A judge decided on Thursday that rap lyrics by the Atlanta artist Young Thug and his collaborators will be allowed as evidence in the racketeering trial of YSL, a chart-topping hip-hop label and collective that prosecutors say is also a criminal street gang responsible for violent crimes.
Following months of dueling court filings and a day of arguments about the relevance and admissibility of the song lyrics, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville ruled that 17 specific sets of lines from the music of Young Thug and other YSL artists could be used by the state when the trial begins later this month to argue for the existence of the gang, the defendants’ membership in the alleged criminal conspiracy and their mind state regarding specific crimes they are accused of committing.
“The lyrics are being used to prove the nature of YSL as a racketeering enterprise — the expectations of YSL as a criminal street gang,” Mike Carlson, a Fulton County executive district attorney, said in court.
Defense lawyers in the case had argued that including the lyrics was a constitutional violation of the First Amendment protecting free speech and would unfairly prejudice the jury.
Young Thug, born Jeffery Williams, was one of 28 people initially charged in May 2022 with conspiracy to violate Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, or RICO, with some accused of murder, attempted murder, armed robbery and other crimes. Prosecutors say Young Thug, who has denied all of the charges and pleaded not guilty, occupied a leadership position in the gang, known as Young Slime Life or Young Stoner Life, which they say is an offshoot of the national Bloods gang.
Jury selection for the trial began in January with 14 defendants, following some plea deals and the severing of other defendants from the case. After more than 10 months, a jury was seated last week; six defendants — including Young Thug — are left, with the remainder of the trial expected to last from three months to a year. Opening statements are scheduled for Nov. 27.
The use of rap lyrics in criminal prosecutions has long been a thorny topic, with critics and defense lawyers contending that negative attitudes toward crude and violent lyrics in hip-hop could bias a jury. Lawyers for Young Thug argued in this case that the use of lyrics, videos and social media posts was “racist and discrimination because the jury will be so poisoned and prejudiced by these lyrics/poetry/artistry/speech” that it amounted to “unlawful character assassination.”
Brian Steel, a lawyer for Young Thug, said in court on Wednesday that lyrics needed to be specifically tied back to alleged crimes in order to be admissible. “They’re targeting the right to free speech,” Steel said.
Doug Weinstein, a lawyer for Deamonte Kendrick, the YSL rapper known as Yak Gotti, said, “There is art here, and the art has got to be separated from real life.”
“They’re going to look at these lyrics and instantly say these guys are guilty,” Weinstein said of the jury, adding that rappers were playing characters: “It’s what his audience is looking for and demands in gangster rap.”
Prosecutors argued that because they were not charging the rappers for the content of their lyrics — as in a terroristic threat case — but merely using the lyrics as supporting evidence that other crimes had been committed, that they were not protected by the First Amendment and should be admitted.
They added, “the Defense would seem to opine that if the Unabomber’s manifesto had been set to music, it could not be used against him.” And in court, Carlson, the prosecutor, raised the frequently cited Johnny Cash lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” arguing that if Cash had actually been accused of killing a man in Washoe County, where Reno is located, “his lyrics would have in all likelihood have been used against him.”
Carlson also noted that, in a racketeering and gang conspiracy case like the one facing YSL, “evidence of existence and the nature of the organization is not only relevant, it’s required.”
Among the specific lyrics admitted as evidence by the judge — taken from songs like “Eww,” “Just How It Is” and “Mob Ties” — are lines that prosecutors argued would establish the existence of YSL (“this that mob life”); the expectations for its self-professed members (“for slimes you know I’ll kill”); and Young Thug’s role as a leader (“I’m the principal (slime!),” “I’m a boss, I call the shots,” “I was a capo in my hood way before a plaque”).
The use of the lyrics at trial, Judge Glanville said, would be conditional, depending on prosecutors laying a foundation for their relevance, with any additional lyrics subject to further analysis before they could be admitted.