Judge to determine if rap lyrics can be used as evidence in Young Thug's case

Should a rapper's lyrics be used against them as evidence in court? That's the question that will be posed to Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville in the case against rapper Young Thug and other defendants accused of participating in a criminal street gang responsible for violent crimes.

"The lyrics are being used to prove the nature of YSL as a racketeering enterprise, the expectations of YSL as a criminal street gang," said Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Mike Carlson in court. "We’ve got party admissions for even the offense of murder here; this is evidentiary use."

YSL, which prosecutors say stands for Young Slime Life gang, was co-founded by Young Thug, whose given name is JeffERY Lamar Williams. He says it stands for Young Stoner Life Records. That label has featured several big acts including Young Thug and Gunna, who were both initially indicted on charges related to gang activity.

But prosecutors say YSL also stands for Young Slime Life, which they allege is an Atlanta-based violent street gang affiliated with the national Bloods gang and founded by Young Thug and two others in 2012. Prosecutors say people named in the indictment are responsible for violent crimes — including killings, shootings and carjackings — to collect money for the gang, burnish its reputation and expand its power and territory.


As part of their argument, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Wilis and her office argued that the rap lyrics in the tracks released by the artists on the label are evidence of crimes committed by the gang, saying that the lyrics are "highly pertinent" to the defendants' state of mind and intents.

"’I just beat a murder rap,’" said Fulton County Deputy District Attorney Simone Hylton as she read lyrics. "‘I paid my lawyer, 30 for that.’ There’s a few other lyrics in between that and then ‘me and my slimes are above the law.’" 

Defense attorneys in the YSL RICO trial plan to have several experts testify that rap lyrics are negatively interpreted by most Americans because of racial bias.

"There's a giant elephant in the room which is that we’re ignoring art," said Doug Weinstein, Attorney for Deamonte Kendrick. "There is art here and the art has got to be separated from real life." 

Weinstein says it is one thing that his client must defend himself against the charges, but he says it is unfair they’re trying to use his own lyrics against him as fact. 

"What Mr. Kendrick is singing about is what he grew up around," Weinstein said. "What else is he supposed to sing about? He’s not going to sing Daydream Believer. He’s not going to write about puppies and rainbows and unicorns."

After the hearing ended late Wednesday evening, the judge says he would take all arguments into consideration and issue his ruling on Thursday morning.

Rapper Young Thug sits in a Fulton County courtroom during a motions hearing on Dec. 15, 2022. (FOX 5)

"There's a strong legal test of when a lyric can be used as evidence," Georgia State College of Law professor Mo Ivory said. 

Lawyers for Young Thug have an expert, who has done extensive research on race and the criminal justice system, to testify.

Prosecutors have called the defense's argument against using lyrics "ridiculous," and went as far as making references to the "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh.

Documents reveal prosecutors have spent nine years scouring the music and social media posts of the Young Slime Life members. But they also say they have additional evidence against Young Thug and his co-defendants.

Prosecutors also have no doubt scoured through the lyrics of Young Thug’s latest album "Business is Business," which was released back in June despite the rapper being held in the Fulton County Jail.

Where does the YSL RICO case stand?

Young Thug, whose legal name is Jeffery Lamar Williams, has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to violate Georgia's RICO Act and participation in a criminal street gang.

Last December, rapper Gunna, whose legal name is Sergio Kitchens, walked out of the Fulton County Jail after taking a plea deal. Attorneys for Gunna said Kitchens, in exchange for a guilty plea, will not serve any time in prison. The plea deal sentenced him to five years with one year to serve in prison. That time was commuted to time served, and the balance was suspended. He will need to complete 500 hours of community service, with 350 of those hours speaking to young men and women in the community about the dangers of gangs and gang violence.

The YSL RICO trial has dragged on for 10 months at the Fulton County Courthouse. Getting a jury seated has been the main hold-up, but that changed last Wednesday when a jury was finally seated. 

The original indictment charged 28 people with conspiracy to violate Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, law and also included other charges against many of them. Fourteen of them are set to proceed to trial. Eight, including Gunna, have taken plea deals. Six will be tried later.

In addition to specific charges, the 2022 indictment includes a wide-ranging list of 191 acts that prosecutors say were committed between 2013 and 2022 as part of the alleged RICO conspiracy to further the gang’s interests.

Included in that list is an allegation that Young Thug threatened in July 2015 to shoot a security guard who was trying to get him to leave an Atlanta-area mall. On numerous occasions, he and others are alleged to have possessed various illegal drugs that they intended to distribute.

The indictment also accuses alleged gang associates of trying to kill rapper YFN Lucci in the Fulton County Jail last February and says that an alleged gang associate shot at a bus in 2015 that was carrying rapper Lil Wayne.

Lawmakers try to protect rappers' First Amendment rights after YSL indictments

The debate over the use of rap lyrics has been discussed at all levels of government following the indictment.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, introduced a new proposal called the "Restoring Artistic Protections Act," or "RAP Act," in 2022. It was a proposal that would limit the use of lyrics as permissible evidence in federal court. Johnson said artists often play roles in their music that are not meant to be taken literally.

The congressman, who represents DecaturConyersLithoniaLilburn, and part of Atlanta, co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-New York. He said it would protect an artist’s creative expression and First Amendment rights.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia's 4th Congressional District (FOX 5)

The bill would require federal prosecutors to prove the lyrics refer to the specific facts of an alleged federal crime or show the artist literally intended to carry out what they said in those lyrics.

"You should not be able to just simply put in some lyrics and say this is the state of mind of the person who is accused," Johnson said.

The lawmakers introduced the bill as Fulton County prosecutors accused Atlanta rappers Young Thug and Gunna of running a street gang tied to murders and shootings. Prosecutors said their lyrics are evidence of crimes.

"The case here in Fulton County demonstrates a need for guardrails to protect the creative expression of artists," Johnson said.

The bill would not cover cases at the state or county level. Time is running out for the measure in the congressional session. 

A similar effort was being explored in Georgia. Neither state nor federal proposals have yet passed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.