In a long-awaited decision sure to draw scrutiny, a Georgia judge ruled Nov. 9 that prosecutors will be allowed to admit rap lyrics as evidence at Grammy-winning artist Young Thug’s racketeering and gang trial in Atlanta as long as they pass legal relevance and foundation tests.
Judge Ural Glanville issued the ruling after Young Thug argued that his lyrics are protected, artistic free speech and that linking them to alleged crimes during trial would be “racist and discriminatory.”
“None of these lyrics are true threats, therefore it’s protected speech,” Young Thug’s lawyer Brian Steel argued at a lengthy hearing Nov. 8.
Prosecutors previously countered that admitting “relevant” lyrics is not only proper but supported by precedent, including a case where “white supremacist lyrics” were used to show a defendant’s “skinhead beliefs.”
“While we respect Judge Glanville and the dedication and effort he clearly spends on his rulings, we believe that he got this one wrong,” Douglas Weinstein, attorney for YSL co-defendant Yak Gotti (Deamonte Kendrick), tells Rolling Stone. “The rap lyrics being conditionally admitted in this case bear no connection to the crimes charged. It is a reflection of the state of race in our country that only rap artists are put in a position to have to defend their art in court. To call the use of these lyrics anything other than racist would be to sugar coat it. It’s time for legislation to raise the bar for introduction of the work of these artists in criminal cases.”
Young Thug, whose legal name is Jeffery Williams, is considered the chief defendant in the government’s sprawling RICO case, which initially charged 28 people with being members of a criminal street gang known as YSL, or Young Slime Life. Only six defendants are part of the current trial set to kick off with opening statements on Nov. 27. The rest were severed from the main trial, had their charges dropped, or accepted plea deals from prosecutors.
Williams’s Grammy-nominated protégé Gunna, born Sergio Kitchens, accepted one of the deals and walked out of jail Dec. 14. He entered an Alford plea that allowed him to maintain his innocence while pleading guilty to a single count of racketeering. Under the terms of his deal, Kitchens won’t be called to testify, and his statement read in court — in which he admitted he had personal knowledge of people committing crimes in furtherance of what prosecutors have called the YSL gang — cannot be used against any other defendant, his lawyer Steve Sadow has said.
That’s not the case with Trontavious Stephens, another co-defendant who took a plea deal and claimed, in a statement that can be used at trial, that some of Williams’s song lyrics related to real-life robbery.
“You acknowledge that you are the same person referred to as Tick in the 2014 song by Young Thug entitled ‘Eww’ in the verse, ‘She gettin robbed by Tick,’” a prosecutor said at Stephens’s December 2022 plea hearing shared by Law & Crime. (Stephens’s plea deal included a two-year prison sentence commuted to time served and eight years of probation.)
Prosecutors sent a clear signal they planned to rely on song lyrics when they quoted from several Young Thug songs in their original 56-count RICO indictment, made public in May 2022.
After “Eww,” they pointed to Williams’ March 2016 song “Slime Shit,” highlighting the lyrics, “I’m in the VIP and I got that pistol on my hip, you prayin that you live, I’m prayin that I hit, hey, this that slime shit.”
Fulton County prosecutors went on to cite Williams’s March 2018 song with Nicki Minaj titled “Anybody,” in which he raps, “I never killed anybody, but I got something to do with that body,” and, “I told them to shoot a hundred rounds.”
From the 2019 song “Just How It Is,” prosecutors pulled out lyrics that state, “I done did the robbin’, I done did the jackin’, now I’m full rappin,” as well as the lines, “Gave the lawyer close to two mil, he handles all the killings.”
In a defense motion, Williams’s lawyers argued the rapper was “innocent of all charges” and called his lyrics artistic speech protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments as well as Georgia’s state constitution.
“Moreover, using these lyrics/poetry/artistry/speech against Mr. Williams is racist and discriminatory because the jury will be so poisoned and prejudiced by these lyrics/poetry/artistry/speech,” it would amount to “unlawful character assassination,” they argued.
“Mr. Williams has the absolute right, like all persons in America, to exercise lawful speech/expression,” they said.
Prosecutors responded in follow-up filings, arguing that Williams isn’t being prosecuted over what he rapped specifically, rather that his lyrics are “relevant and highly probative evidence” of the charged racketeering and gang offenses.
