Is rapper Young Thug a member of a gang? Does his record label serve as a front for criminal activity? Are the lyrics of his songs evidence that can be used against him? The trial of this figure of contemporary hip-hop, tried with 13 other people, begins Monday.
Their alleged membership in a branch of the Bloods gang (identified as Young Slime Life, or YSL) landed Atlanta native Young Thug and the other co-accused indicted last spring by a state grand jury. Georgia. Such initials correspond to those of his record label founded in 2016, Young Stoner Life Records.
The 14 protagonists are at the center of a judgment for association of criminals with a view to extortion of funds. In support of this accusation: alleged acts of murder, drug trafficking and violent car theft. Young Thug is on trial for criminal association and participation in the criminal activities of a street gang.
His arrest last 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 an emblematic figure.
Jeffery Williams, his real name, grew up in the poor neighborhoods of Atlanta. Like 2 Chainz, he had caught the eye of Gucci Mane, who welcomed him to his record label in 2013. His singles Stoner and Danny Glover then brought him fame.
Tattooed to the face, Young Thug is known for his psychedelic and flamboyant style, and his rhymes tinged with voice crackles make him one of the most notorious representatives of the rap current.
The case is also emblematic because prosecutors used lyrics from some of Young Thug’s songs, those of another rapper, Gunna – who pleaded guilty – as evidence, as well as the verses of a posthumous song by Juice WRLD, who died in 2019 of an overdose.
If you decide to admit a crime to a beat [a rap beat], I’m going to use it, said 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 brand, called as a witness an expert on the subject, the professor at the University of Richmond Erik Nielson.
Rap, a Political Affair
In his 2019 book Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America (Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America), he indicates that courts frequently use this controversial method: extracting snippets of text artists from their context to support criminal prosecutions and condemn rap stars or budding artists, who are most often part of the African-American community.
With disturbingly increasing frequency, prosecutors are trying to use rap lyrics as confessions, also denounces a petition launched a few months ago by Kevin Liles, the co-founder of the record company 300 Entertainment, a subsidiary of Warner, of which YSL Records is a brand.
This is not only a violation of the protection of the freedoms of speech and creation guaranteed by the First Amendment [of the US Constitution]. It hits already marginalized communities and silences their stories of family, struggle, survival and success, the text adds.
Question About Law Limit
The petition, signed tens of thousands of times on the Internet, asks that the law limit, up to a federal scale, the ability of prosecutors to use artistic expression as evidence of an activity or criminal 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 free speech for artists under the first amendment.
Rap is inherently political speech: it can be painful, heartbreaking and uncomfortable, but vital for criticizing society, argues 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 originally 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.
This article is originally published on ici.radio-canada.ca