Prosecutors plan to use rapper Jeffery Lamar “Young Thug” Williams’ own lyrics against him in a criminal conspiracy case, a tactic that has led to the conviction of rappers in the past.
On Monday, Williams was arrested alongside 27 of his associates from their “Young Slime Life” (YSL) gang in Atlanta. He was charged with participation in criminal street activity and conspiracy, according to the 88-page indictment. The prosecution is resting much of its case against the rapper on his song lyrics, which frequently refer to violent behavior or criminal activity.
The indictment lists over 180 criminal acts allegedly committed by members of YSL between 2012 and 2020. As a result, the Fulton County District Attorney’s office has issued 56 separate charges against them, including drug possession, aggravated assault and murder.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis later said in a news conference that she’ll pursue the maximum penalties for their charges. “These are serious times, they’re serious allegations,” she told reporters, “and it is my opinion that violence in our community deserves maximum penalties.” For many of the men named in the charges, the maximum penalty is life in prison.
This isn’t the first time rap lyrics have been produced as evidence in court, and precedent isn’t in the rapper’s favor. Prosecutors have used hip-hop against defendants for decades — because it often works.
“It doesn’t take a lot to pull someone in as a co-conspirator”
The group was arrested on state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) charges, designed to root out organized crime. As a result, the crimes committed by some members of the gang could lead to a conviction for others, even if they didn’t play an active role.
“It’s an attempt to punish groups of people engaging in criminal activity instead of individuals engaging in criminal activity,” Page Pate, an Atlanta-based trial lawyer and expert on RICO law, told Grid.
RICO has a separate criminal statute where a suspect can be charged not just for the criminal act, but also for participating in a group categorized as a RICO enterprise that engages in a pattern of criminal acts, he explained.
If more than two individuals are found committing more than two crimes, a pattern is established, making them vulnerable to RICO charges. “It can be as simple as a group of people shoplifting to a drug cartel to organized crime,” Pate said.
While the rapper is not accused of murders he alludes to in his songs, lines like “fuck the judge, YSL, this that mob life,” from his 2016 hit “Slime Shit,” depict the group as a gang, while “I told them to shoot a hundred rounds,” from his 2018 single “Anybody,” implicates Williams as leader of that gang. Several of his songs were listed in the indictment (obtained by Huffington Post Editor Philip Lewis) as “an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.”
“Given the breadth of RICO, it doesn’t take a lot to pull someone in as a co-conspirator,” Jeffrey Grell, an attorney at the Minneapolis-based law firm Grell Feist who specializes in RICO cases, told Grid. “Anything you do that furthers or facilitates the criminal objective of the enterprise can be grounds for liabilities conspirator.”
For example, having a conversation to plan a drug deal, even if you weren’t the one to carry out the drug deal, could make you vulnerable to getting swept up in a RICO case.
During the news conference, Willis explained that her office counted his lyrics as “overt and predicate acts within the RICO count because we believe that’s exactly what it is.” A “predicate act” in a RICO case is defined as a crime committed at an earlier date that can be used to enhance a sentence on a case later, meaning that Williams’ lyrics are seen by Willis as evidence of engaging in and encouraging criminal gang activity.
“I assume the theory that prosecutors have in this case is that Williams knew that he was promoting these gang activities through his music and was giving them street cred,” Grell said. “Of course, it’ll be up to a jury to decide whether that’s sufficient to convict him on.”
Erik Nielson, a hip-hop scholar at the University of Richmond, has testified in several RICO cases in which rappers were implicated by their lyrics. “[Prosecutors] argue that whether you’ve committed any actual crime, they can pin the whole weight of the charge on you as essentially an accessory,” he said. “And it sounds to me like they’re going to go down that road [in Young Thug’s case].”
“It’s a highly effective tactic”
Presenting rap lyrics as evidence has proved fruitful for prosecutors in the past. In August 2014, Wisconsin teen Tommy Canady, then 15 years old, was arrested as a suspect for three shootings in the area. Even though the evidence against him was dubious, prosecutors presented the songs he released on the music-sharing website SoundCloud as proof that Canady committed the murders.
Jurors requested to listen to his song “I’m Out Here,” which was used as a centerpiece twice during the trial, before finding him guilty of first-degree intentional homicide and armed robbery.
In partnership with the University of Georgia, Type Investigations compiled hundreds of criminal cases where rap lyrics were presented as evidence. They found that about 50 defendants were prosecuted using hip-hop between 1990 and 2005, while over 100 were between 2006 and 2021. Only four of these cases involved fiction writing that was not rap, independent journalist Jaeah Lee writes.
“[Rap lyrics] are used because it’s a highly effective tactic,” Nielson told Grid. “If prosecutors can put these prejudicial inflammatory lyrics and videos in front of a jury, particularly if they have a weak case, they are still able to secure convictions.”
The evidence can be presented through text, audio or video, but the trend remains the same: Jurors tend to view violent rap lyrics as a point against the defendant.
“It was just to create music”
Nielson said that the tactic works because it plays into stereotypes about Black and Hispanic men. “No other fiction genre, musical or otherwise, is used like this in courts,” he said. “[It’s] obvious that race is behind a lot of this.”
Research shows that he’s not wrong: In 1996, social psychologist Carrie B. Fried found that rap lyrics receive more negative feedback than other kinds of lyrics, especially because of their association with Black culture.
“When a violent lyrical passage is represented as a rap song, or associated with a Black singer, subjects find the lyrics objectionable, worry about the consequences of such lyrics, and support some form of government regulation,” she wrote. “If the same lyrical passage is presented as country or folk music, or is associated with a White artist, reactions to the lyrics are significantly less critical on all dimensions.”
Similarly, in 1999, media psychologist Stuart Fischoff found that writing violent rap lyrics was seen as “more damning” for a defendant than the fact that they were being charged for murder.
In 2016, three researchers from the University of California, Irvine, conducted a study modeled after Fried’s and came to a slightly different conclusion: Respondents were still deemed identical lyrics as “more literal, offensive, and in greater need of regulation” when they were considered as rap instead of country, but “no effects” were found when they changed the race of the author of the lyrics.
“Collectively, these findings highlight the possibility that rap lyrics could inappropriately impact jurors when admitted as evidence to prove guilt,” they wrote.
This doesn’t mean that Williams’ case is open-and-shut. Grell noted that the defense could simply argue that his lyrics are fictional. “That would be one of my defenses in this case, that his creative work doesn’t have any connection to reality,” he said.
Many famous rappers are known to fudge the truth about their pasts for street cred. Mississippi rapper Rick Ross, for example, built his career on songs about his supposed life as a drug kingpin, but fans later found out that he worked as a correctional officer in Florida before taking up music as his vocation. “‘It was just to create music, and that’s where he got his inspiration.’ That would be the argument I think the defense is likely to make,” Grell said.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.