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An Atlanta judge ruled Thursday that he would allow many of Young Thug’s rap lyrics to be used as evidence against him and other alleged gang members in their upcoming criminal trial, rejecting arguments that doing so would violate the First Amendment.
The ruling came a day after Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville held a hotly-anticipated hearing about the use of lyrics as evidence – a controversial practice that has drawn backlash from the music industry and efforts by lawmakers to stop it.
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The lyrics could play a key role in the trial, which will kick off later this month. Prosecutors allege that Thug (Jeffery Williams) and his “YSL” were not really a popular music collective called “Young Stoner Life,” but a violent Atlanta gang called “Young Slime Life” that committed murders, carjackings, drug dealing and other crimes over the course of a decade.
Representing the superstar artist, attorney Brian Steel blasted prosecutors for attempting to use creative expression to convict his client. “They are targeting the right to free speech, and that’s wrong,” Steel said. “They are saying that just because he his singing about it, he is now part of a crime.”
But after an hours-long hearing that ran until nearly 9 pm on Wednesday evening, Judge Glanville largely rejected those arguments. “They’re not prosecuting your clients because of the songs they wrote,” Glanville said from the bench. “They’re using the songs to prove other things your clients may have been involved in. I don’t think it’s an attack on free speech.”
In a formal ruling on Thursday morning, the judge denied Thug’s request to ban the lyrics entirely, and granted a motion by prosecutors to preliminarily admit them. Though Judge Glanville said prosecutors would still need to establish why they were using them and that Steel could object during the trial, the judge repeatedly suggested at Wednesday’s hearing that he would allow lyrics to be admitted as evidence and that it would be up to jurors to decide how much weight to give them.
At the hearing, prosecutor Michael Carlson urged Judge Glanville to avoid sweeping questions about free speech. He said the actual issue before the court was not rap lyrics but rather “proclamations of violence” by alleged gang members that are “highly relevant in this case.”
“The issue here is not rap,” Carlson said. “This is not randomly the state attempting to bring in Run DMC from the 80s. This is specific. These are party admissions. They just happen come in the form of lyrics.”
Near the end of the hearing, Carlson sharply criticized the suggestion that the rap lyrics in question were simply works of art without a direct link to real events. “People can look at that indictment and see one thing that’s for sure not fantasy: People are dead. Murdered.”
“That’s not fantasy, your honor,” Carlson said. “That’s tragically real.”
Earlier on Wednesday, prosecutor Symone Hylton highlighted specific lyrics that the state plans to play for jurors during the trial and explained why they were relevant enough to be admitted. They included lines from Thug’s 2016 song “Slime Shit,” in which he raps about “killin’ 12 shit” and “hundred rounds in a Tahoe.”
Hylton argued that “12” is a well-known euphemism for police officers, and that the lyric referred to a specific incident in which an officer was shot by a YSL member. And she said that the “Tahoe” lyric was a boast about the 2015 murder of Donovan Thomas – a key allegation in the indictment.
“Not only did Donovan Thomas drive a Tahoe, there were multiple rounds of shell casings laid out on the ground where he was killed in front of his barber shop,” Hylton said. “While [the lyric] may on the surface seem irrelevant, when you put it to the facts that are going to come out in this case, that particular verse becomes very relevant.”
Among other songs, she also referenced the 2018 track “Anybody,” in which Thug raps “I never killed anybody/ But I got somethin’ to do with that body”; and the song “Really Be Slime,” a 2021 compilation track released by Young Stoner Life Records that features the line “You wanna be slime? Go catch you a body.”
“It’s the state’s contention that [the lyric] means you go out and you go murder someone,” Hylton said. “That’s how you become ‘slime’.”
Young Thug, Gunna and dozens of other alleged YSL members were indicted in May 2022. Gunna and several other defendants eventually reached plea deals, and other defendants were separated from the main case, leaving just Thug and five others to face a jury. If fully convicted, he could face a life sentence.
After months of delays, a jury was finally seated last week, clearing the way for the trial to kick off on Nov. 27 – proceedings that are expected to last well into 2024. But before then, Judge Ural Glanville must decide on whether the jury can hear his lyrics as part of the prosecution’s case.
Civil liberties activists and defense attorneys have long criticized the use of rap lyrics to win criminal convictions. They argue that it unfairly targets constitutionally protected speech, treating hyperbolic verse as literal confessions; they also say it can unfairly sway juries by tapping into racial biases.
Lawmakers in California enacted legislation last year restricting the use of creative expression as evidence in criminal cases, and a federal bill in Congress that would impose similar restrictions has been widely supported by the music industry. But absent such statutes, courts around the country have mostly upheld the right of prosecutors to cite rap lyrics, particularly in gang-related cases.
In his arguments Wednesday, Thug’s lawyer Steel echoed such concerns in pushing to exclude the lyrics from the case. He noted that many other artists had used similar phrases – he name-dropped Rick Ross, Meek Mill and Cardi B — and that rap lyrics are often exaggerated or wholly fictional. Steel argued that individual lyrics should only be admitted when prosecutors have linked them much more specifically to actual alleged actions – an analysis he said the DA’s office had failed to perform.
But Steel’s main message for Judge Glanville was that using the lyrics would violate the First Amendment and its protections for free speech, arguing that it would effectively criminalize the output of a “prolific songwriter.”
“A person in America can say I hate Brian Steel, I hate criminal defense lawyers, I hate prosecutors, I hate judges,” Steel said. “We believe that we flourish when we can share ideas even when they’re repugnant, even when you don’t agree with them.”
“If you allow this evidence,” Steel said, “it’s going to have a chilling effect.”
But Judge Glanville was skeptical of Steel’s arguments from the beginning, repeatedly suggesting that he believed some of the lyrics were relevant enough to be admitted in the case — and occasionally showing frustration with Steel’s arguments to the contrary. At one point, he interrupted Steel to say that “the First Amendment is not on trial.”
Later, Steel said that prosecutors were using Thug’s “words” to convince jurors that he was “a bad man” — the kind of improper “character” evidence that is typically rejected. But Judge Glanville again had a quick retort: “No they’re not. They’re using his words to show that he’s involved in a gang.”
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