Why Young Thug’s lyrics used against him in court are a problem

Hip-hop, like any art form, is a means of creative expression. And if rap music is often semi-autobiographical, when Kanye West recorded in 2018, “I Thought about kill you / Premeditated killer”, or when, 18 years earlier, Eminem boasted of having put his deceased wife in the trunk of a car, surely those words weren’t meant to be taken literally.

But what happens when the lyrics are used as evidence in a criminal trial?

Grammy-nominated artist Young Thug was arrested this week on charges of gang activity and conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). But as federal prosecutors aim to prove the Atlanta rapper’s involvement in a large-scale criminal operation, they’re using his own music against him.

Young Thug, real name Jeffrey Williams, is listed as a co-founder of the so-called “criminal street gang” Young Slime Life, or YSL. He was arrested Monday along with fellow Atlanta rapper Gunna. The indictment alleges that Williams possessed stolen weapons as well as methamphetamine, hydrocodone and marijuana, with intent to distribute them. Williams is also implicated in an attempted assassination of Atlanta rapper YFN Lucci, and he is accused of renting a car “used in the commission of the murder of rival gang member Donovan Thomas, Jr.” .

The indictment cites the lyrics to nine Young Thug songs, including “Ski” and “Slime Shit.” Several lyrics from the 2019 song “Just How It Is” are listed, including “I done did the robbin’, I done did the jackin’, now I’m full rappin'” and “It’s all mob business, we know to kill the biggest cats of all kittens,” which the court considers in the indictment “an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.” The court also noted the 2021 song “Bad Boy,” which includes lyrics like “Smith & Wesson .45 put a hole in his heart / Better not mess with me, killers stay with me” and “I shot his mama, now he don’t talk about me.”

Federal prosecutors’ goal is to use those lyrics, sung or rapped in an artistic context, as legal evidence against Williams — a trend that has become increasingly popular and controversial.

Veteran music advocate Dina LaPolt puts it simply, “This is unprecedented racism.”

LaPolt, who founded LaPolt Law and co-founded the North American Songwriters Advocacy Group, discusses how the scrutiny of violent lyrics almost exclusively targets rap music. (She has already written on the subject in Variety.) In demonstrating this discrimination, LaPolt references more than a dozen country songs containing lyrics about the murder of artists ranging from Carrie Underwood to the Chicks. One of the songs, by Zach Bryan, says, “I killed a man in Birmingham / I hit him with a tire iron / He didn’t move and I don’t care.”

After all, why is it considered a threat when Young Thug talks about murder, but Johnny Cash’s famous “Folsom Prison Blues” confession – “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” – is considered like a masterpiece of fiction? Indeed, the “murder ballad,” a mainstay of country and American music, is practically exalted as an art form and even recently inspired his own true-crime podcast, “Songs in the Key of Death.”

According to legal expert Jack Lerner, “you can draw a direct line between the use of rap lyrics in criminal proceedings and discrimination in the criminal justice system.” Lerner, a UC Irvine professor and director of UC Irvine’s IP, Arts and Tech Clinic, is the co-author of “Rap on Trial: A Legal Guide for Attorneys,” a comprehensive manual for defense attorneys dealing with lyrics. of rap introduced at any time. stage of criminal proceedings.

LaPolt frames the problem in more colloquial terms: “Most of the judges are white males in their 60s, so they don’t even get rap music.”

Young Thug isn’t the only high-profile rapper to have his lyrics used against him in court in recent years. Drakeo the Ruler spent three years in prison before being released and found not guilty of all murder and attempted murder charges. The court used lyrics from his 2016 song “Flex Freestyle” to illustrate a rap jam and convince the jury that Drakeo was targeting another artist named RJ.

Many expect YNW Melly’s words to come back to haunt him at his upcoming first degree murder trial. A year and a half before the rapper was implicated in the shooting deaths of two of his associates, he spent 20 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 with the hit song “Murder on My Mind.”

Despite this, there is precedent against the use of lyrics in legal proceedings. In United States v. Sneed from 2016, the court said that “rapping about selling drugs does not make it more likely that the defendant Sneed did, in fact, sell drugs.” Further, “We cannot permit a jury to infer that simply because the defendant rapped about selling drugs that he is guilty of selling drugs.” In 2021, a federal court in Pennsylvania excluded rap lyrics from the trial in Bey-Cousin v. Powell, stating that “artistic expression is fictional, not factual.”

Along the same lines, Lerner notes that “all kinds of people have stage names and public personas that have nothing to do with their actual day-to-day existence.” It’s reminiscent of the infamous Hulk Hogan v. Gawker media case, in which a mainstay of the pro wrestler’s argument was the idea that Terry Bollea and Hulk Hogan are two completely different people. Could Jeffrey Williams and Young Thug be?

Although acceptance of the lyrics as evidence in Young Thug’s trial may ultimately be denied, LaPolt points out that their prominence in the indictment is “prejudicial” because it likely already prejudiced the jury.

Earlier this year, Jay-Z, Killer Mike, Meek Mill, Big Sean, Vic Mensa and more artists backed an effort to end the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials. The New York State Legislature has yet to vote on the Rap Music on Trial bill, but it has support from the State Sens. Brad Hoylman and Jamal Bailey.

On a broader level, the idea that a person’s creative expression can be used against them in court sets an alarming precedent for art itself.

“It has a huge deterrent effect,” says Lerner. “It’s unfortunate because it could really affect the way people make music.”

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