PARK CITY, Utah—“First I want everyone to take a deep breath, because that was a lot to take—to watch something like that and know it’s real life,” said Jay Z.
The shell-shocked Sundance Film Festival audience had just witnessed to the first two episodes of TIME: The Kalief Browder Story, a powerful and urgent Spike TV docuseries about the life of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old Bronx teenager who was wrongfully imprisoned for three years in the hellscape of Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a backpack—despite zero evidence. At Rikers, Browder was subject to regular beatings by gang members for refusing to join up, before spending more than 800 days in solitary confinement. Soon after his case was dismissed and he was released, the young man took his own life.
Jay Z, the rap legend, entrepreneur, and activist, is one of the executive producers of the series and participated in a post-screening Q&A where he touched on his memories with Browder, and the importance of activism in the Trump era.
“More than ever, the people have to come together,” said Jay Z. “We have to tell these stories, and we have to organize in a way that we never have before, because that’s the only thing that effects change. I hate to sound like such a cynic. Everything is based on votes, and who you can put in office.”“We have to organize,” he reiterated. “I’ve been in these meetings, I’ve spoken with people, I’ve done many things behind the scenes, but most important: We are the power. I’m sure a lot of you guys participated in it, but that display of woman power the other day was so amazing and we saw the effect: That no matter what, no matter who’s in office, we are the people that’s in power.”He may not get the headlines for it, but Jay Z and his wife, Beyoncé, have been stealthily supporting the Black Lives Matter movement for years, from bailing out protesters in Baltimore who took to the streets following the death in custody of Freddie Gray, to performing concerts, to donating $1.5 million to the movement.
During the talk, Jay Z shared a moving story about the time he met Browder:
“I originally heard about the story and read about it in The New Yorker, and I just reached out to Kalief [Browder] just to give him some encouragement,” he said.“So he comes to the office and I just wanted to give him some encouragement. He told me he was going to community college, and I was very encouraged by his story, and his strength. He was, at the time, what I viewed to be OK. I looked at this young kid and I said, man, I was actually in awe of his strength—that he was standing there, he was proud, he was sitting up straight, he was talking, he was laughing. It seemed like his laugh was going to, like it happens in the movies, he was going to get his life together and keep moving on.“After he leaves that day, we take a picture, I go to L.A. and I was on tour or something and I run into Rosie O’Donnell at the Soho House or something, and she comes up to me and says, ‘You met Kalief?’ and I said, ‘Man, I was really encouraged by that. He’s moving around this world, his energy, and people are really taking to him and he’s going to be OK. Come to find out that that night, we know because we got the text—[Rosie] had texted him and said, ‘Man, I just ran into Jay and we were talking about you,’ and he had committed suicide that night.“So for the next couple of weeks, I’m sitting around and I’m saying, man, that’s just not how it goes. That’s not how life is supposed to happen. This is supposed to turn out differently. It took me a while to really come to terms with what just happened to this young man. Remember: He’s 16 when he gets arrested. They couldn’t keep him in jail for three years had they convicted him of [stealing] a backpack. He never was convicted and was ultimately dismissed of his charge. So I still couldn’t come to terms with it.“One day I see on Obama on TV and he’s speaking about Kalief and is signing into law that minors cannot be in solitary confinement—mind you, [Kalief] was in solitary confinement over 800 days. Eight hundred days. So these things start happening—the conversation with Obama, these guys brought me this story, me and Harvey [Weinstein] had just signed our partnership. Everything started happening in a way where I was like, ‘Oh. He’s a prophet. His life was meant to make sure that other kids don’t have to go through this same thing’—because this is not some type of outlier. This happens a lot. I know many people.“I hope that we all spread the word so everybody can see this and really move this forward. I know it’s difficult to watch—it’s hard to watch—but it’s real life.”
TIME: The Kalief Browder Story will air on Spike TV sometime in 2017.