Jay Z Discusses Importance of Forthcoming Docuseries 'Kalief Browder Story'

Jay Z in 2016
Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Spike

Jay Z participates in a panel discussion during Shawn "JAY Z" Carter, the Weinstein Company and Spike TV's announcement of a documentary event series on Kalief Browder on Oct. 6, 2016 in New York City. 

On Thursday (Oct. 6), Spike TV president Kevin Kay, film studio executive Harvey Weinstein and Shawn “Jay Z” Carter hosted a press conference in New York for the forthcoming series TIME: The Kalief Browder Story. The six-part “television event” tackles the story of the 22-year-old African-American man named Kalief Browder who was arrested at 16 years old in May 2010, after being accused of stealing a backpack, and awaited trial for three years at Rikers Island. He wasn’t convicted, and the case was ultimately dismissed, but the damage to his mental well-being had been done. Browder had spent two of those years in solitary confinement, and several months after his release from jail, he took his own life.

“I look at Kalief Browder as a modern-day prophet,” Jay Z told a crowd of journalists. “Our prophets come in many different shapes, forms and mediums. This young man, just by the fact that he brought all of us here today, lets you know how powerful of a soul he was.” Kay added, “Anyone who has followed Kalief’s journey realized that something has to be done about our current criminal justice system. It’s time for change, and it’s time to tell Kalief’s story.”

Weinstein, whose company has helmed films like the 2004 documentary Farenheit 9/11 on the state of America post-September 11, and 2014’s Citizenfour about Edward Snowden, also said: "I know what the power of a movie can do.” He admitted he didn't know Browder's story until Jay Z had brought the project to the Weinstein Company. “I’m gonna be honest. I didn’t even know who Kalief was until Shawn showed us footage and talked to us about the project, and now I want to make sure everybody knows.”

Jay Z also recalled how he met Browder after the current president of Roc Nation, Chaka Pilgrim, ran into Browder’s lawyer at an event. "I just wanted to give him words of encouragement, that I saw his story and I’m proud of him for making it through, and to keep pushing.” Once he heard that Browder, who was enrolled in classes at Bronx Community College, had committed suicide, he was "thrown." He offered, "That’s now how the story goes -- not in movies, not in real life.” Soon after, Obama spoke about wanting to end solitary confinement for minors. “I know that was Kalief,” said Jay Z, adding: “He’s done more in 19 years than most do in a lifetime.”

Also present was Kalief’s mother, Venida Browder, who acknowledged the Stop Solitary for Kids organization, which aims to end solitary confinement for youth in juvenile and adult facilities across the nation. (She and Browder’s lawyer, Paul Prestia, serve as board members of the organization.) “I’m very thankful that this series is aligning itself with the work of the organization," she said. "It’s unfortunately too late for my son, Kalief, but it will definitely benefit other youths, so that they won’t have to endure what my son did."

A nearly two-and-a-half-minute clip was shown, featuring unnerving footage that director Jenner Furst procured of Browder getting assaulted by officers while in prison. Part of Browder’s 2013 interview with the Huffington Post also played, as he explained why he wouldn’t cop to committing a crime he didn’t do, and spoke of the conditions of inmates at Rikers Island. “If I say I did it, nothing would be done,” he explained at the time. “I didn’t do it. No justice would be served. Nobody here is nothing at all. I had to fight."

Jay Z then fielded questions from reporters. The Brooklyn-bred rap mogul, who has logged production credits in movies like Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and Chris Rock’s Top Five,  producing for film and television is the same as telling stories through his music. “I think, with artists in general, we have a sensitivity to telling stories, and the medium doesn’t matter. Whether we’re recording in the studio, shooting a video, or producing film, it all has that same line of telling stories. So when you really tap into it, and you’re doing it for the right reasons, you’ll be successful at it, ‘cause it’s all really just storytelling.”

Weinstein also revealed that Jay Z would also be a producer on the upcoming Richard Pryor film, which was initially slated to be directed by Lee Daniels. (“There’s nothing more commercial than Richard Pryor. His story is an American story,” added Jay Z. “You’ll understand how many lives he’s touched, from every single comedian to rappers like Biggie Smalls.”)

With many unarmed black people making headlines for being killed at the hands of police officers, TIME shines a light on the criminal justice system in America, at a time where protestors continue to demand justice. When asked by a reporter for the answer to stopping police brutality, Jay Z said, "Compassion for someone’s life, things that they go through. Judgment is the enemy of compassion." 

He also said that the use of body cameras on cops creates more distrust between police officers and the communities they are hired to protect. “If we have to have an exchange and it has to be recorded, something’s wrong there. Something’s broken. 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.”

When asked by another journalist if there was a presidential candidate he felt would continue President Barack Obama’s work in wanting to end mass incarceration, Hov focused on optimism. “We have hopes. You have hopes that we’re all moving forward as a society ‘cause it’s not a political issue -- it’s a human issue,” he said. “[Kalief’s] a story of compassion and empathy, and in order for us to move forward, this conversation needs to move forward."

He continued: "Just imagine the metaphor of going down the road, and the sign says 'End of the road: 15 feet.' And you take your car, and you just barrel past it. You know at some point you gon’ go off a cliff -- that’s just the way the world works. We need to keep pushing the conversation forward. I would hope that any human being would know that’s the right thing to do.”

TIME: The Kalief Browder Story is slated to premiere on Spike in January 2017.