The Atlanta native rapper was indicted last spring for his alleged membership in a branch of the “Bloods” gang.
Is rapper Young Thug a member of a gang, is his music label a front for criminal activity, and are his song lyrics evidence that can be used against him? The trial of this figure of contemporary hip-hop, tried with 13 other people, begins Monday.
Atlanta native Young Thug and his co-defendants were indicted last spring by a Georgia state grand jury for their alleged membership in a branch of the “Bloods” gang identified as “Young Slime Life,” or YSL. Initials that correspond to those of his label founded in 2016, Young Stoner Life Records.
The fourteen protagonists are tried for criminal conspiracy with a view to extortion of funds. In support of this accusation: alleged acts of murder, drug trafficking, violent car theft… Young Thug is on trial for criminal association and participation in the criminal activities of a street gang.
His arrest in May came as a shock to Atlanta’s influential hip-hop scene, of which the 31-year-old rapper, who has collaborated with the biggest names in the genre, is a figure.
Jeffery Williams, his real name, grew up in the poor neighborhoods of Atlanta. Like 2 Chainz, he caught the eye of Gucci Mane, who signed him in 2013. His singles Stoner and Danny Glover then brought him fame. Tattooed up to his face, he is known for his psychedelic and flamboyant style, and his rhymes tinged with voice crackles make him one of the best representatives of the trap current.
The case is also emblematic because prosecutors used lyrics from some of Young Thug’s songs, those of fellow rapper Gunna — who pleaded guilty — as evidence, as well as the lines of a posthumous song by Juice WRLD, died in 2019 of an overdose.
“If you decide to admit a crime on a ‘beat’ (a rap rhythm), I will use it,” assumed the prosecutor, Fani Willis.
This isn’t the first time hip-hop verses have landed in a courtroom. The defense, which insists that YSL is nothing more than an artistic label, called as a witness a specialist in the subject, the professor at the University of Richmond, Erik Nielson.
In his book Rap on trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America (“Rap on Trial: Race, Words and Guilt in America”, untranslated) released in 2019, the latter indicates that courts frequently use this controversial method: taking pieces of artistic texts out of context to support criminal prosecutions and condemn budding rappers or artists, most often African-American.
“With increasing and disturbing frequency, prosecutors are attempting to use rap lyrics as confessions,” also denounces a petition launched a few months ago by Kevin Liles, the co-founder of the music label 300 Entertainment, a subsidiary of Warner. of which YSL Records is a trademark.
“This is not only a violation of the protection of the freedoms of speech and creation guaranteed by the First Amendment (of the American Constitution, editor’s note). It strikes at already marginalized communities and silences their histories of family, of struggle , survival and success”, adds the text.
The petition, signed tens of thousands of times online, asks that the law limit, up to the federal level, the ability of prosecutors to use artistic expression as evidence of criminal activity or intent.
This is already the case in California, where Governor Gavin Newsom signed a decriminalization of artistic expression law last fall, which does not completely ban the use of song lyrics, but gives them lesser.
Similar laws are being considered in the states of New York and New Jersey, and Congressmen Hank Johnson and Jamaal Bowman introduced legislation last summer to protect artists’ freedom of expression under the first amendment.
“Rap is inherently political discourse: it can be painful, heartbreaking, uncomfortable, but vital for criticizing society,” said Brad Hoylman, a local senator who co-authored the project in New York State. According to him, using song lyrics in court could “weaken freedom of expression” and “lead to a miscarriage of justice”.
Of the 28 people initially named in the indictment, 14 are expected to stand trial which could last six to nine months. Six will be tried separately and eight — including Gunna and Young Thug’s brother, Quantavious Grier — have entered plea agreements.