Growing up, there were two things in particular that my family instilled in the fabric of my wellbeing. The first was being a proud Black man; the second was pride in being a native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From our sports to our foods to our haircuts, I’ve grown up knowing that while there are other cities in the world, none are quite like mine.
And as I’ve grown to leave Philly and move to New York City for new opportunities, I’ve felt my sense of hometown pride grow to new heights. The phrase “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” always stuck with me, and of course Sinatra meant NYC, but I took that mentality on my city first. For me, the phrase is, “If you can make it in Philly, you can make it anywhere else in the world,” and I take the opportunity to represent my city the best way possible.
Philly has been a music hub for decades, from the house that Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff built, to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and the legendary Roots crew bringing hip-hop and neo-soul to America’s doorstep, to the turn of the century when Beanie Sigel, Eve and Freeway put the City of Brotherly Love on the map. That said, it had been a good 10 years since my city had a representative on the main stage of music.
Enter Meek Mill.
Yes, nowadays Robert Williams, a.k.a. Meek Mill, is one of Philly’s best-known exports, and has established himself as one of the best rappers in the industry. Famous for battling stints in jail, disagreements with judges concerning his probation, etc., the North Philly-bred MC has managed to attain and hold onto the rap industry’s ear, despite conflicts with the law over the past five-plus years.
So when I received an invite from reps at Roc Nation and Atlantic Records to join a who’s who of New York-based journalists and reporters on a bus down to Philadelphia to attend Meek’s “Welcome Home” concert at the Wells Fargo Center, to me, it felt full circle. Being the same age as Meek, I remember seeing him over 10 years ago at a callow point, amongst his peers rapping at local high schools, malls or the ever-popular-at-the-time rap DVDs. Back when, Philly rap artists were consistently overlooked by their New York counterparts. So it instilled a sense of pride that one of our local sons made it out for the world to see.
I boarded the luxury bus alongside fellow music writer, roommate and Philly native Chris Thomas of HipHopWired.com. Bottles of D’ussé cognac appeared out of nowhere by the time we reached the Lincoln Tunnel, and I quickly realized it was going to be one of those trips.
Talking to other journalists on the two-hour ride from New York to Pennsylvania, it was interesting to see at what point they became Meek fans, as opposed to my early access. Chris and I named songs from our adolescent years that were unfamiliar to our colleagues, and that became a moment of clarity. We grew up listening to Meek Mill. He’s been putting in work musically for well over ten years, and has reached one of the highest levels. It made me proud.
Philadelphia is a city that can swallow its youth whole before they even have a chance to shine. Our inner city neighborhoods have been struck with poverty throughout the years, which results in crime and drug use, a reality some children see at very young ages. While I was blessed to come from a good, upper-middle class family, my experiences with friends quickly showed me everyone was not as fortunate. Not to mention that living in the city as a young Black man became increasingly dangerous as I reached my teenage years. There was a span of three years where I would say a prayer at the beginning and end of every summer that my friends and I would make it out alive. Things were that bad.
That also translated into the city’s music scene; it became a normalcy to hear this rapper was locked up for drugs, or this rapper was booked for a gun charge. Dreams would be deferred before they could even take flight due to the environment and situations people were placed in. “If you can make it in Philly, you can make it anywhere,” sure, but it’s more about making it out of the city, which is a bigger feat.
After a trip to a local Foot Locker (the grounds to buy Meek’s collaborative sneaker with Puma) and a stop at Philly’s famous South Street (where Chris and I took our group to load up on a real cheesesteak), we pulled into the Wells Fargo Center for the night’s festivities. After living in Brooklyn for the past year, I immediately felt that sense of “home.” I was amongst my people, and that energy was clear. Seeing old faces and briefly catching up on old times, that sense of familiarity was in the air, and it added to the night’s excitement. Coming into our suite, it was quickly noticed that the arena was completely sold out. The city really came out to support one of its own.
After a tribute video of some of the city’s legends (The Roots, Allen Iverson, Julius Erving, Kevin Hart), Meek hit the stage with the energy of a Broad Street Line SEPTA train. Accompanied by a live band, Meek put on a show that will be remembered for years to come. Performing songs that brought him to worldwide stardom, he also touched his core fanbase performing mixtape cuts from early on in his career.
And it seemed like he had everyone come to Philly to show him that Brotherly Love. Young Jeezy, French Montana, Yo Gotti, Jadakiss, Fabolous, Rick Ross, DJ Khaled— literally a who’s who of rap music at the moment—all came through to welcome the boy home. Meek even paid homage to Philly rap greats Beanie Sigel and the Young Gunz in a tribute that brought the 19,000-plus crowd to its feet.
As he closed out the show with a touching tribute to his fallen Dreamchasers signee Lil Snupe and his hit song, “Dreams and Nightmares,” Robert Williams stood still in an environment that was not. You could almost see the adulation in his posture; a boy from this city of dreams realizing one of his own dreams has come true. As the crowd forcefully, excitedly sang his verses verbatim with no drop off, it was clear that love was in the air; love from a man for the city that raised him, and love from the city for him representing it so well. And that right there is what the City of Brotherly Love is all about.
Cory Townes was born and raised in Philadelphia, and currently lives in Brooklyn. A devout Philly sports fan, Townes is the Social Media Manager for EBONY.com. When he’s not drinking cognac in a turtleneck or praising cheesesteaks from Ishkabibbles, you can reach him on Twitter @CoryTownes.