The past year has been a non-stop heartache for anyone who cares about humanity. Watching cops take lives unapologetically, it's evident the system needs to change. Freeway is on the front line hoping to initiate that. The Roc graduate headed down to Baltimore to meet with Freddie Gray's family in an exclusive video premiere with BET for his positive track "Illuminate." He talked with the community, attended a Town Hall meeting, marched through the streets torn up by violence and poverty. Free even chopped it up with some O.G. activists to gain some perspective on how to navigate in a world in need of change. Hashtag campaigns are good and all, but there's much more to it.
On a positive note, we also saw Freeway flanked by his Roc brethren two nights in a row for Jay Z's TIDAL B-Sides concert. Even Beanie Sigel checked in following his own unnecessary brush with violence. It was a beautiful moment that Free is confident will happen again. He talks about the potential return of the Roc Dynasty, elaborates on his trip to Baltimore and highlights how artists like Chinx lose their lives senselessly to violence when rappers make music to get out of the line of fire.
What made you want to head down to Baltimore to get a feel for the climate right now in the wake of the Freddie Gray situation?
Well, you know, first and foremost, it’s f**ked up what’s going on with the brutality and everything. I’m definitely familiar with police brutality because in Philadelphia the cops killed my first cousin Raheem Pridgen. They said he had a gun on him, but he didn’t have a gun on him. It still affects my family to this day. So I’m familiar with the issues. Plus, throughout my career, Baltimore has always been a heavy supporter of not only Freeway, but Roc-A-Fella Records. I would always go down there. There’s also a lot of people down in Baltimore that I care about, that I feel close to, so I thought it was important for me to go down there and lend my voice.
Talk to me about what happened when you met the Gray family.
It was, you know, surreal. I got there early in the morning before the cameras and security and all that was out there. I went to their hood, I went to their projects. I was with Freddie’s cousin, godbrother. I walked through their neighborhood and listened to some of the issues that they had. Basically, it was just talking to the people. It was good to get their point of view of everything, telling me how the media was blowing everything up making it seem like just a bunch of people going crazy. They were telling me that, if you notice, the main thing that the people were stealing when they were looting was basic necessities. Like, they were stealing clothes and water and food — stuff that they need.
Wow. That’s a difference from something like the LA Riots, where it became a sort of joke to say something like, “Oh you got a new TV from the riots?” This is really different. They were taking what they couldn’t get in Baltimore.
Exactly. They were taking stuff they didn’t have. There are children in Baltimore and the other inner cities that might not know where their next meal is coming from. These are things that they’re telling me while I’m right there in their face. After that, we left their neighborhood and went to Freddie Gray’s mural. I put my hand on the wall with the paint and left my handprint on the wall like everyone else did. Then we had a Town Hall style meeting with some of the kids and some of the adults in the community. We were talking to them and getting their input on ways we can change things.
How are these kids feeling? They can’t even walk down the street.
There actually was one kid in the audience — he had to be about eight or nine years old — he was telling us how when he comes out the house he’s scared of the police. He’s actually scared of the police. If he sees them, he would run. That’s not cool. A child shouldn’t feel like that. A police officer should be someone you look up to or aspire to wanna be like, like a superhero. Superman. Batman. When you think of police officers, you should think of a hero. You shouldn’t think of somebody you fear.
And what’s worse, you feel no sense of safety around them.
Even me, a successful Black man — I’m on TV, I’m on the radio, I have several businesses besides the music — I’m still nervous getting pulled over by the police. I still have to tell them if I have to reach in my back pocket to get my wallet, “Officer, I have to reach in my back pocket to get my wallet,” just so they don’t make a mistake and shoot me in my face. It’s crazy out here right now.
What’s the situation like in Philly?
Same as everywhere else. Like I said, they killed my cousin. All they got was desk duty for maybe like a week or two, and then they were right back in the field. That’s another reason why I felt like it was important for me to go to Baltimore. It’s similar to Philly. We did a march through Baltimore. We marched like three and a half miles from the Town Hall meeting to this park where we performed at. Even marching through the city, I had seen a lot of similarities like the boarded up houses. It reminded me a lot of Philly and where I’m from.
