When the Grammy Award-winning rapper Young Thug, real name Jeffery Lamar Williams, was arrested May 9 on conspiracy and street gang activity charges, the indictment heavily cited his lyrics, music videos, and social media posts—and reignited a controversial debate on the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases.
Williams, an Atlanta rapper and hip-hop star who has three No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200. The modern sound of hip-hop has been greatly influenced by Williams. He is credited as a true superstar in Atlanta’s hip hop scene with his three No. His distinctive flow and sound are often heralded as the preeminent example of “mumble rap,” a microgenre named for the unclear or slurred vocal delivery of its artists. Young Thug’s music is rife with emotions, freestyles, and ad-libs, and draws on a dizzying range of influences, from psychedelia and punk to Lil Wayne. The lyrics reflect the reality of his childhood as an Atlanta Black man and the absurdities of his life.
Williams, along with 27 other people associated with his record label Young Stoner Life (YSL Records), including his protegé, the rapper Gunna (real name Sergio Kitchens), was named in an 88-page indictment. Indictment contains 56 charges related to racketeering, including those of drug possession and illegal firearms.
The indictment, which cites lyrics like “I’m prepared to take them down,” and “I never killed anybody but I got something to do with that body,” alleges that Williams is a founder of Young Slime Life, a criminal street gang started in 2012 that’s affiliated with the national Bloods gang. Williams’ record label refers to its artists as the “Slime Family,” and he is often referred to as “King Slime.” The label has also released two collaboration albums featuring the Slime Family: 2018’s Slime Language and last year’s 2 Slime Language.
Williams is currently held at Cobb County Jail Marietta Ga. He was refused bond two times. Interview with The New York Times, May 9, 2009. Times, Steel said the rapper is innocent: “Mr. Williams came from an incredibly horrible upbringing, and he has conducted himself throughout his life in a way that is just to marvel at,” he told the paper. “He’s committed no crime whatsoever.”
At Hot 97’s Summer Jam in mid-June, Williams made a pre-recorded audio statement, thanking fans for their support and urging them to sign a Change.org petition started by music industry executives Kevin Lilles and Julie Greenwald that condemns the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases.
“You know, this isn’t about just me or YSL,” Williams said in the clip. “I always use my music as a form of artistic expression, and I see now that Black artists and rappers don’t have that freedom. Everyone, please sign the Protect Black Art petition. Keep praying for us. I love you all.”
Use of rap lyrics to support criminal cases has racial consequences
Williams’ case is a pivotal example of a controversial legal trend where rap lyrics are used as evidence against defendants—a tactic that has been critiqued for disproportionately targeting Black and other BIPOC men as the predominant groups in rap, relying on racist stereotypes, and infringing on First Amendment rights. His 2019 book is available here. Rap on Trial: America, Race Lyrics and Guilt, co-authored with Andrea L. Dennis, University of Richmond professor Erik Nielson identified about 500 criminal trials over the past decade in which rap lyrics were used as evidence—many more cases than during the ’90s-era war on crime, when the practice originated.
Nielson argues that the focus on the issue shouldn’t center on free speech as much as on systemic racism, emphasizing that artists in other genres like country or heavy metal hardly see their work being used to prosecute them. A March 30, opinion piece by Type Investigations, New York TimesJaeah Lee (journalist and researcher) worked alongside Dennis and found only four instances of literary works, such as fiction, or lyrics, being used to prove assaults or threats. These examples were in genres other than rap.
Rappers, who rely as much as possible on metaphors and hyperbole in their art, have been fighting to stop it being taken literally. “This is almost exclusively something affecting young Black or Latino men,” Nielson says, “so this practice is sort of emblematic of the much larger, more systemic inequalities that we see throughout the criminal justice system.” These cases have become more common as hip-hop has grown to become the most popular genre of music in the U.S., eclipsing rock in streaming consumption in 2018.
