In November 2021, Young Thug made an appearance on Saturday Night Live to promote his second studio album, Punk. He was introduced by actor Rami Malek and was wearing a puffy fuchsia fur coat and baby pink pants. He performed with rapper Gunna, pop singer Nate Ruess, and drummer Travis Barker. The performances highlighted the rapper’s unique style of blending genres and incorporating psychedelic elements into his music.
During his performance of Tick Tock that evening, a song that was ultimately not included in the final tracklist for Punk, he rapped the following: “I held a high position in my neighborhood long before receiving any recognition or accolades.”
After two years, the rapper will face a racketeering trial in Georgia starting on Monday. During the pre-trial hearings, there have been intense discussions about the lyrics, including a specific one. Jeffery Williams, who goes by the stage name Young Thug, is defending his lyrics as fictional pieces of art and not confessions to any illegal activities. His lawyer, Brian Steel, argues that the prosecution is cherry-picking lyrics from a successful and talented songwriter in an attempt to paint a negative image of his character.
Young Thug is highly acclaimed as a rapper among his peers, having dropped numerous mixtapes and albums. He has achieved two No 1 albums so far, namely 2019’s So Much Fun and the 2021 compilation Young Stoner Life: Slime Language 2. In addition, he has collaborated with renowned artists such as Elton John, Drake, and Camila Cabello, with their joint effort “Havana” reaching No 1 globally. Beyond his music career, he has also made a name for himself in the fashion industry, thanks to his gender-fluid fashion sense. One notable example is the dress he donned on the cover of his mixtape Jeffery.
In addition to achieving success as a musician on his own, Williams was the prominent member of the music group and record label known as Young Stoner Life, or YSL. This label released Williams’ music as well as projects from other artists he worked with, such as Gunna. However, things become murky for Williams when it comes to his involvement with YSL. According to prosecutors, YSL also stands for Young Slime Life, which they claim is a gang that Williams was the leader of.
In the upcoming court case, they intend to make the case that Williams was a real leader who instructed others to carry out multiple illegal acts, such as murder. According to a document with 56 charges, prosecutors claim that the rapper rented a vehicle which was later used in the murder of a member of a rival gang. Since being taken into custody in May 2022 on nine counts, including involvement in a criminal street gang and plotting to violate Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, Williams has consistently maintained his innocence.
The lawyers representing Williams argue that the charges against him unfairly single out a specific group of artistic individuals, such as rappers and a fashion designer who has been removed from the upcoming trial. These individuals have utilized fictional stories to achieve success and escape poverty. The defense portrays Williams as a benevolent figure who has helped numerous young Black men from his childhood neighborhood in south-east Atlanta. While they acknowledge the men’s involvement in the YSL collective, they refute the label of being a criminal street gang.
According to prosecutors, the lyrics written by Young Thug reflect the harsh reality of violent crime in Atlanta and can therefore be used as evidence in the trial. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis advised against confessing to crimes in rap lyrics, stating that they may be used against the individual or result in legal consequences. As the trial approaches, nine plea deals have been made and charges have been dropped for 12 defendants. There will be six defendants present in court next week, with one still evading law enforcement.
Legal experts are closely observing the trial to see if the use of Georgia’s Rico law in the prosecution of YSL and YFN, two rival music groups, can provide insight into the upcoming Fulton county racketeering trial of Donald Trump and his co-defendants. This use of the Rico statute in both trials takes advantage of the broad scope of Georgia’s law, making it easier to present a narrative of organized conspiracy. Additionally, the prosecution may offer plea deals to some defendants in exchange for their cooperation in strengthening their case against the remaining defendants.
John E Floyd, an expert on Rico, who recently argued for the admission of lyrics in the YSL case, is collaborating with Willis to build the case against Trump.
The inclusion of rap lyrics in the YSL lawsuit has sparked a widespread conversation about the potential bias and injustice in using rap music as evidence in court cases. Kevin Liles, CEO of 300 Entertainment, a distributor of Young Stoner Life’s musicians, initiated the “Protect Black Art” movement. Liles, along with over 100 artists and music professionals, penned an open letter highlighting the disproportionate targeting and use of rap lyrics in legal proceedings compared to lyrics from non-Black artists in different genres.
“We do not debate over films or different types of music. We do not bring those matters to the legal system. However, our music has been under scrutiny and continues to be under scrutiny for our identity and who we are,” stated Liles with tears in his eyes during a bond hearing for Williams last year.
According to authors and legal professionals Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis, who wrote Rap on Trial, there is a consensus that rap lyrics have been utilized by prosecutors in approximately 700 documented cases over the past thirty years.
According to the Rap on Trial website, lyrics have been used as evidence in some trials, while in others they have been used to justify charging a suspect, obtaining an indictment, negotiating a plea deal, or determining a sentence. This research, supported by prominent rappers like Killer Mike, Jay-Z, and Meek Mill, has prompted lawmakers to address the issue of using rap lyrics in court. Last year, Governor Gavin Newsom of California signed a bill that would limit the use of rap lyrics in court and require judges to consider whether their use could introduce racial bias into the proceedings. Nielson is expected to testify in the YSL trial as part of Williams’ defense.
However, prosecutors claim that their focus is not solely on Williams and his co-defendants due to their status as rappers. Instead, they argue that the YSL case is part of a larger effort to address gang violence, which they believe is responsible for 75-80% of crime in Atlanta by 2022.
According to sources, the prosecution plans to present various forms of evidence to the jury, such as text messages, phone calls from jail, and expert testimony on gang activity. Their witness list currently consists of approximately 400 individuals. The trial is projected to last six months, but the defense argues that it may extend into the following year.