NICHOLAS HUNT // NY DAILY NEWS
Jay Z’s newest project is one of the most important of his career and he cannot stress enough how critical it is for people to take it in and talk about it. The legendary mogul is one of the executive producers of the upcoming six-part docu-series “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story.”
Last night, in Park City, Utah at the Marc Theater, Jay and company were the center of attention at the Sundance Film Festival where they screened the first two episodes of their show. The series, set to air on Spike TV in March, is a heart-wrenching account of Browder’s tragedy.
At the age of 16, the young Bronx native was accused of stealing a backpack and eventually arrested and sent to Rikers Island. Always maintaining his innocence, Browder spent a horrific three years in Rikers despite never being convicted. He was abused by fellow inmates and correction officers alike—surveillance footage of the brutal assaults are shown in “TIME”—placed in solitary confinement for almost 1000 days and, according to his accounts, was “starved” and not allowed to shower for weeks at a time.
Kalief tried to commit suicide twice in jail and his mental stability deteriorated. The charges against Browder were eventually dismissed, but the damage had been done to both Kalief and his family. It was irreversible. Kalief committed suicide almost two years ago when he was 22. The system didn’t just fail him, it had broken him. His mother died of what many call “a broken heart” just a few short months later.
“Take a deep breath,” Jay Z told the audience after the screening as he sat in front of the crowd with filmmaking icon Harvey Weinstein and other executives involved in the project.
Hov said he first heard of Browder’s anguish-filled plight by reading about him in The New Yorker. He immediately reached out to his longtime friend and Roc-A-Fella and Roc Nation executive Chaka Pilgrim to find Kalief. Pilgrim contacted Browder that night and the next day the youngster was at Roc Nation meeting with Jay.
“He comes into my office. I wanted to give him some encouragement,” Jay said, recalling their interaction. “He told me he was going to community college. I was encouraged by his story, his strength, that he was—at the time, what I viewed to be—OK. I looked at this young kid and 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. And it seemed that his life was gonna, like it happens in the movies, that he was going to get his life together and he was going to keep moving on.”
The two took a photo together and said they would keep in contact. Jay left the next day to go to L.A.
“I run into Rosie O’Donnell at, like, the SoHo house or something,” the hip-hop great continued. (O’Donnell had featured Kalief on her talk show previously and was one of his most vocal supporters) “She comes up to me and says, 'You met Kalief.’ I said, ‘Man, this guy. I was really encouraged by him. He’s really moving around this world. His energy, people are taking to him. And he’s going to be OK.’”
That night, both O’Donnell and Jay were shocked and crushed when they received the news that Kalief had committed suicide.
“So, for the next couple days, I’m sitting around and I’m like, ‘Man, that’s just not how it goes. This is supposed turn out differently,’” Jay said. “It took a while to really come to terms with what just happen to this young man. Remember, he’s 16 when they arrested him. They couldn’t keep him in jail for three years had they convicted him of stealing the backpack. He never was convicted.”
A short while later, Jay was again inspired by hearing Barack Obama speak about Kalief and putting a plan into action where minors would not be placed in solitary confinement while in jail. Browder’s story also sparked New York Mayor Bill De Blasio to make changes that would make the municipal court system a lot faster.
“Everything just started happening in a way where I was like, ‘Oh, he’s a prophet. His life was meant to make sure other kids don’t have to go through the same thing,” Jay said. “This is not like some type of outlier. This happens a lot. I know many people.”
Hov then went on to tell the story of a friend who was killed in prison.
“I just view Kalief as a prophet,” Jay concluded. “And I hope we spread the word so we all could see this thing. I know it’s difficult to watch. It’s hard to watch. It’s real life. It’s us. The power of us. We are the people that can change this and make sure this doesn’t happen to someone else’s 16 year old child.”