got guys like that speaking out, it will be a snowball effect for change.
O.G. premieres on HBO February 23.