This year in Atlanta, the city that many consider to be the capital of rap, Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis has said her “number one focus” is targeting street gangs. She contends that street gangs are responsible for the majority of violent crime in her city—a line of reasoning that led to Williams’ indictment. New York City Mayor Eric Adams suggested earlier in the year that YouTube music videos of drill rap music should be banned. Adams clarified later that he doesn’t want drill music to be banned but would prefer to collaborate with drill rappers to stop gun violence.
For Nielson, this paradox of rap becoming mainstream while continuing to face legal and societal scrutiny is a telling metaphor for larger issues surrounding race in America—and one that isn’t going away anytime soon. “This is a newer and alarming practice on one hand, but it also resides in a centuries-long tradition in the United States of law enforcement suppressing and often punishing Black expression,” he says.
Origins of the legal trend
According to Nielsen, the first cases where rap lyrics were used as criminal evidence emerged in the early ’90s amid a moral panic about the influence of gangster rap, which was associated with radical politics (examples such as NWA’s “F-ck Tha Police”), explicit content, and violence. The case most commonly cited as the first to use rap music as evidence in a criminal trial was 1991’s United States v. FosterA 7th circuit appeals court upheld Derek Foster’s conviction. The prosecution was supported by rap lyrics about drugs and drug trafficking.
An early, high-profile example was Snoop Dogg’s 1993 murder trial, in which he was acquitted. The prosecution used lyrics from his track “Murder was the Case” during closing arguments. However, it wasn’t. People v. Olguin This case, which took place in 1994, has been argued to have had the greatest impact on this tactic. For the case, in which Cesar Javier Olguin and Francisco Calderon Mora, a part-time DJ, were convicted of second-degree murder for the killing of a rival gang member who had defaced their gang-related graffiti, the prosecution submitted rap lyrics found in Mora’s home that made reference to violence and gang culture generally. While the defense argued that it couldn’t be proven that Mora wrote the lyrics and that their use as evidence could mislead the jury, the prosecution successfully used them. It is widely considered to be the most important precedent regarding citing lyrics in evidence.
Snoop dogg, centre, is led into Los Angeles Criminal Courts where he and an ex-bodyguard are on trial for the 1993 murder of a man.
Mark J. Terrill—AP
The late Drakeo (real name Darrell Wayne Caldwell), was recently arrested for murder. He was using his lyrics to try to tie him to a shooting, as well as to suggest that his Rap collective the Stinc Team were a criminal street gang. Caldwell was found not guilty in 2019. He was executed in 2021.
What impact artists could have in the future
Despite the increase in cases citing lyrics as evidence over time, Williams’ stands out because of his level of fame. Most cases involved emerging or amateur rap artists. Since Williams’ lyrics and social media presence were used heavily as evidence in his indictment, Nielsen argues that if prosecutors are successful, it could set precedent on how other prominent artists in the industry will be tried in the future.
“What’s important about this case is that it could signal to other DAs across the country that the artists you thought were once out of reach are now within reach, including really well-known artists,” he says. “That’s really concerning, for not just rappers and rap music, but for popular culture and criminal justice reform.”
Williams’ case coincides with legislation that’s been in the works to combat the practice of using rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases; in November 2021, Democratic New York State Senators Brad Hoylman and Jamaal Bailey introduced the “Rap Music on Trial” bill, backed by the likes of Jay Z, Meek Mill, and Fat Joe, which would ban “the use of art created by a defendant as evidence against them in a courtroom” in most cases. The New York State Senate has passed the bill. Governor Kathy Hochul is still awaiting the approval of the State Assembly.
What’s next for Young Thug and the other artists in the lawsuit
Both Williams and Kitchens remain in Cobb County Jail, Marietta, Ga. Williams has been denied bond two times. His first request was for bond on May 12. This was after a raid at his house following his arrest which resulted in seven felony charges. A second emergency request for bond, filed after Williams’ attorney Steel claimed the rapper was facing “inhumane” conditions in jail, was denied during a hearing on June 2, under concerns from Judge Ural D. Glanville that bond would result in potential danger to the community and witnesses, as well as flight risk. Kitchens was denied bond at a hearing on May 23.
According to WXIA-TV, both Williams and Kitchens’ trials will begin on Jan. 9, 2023.
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