You also got to kick it with some real old school activists, right?
Yup. Shout out to NY Justice League. They played a heavy part in bringing me out there, so shout out to them.
Let’s talk about 2015 activism. You went out there, talked to people, marched, attended Town Hall meetings. But a lot of the activism out there today is an Instagram meme, a hashtag, tweet this. In speaking with activists who didn’t have the luxury of the Internet to show their support, what was their take on taking things offline?
The best way to be effective with anything is to be hands on with it. It’s all good that people are reaching out online, but if you really want to affect the people, you have to be there. People have to be able to physically see you and touch you.
Let’s use me for example. I’ve been through the justice system; I’ve been in trouble before. In ’99 I was locked up for possession for attempted delivery. I went to jail, I had to do a little bit of time. I came home, I was doing probation. I learned my lesson from that. I turned my life around and haven’t been in trouble with the law since. I’ve just been moving forward ever since. So if they see me actually in their face, telling them my story. And then they know for a fact that I’m successful and I haven’t been in any trouble and I’m doing something positive with my life, then that’s actually live motivation for the people that they can see with their own eyes. That’s why it’s important to be there. Physically.
Do you feel like prison did that for you or can that lesson be taught without that end result?
For me, I had to go through it. I had rap back in the day that said, “I wondered what jail was like until I got inside.” Like, I really wanted to know what it was like when I was out in the streets selling drugs. I had to go through that to realize I didn’t want that in my life. Some people might be able to learn from people telling them and from other people’s experiences. Those are the wise people. But a lot of people have to go through it themselves. I was one of them. But hopefully, me telling my story and other people in a positive position telling their story can get at some of these kids early so that they don’t have to go through those things.
Well, outside of police brutality, violence is at an all-time high. We just lost Chinx.
Yeah, that’s crazy, man. Rest in peace to Chinx Drugz. It’s definitely at an all time high. There is no way in a world that an artist…we do this to get out of the streets and get away from the negativity and the violence. He shouldn’t even be in a position where his life is on the line, you know? It’s crazy. He’s got people who depend on him that he cares about. He has children, he has parents and family members that care about him. Nobody wants to lose somebody to something so senseless. Rest in peace to him. I pray that everybody in his family is all right.
Let’s switch it over to something really positive: seeing the whole Roc on that stage last night. How did that feel?
Aw man, it felt like a million bucks. It was a great feeling to be back out there with my brothers and rock out with the fam. It almost brought a tear to my eye. That was the foundation that I built my career on. It was a great feeling. I know the fans appreciate it, because everywhere I go they ask, “Wassup with the Roc? When are y’all getting back together? When y’all doin’ this? When y’all doin’ that?” So for us to get back together to perform was a great thing.
So is this the end? Are you guys going to try and do more?
I mean, just stay tuned. Hopefully we get some more in, and hopefully this is the relaunch of a Dynasty. Hopefully. [laughs] I’m pushin’ for it!
How did it go down? Did Jay just call you, like, “Hey I’m doing this B-Side concert for TIDAL and I need you to come down here?”
Exactly. He was like, “I would love for you come perform with me at the TIDAL B-Sides event.” I was like, “Is there cows in Texas? You know I’m there!” There was no way I missing that for the world. I’ve been on 10 ever since I got that call.
I’ve gotta admit, I got a little teary-eyed, especially seeing Beanie up there. The media was posting all sorts of stuff after he was shot, there were old photos, where we didn’t know if he was going to be OK or not. It was so good to see him up there.
Yeah, man. Shout out to Beans, man. God really favored him. He’s been through a lot, he pulled through a lot. For him to still be here and to do some positive things, it’s just a great thing. I’m so happy for him. He actually has a big show in Philadelphia coming up on the sixth of June at the TLA. We’re all gonna be there with him. It’s gonna be crazy. The whole State Property is gonna be there.
You need to do another State Property film.
We’re talking about doing all that too. Just keep your ears open.
Just one question: Where was Dame? I’m kidding.
Ha! You’re silly! But you know what? It’s all love with Dame as far as me. Dame is definitely a good dude, though. So it’s all love.