They further argued that “racist song lyrics are frequently admitted” in prosecutions of hate groups and hate crimes. “Lyrics evidence espousing racist and other bigoted views have been admitted for numerous purposes in federal and state courts for decades,” they wrote in a Dec. 14 filing, citing Texas cases where anti-Semitic and skinhead song lyrics were used in cases involving aggravated assault and murder.
“The State is by no means proposing a moral equivalency between rap lyrics and skinhead or other racist song lyrics. That said, the legal equivalency when it comes to the universal application of evidence statutes and case law is undeniable,” they argued.
“The rules of evidence do not provide special exemptions for a designated classification of song lyrics, nor do they express favor for one musical genre or another. Where lyric evidence is logically and legally relevant, it should be admitted. The opponent of the evidence must — under the applicable rules of evidence — demonstrate otherwise,” they wrote.
According to prosecutors, Williams founded Young Slime Life as a Bloods-affiliated street gang in South Atlanta in 2012 and ran it alongside his YSL Records label, also known as Young Stoner Life Records. They say the alleged gang carried out racketeering activities ranging from robbery and drug dealing to murder.
Williams is battling nine felony charges, including the top count of racketeering conspiracy, online filings show. Prosecutors claim he possessed marijuana, codeine, cocaine and a machine gun and rented the 2014 silver Infiniti Q50 sedan that was used in the murder of rival gang member Donovan Thomas Jr. in January 2015.
His fate could largely rest on the credibility of former associates including Antonio “Mounk Tounk” Sledge, a co-defendant who accepted a plea deal in exchange for his cooperation and testimony. Sledge agreed to testify that he “personally knows” one or more YSL members murdered Thomas Jr. and that he went to Williams’s house the day of the killing and received money from Williams to “lay low.”
The use of rap lyrics in criminal prosecutions is a topic of ongoing debate around the country. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis was ready with a response when asked about the controversial practice at a press conference for the YSL case last May.
“This issue’s been ruled on by the courts. I knew that that question was coming. I believe in the First Amendment. It’s one of our most precious rights. However, the First Amendment does not protect people from prosecutors using it as evidence if it is such. In this case, we put it as overt and predicate acts within the RICO count, because we believe that’s exactly what it is,” she said.
Late Los Angeles rapper Drakeo The Ruler was at the center of one of the most high-profile and egregious cases where rap lyrics were used to paint a defendant as culpable. Born Darrell Caldwell, Drakeo was charged and ultimately acquitted in the 2016 murder of a 24-year-old man outside a party in Carson, California, but he still spent nearly three years in prison as the strange case unfolded.
Prosecutors in that case introduced lyrics from his 2016 song “Flex Freestyle” in their failed attempt to convince jurors that Drakeo led armed associates to an adult pajama party to target someone. The lyrics were about someone who wasn’t even at the venue when someone else shot and killed yet another third party.
“I didn’t even think they could do that,” Caldwell told Rolling Stone in Nov. 2021, just weeks before his shocking murder at a Los Angeles music festival. “I heard about them doing it before, but it was just the way they were doing it. How they were using it against me. It didn’t make no sense. It was just crazy.”
As Rolling Stone first reported, New York lawmakers introduced the “Rap Music on Trial” bill in 2021, seeking to tightly restrict how prosecutors use rap lyrics in court. The bill gained the support of a number of hip-hop heavyweights, including Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Big Sean, Fat Joe, and Killer Mike and passed in the state senate last year.
Killer Mike, Tyga, Meek Mill and Too Short also backed a similar bill in California that was signed into law. The Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act also seeks to restrict the use of rap lyrics at trial by subjecting them to stringent judicial review.
A federal judge in Los Angeles excluded rap lyrics from NBA Youngboy’s gun possession trial in July 2022 after defense lawyers argued they did not describe his arrest and would be “highly prejudicial.” The rapper was acquitted.
A state judge similarly excluded content from a Tory Lanez rap song and video at his December 2022 trial over the shooting of Megan Thee Stallion, but the same Los Angeles County judge allowed jurors to see lyrics from a so-called diss track from Megan’s former best friend after defense lawyers opened the door by mentioning one line out of context. Lanez, whose legal name is Daystar Peterson, was convicted.