When Jay Z tries to describe the impact he hopes the upcoming documentary that he has produced, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, will have, the typically eloquent hip-hop artist and entrepreneur stumbles. "It's inhumane," he told a room of reporters at a Manhattan press conference on Thursday, his voice heavy with emotion. "It's difficult for me to find the words, it's so inhumane."
The six-part docuseries, which will premiere on Spike in January, tells the story of Browder, a 16-year-old Bronx resident who was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. He claimed he did not commit the crime and was subsequently held at Rikers Island for the next three years without a trial; he spent two of those years in solitary confinement. Two years after his release, in June 2013, he killed himself. Jay Z describes Browder as a "modern-day prophet," someone whose story could shine a light on society and help move culture forward; he pointed to Barack Obama's recognition of Browder's story as a signpost for the future.
"We're the voice," the rapper said, after finding his words. "We're society. We affect change. We can change everything. ... Our voices are stronger than ever. If everyone in this room is like, 'I don't agree with this happening to a 16-year-old,' then it won't happen again. It's that simple."
A clip from the series showed Browder's interrogation and footage of him in Rikers, dressed in orange, being dragged off and beaten. It also showed the struggle his mother, Venida, has gone through to in her efforts to fight injustice.
She has since joined the board of an organization, Stop Solitary for Kids, a national campaign to end solitary confinement for youths. "It's too late unfortunately for my son Kalief, but it will definitely benefit other youths so they don't have to endure what my son did," she told the audience.
Jay Z talked about how he had been so moved by Browder's story, after reading a profile of him in The New Yorker, that he had reached out to the young man after his release. "I just wanted to give him words of encouragement," he said. "I saw his story and I'm proud of him for making it through and to keep pushing. He told me he was going to college.
"In the movies, when this type of story is told, it ends differently," he continued. "Then I got a call ... telling me that Kalief had taken his own life. I was thrown. ... I was asking myself, man, this story doesn't end like this. It's not supposed to end this way. That's not how this story goes, not in the movies, not in real life."
Jay Z brought the story to producer Harvey Weinstein, also in attendance, who subsequently brought it to Spike. Filmmaker Jenner Furst directed the series, and Nick Sandow (Orange Is the New Black's Warden Joe Caputo) served as its writer.
At other times in the press conference, Jay Z fielded questions that looked at Browder's story with a wider lens. Regarding America's problems with mass incarceration, he said it wasn't a political issue. "It's a human issue," he said. "In order for us to move forward, this conversation needs to move forward."
When a reporter asked about his views on how society can end police brutality against African-Americans, he said that people need to look at the issue differently. "[People need] compassion for someone's plight [and] the things that they're going through," he said. "Judgment is the enemy of compassion. When you are able to identify that we're all not perfect and we may make mistakes. ... Having a camera on someone creates more distrust. If we have to have an exchange and it has to be recorded, something's wrong there. A camera can't fix the relationship between a person that's hired to protect and serve and society. It has to be a relationship. It has to be respect on both sides."