Last March, a coalition of hip-hop greats including Killer Mike, Meek Mill, Yo Gotti and Chance the Rapper sent a brief to the United States Supreme Court, detailing the ways rap music is stigmatized and stereotyped by the legal system.
“Like all poets, rappers use figurative language, relying on a full range of literary devices,” read the “primer” on interpreting rap music, submitted in defense of Pittsburgh rapper Jamal Knox, who was arrested over his song “Fuck the Police.”
The brief was filed by trial lawyer Alex Spiro, a partner at New York City-based Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP. “We were simply trying to illustrate that hip-hop has been the greatest music movement of the 21st century, and has inspired a lot of people,” Spiro says. “The lyrics could be exactly the same in a rock song as in a rap song, but it can be interpreted differently and criminalized.”
It wasn’t his first run-in with the rap world. Over the past few years, Spiro has become a go-to trial lawyer for hip-hop artists from Jay-Z, who added Spiro to the legal team that freed 21 Savage from detainment by U.S. immigration authorities last year, to Mill, who tapped Spiro to serve as special counsel for his REFORM Alliance criminal justice reform organization.
Sipping an espresso at an Italian restaurant in Midtown, Spiro, who was born in New York City but grew up in Boston, says his career in law began slightly “by accident.” He initially planned to go into medicine, but after working with adolescent Asperger’s patients as an undergrad psychology major at Tufts University, he made the “last-minute” switch to law, where he felt he could more directly help the disadvantaged.
“I saw people that didn’t get second chances,” Spiro says of his time at McLean Hospital. “I started thinking that, fundamentally, the fairest thing is for people to start on equal footing. And in this country, people don’t always.”
He studied at Harvard Law School, where he is now chair of the legal advisory council for the school’s Fair Punishment Project initiative, which highlights injustices in the criminal justice system that lead to excessive punishment, racial bias, and other issues.
From there, Spiro — who invokes client confidentiality several times during the interview — specifies only that “my first big case was the first person that needed help.” But he likely first saw his name in the press as part of the legal defense for Bobby Shmurda, the Brooklyn rapper who was at the cusp of fame when he was arrested in 2014 for conspiracy to murder, weapons possession and reckless endangerment. Shmurda was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2016 after pleading guilty to 4th-degree conspiracy to criminally possess a weapon and second-degree criminal weapons possession. (He is up for parole in August.) The high-profile nature of the cases he takes on never bothered Spiro, though: “When it started to happen [seeing my name in the press], you’re like, ‘Oh, look at that,’” he says, “and you get to a point pretty quickly where it’s sort of irrelevant.”
More recently, as an attorney for Jay-Z, he has helped the hip-hop mogul and Roc Nation’s philanthropic arm, Team Roc, take on a spate of cases related to criminal justice reform, including 21 Savage’s controversial arrest in February 2019 for allegedly overstaying his visa. The news sparked conversation over U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement treatment of black immigrants; at the time, Spiro told Billboard that 21’s situation was a “casualty of a broken system.” (The case is currently caught in a nationwide backlog; 21 Savage faces deportation and a 10-year ban from returning to America.)
And earlier this year, after an outbreak of violence at a Mississippi prison left five inmates dead, Jay enlisted Spiro’s help to file a complaint in the U.S. District Court in Greenville on behalf of inmates, alleging “years of severe understaffing and neglect at Mississippi’s prisons.”
Spiro says that he and Team Roc are now “inundated” with calls and emails from Americans dealing with civil rights issues: “People who are in jail that are innocent, people who have had their voting rights and their housing restricted … people of all walks of life.” He, Jay-Z and the rest of Team Roc comb through the cases together, selecting the ones with the potential to have the greatest overall impact. “We work well together because we see these issues as something that needs to be corrected for, and we have the resources and ability to effect change,” Spiro adds.
He feels similarly about Mill, who named him special counsel at REFORM in October last year. Launched in response to Mill’s own re-incarceration for a minor technical violation while on probation, REFORM’s goal is to reduce the number of Americans behind bars. Currently, REFORM is working to pass two bills in Mill’s native Pennsylvania (HB1555 and SB14) that would transform the state’s probation system by minimizing the types of technical violations for which a person can be re-incarcerated, setting standards for probation term lengths according to the crime and more. “What Meek has done is turn a situation that was a profound injustice into a moment in which he can, again, further correct some of the problems in this country,” Spiro says.
Spiro declined to comment on the ongoing cases. Meanwhile, his celebrity client list goes beyond hip-hop, as he’s also known for representing NBA players like Thabo Sefolosha and ex-New York Knicks star Charles Oakley.
But similar to the rap music primer he sent to the Supreme Court last spring, he strives for “out-of-the box” thinking in the courtroom, an approach he thinks artists in particular can relate to.
“Artists are creative-minded people, by and large. Some of them have lived a complex life, where you’re living in one town, and the next thing you know, you’re onstage. Those things cause you to consider who you are and where you came from,” he says. “They’re in a position where they can say, ‘I have this platform; what am I going to do to correct some of the things I’ve seen?’ One way or another, sometimes I’m in the room with those folks, and off we go.”
It was always obvious to me that we don’t all start off on equal footing. And if that is for a bad reason, well, we should fight it.
I’ve learned that you can’t just fight on rage. You need to have a little grace.
When I strategize I pace around. And I write a lot of Post-It notes.
The best advice I’ve received I’m not sure it was advice, but a friend passed away, and someone said of this person that he “truly believed he was no better or worse than anyone else.” It has stayed with me.
Something most people don’t understand is being a trial lawyer is a little bit like being a musician on stage. I tell people Karaoke is good practice for both.
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