Young Thug, YSL trial underway as lawyers challenge use of rap lyrics in RICO case
Jury selection is underway in the Young Slime Life (YSL) RICO trial in Atlanta, where Grammy Award-winning rap artist Jeffery Williams, also known as Young Thug, is accused of leading the group, described by authorities as a violent street gang.
According to an 88-page grand jury indictment, the songwriter is facing eight counts including conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, participation in criminal street gang activity and violating the Georgia Controlled Substances Act.
Still, Williams maintains his innocence, and his lawyers say they’re prepared to prove it.
“Mr. Williams committed no crime whatsoever, and we will fight to my last drop of blood to clear him,” Brian Steel, Williams’s lawyer, said at the time of the arrest.
Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis, who is also leading an investigation into former President Donald Trump, announced the high-profile indictment at a press conference in May 2022.
Willis and the prosecution claim that Williams used his songs and social media to promote YSL, which he allegedly founded in 2021, and participated in violent activity throughout the city.
“It does not matter what your notoriety is, what your fame is. If you come to Fulton County, Ga., and you commit crimes and, certainly, if those crimes are in furtherance of a street gang, you are going to become a target and a focus of this district attorney’s office,” Willis said at a news conference during the announcement of the indictment.
The indictment also includes charges against 26 other defendants, like Sergio "Gunna" Kitchens, a rapper who recently pleaded guilty to a gang-related charge and was released from jail in December.
Gunna claims he joined YSL in 2016, according to a statement he released through his lawyer, and believed it was a “group of people from metro Atlanta who had common interests and artistic aspirations. My focus of YSL was entertainment — rap artists who wrote and performed music that exaggerated and ‘glorified’ urban life in the black community.”
Chris Timmons, a former Georgia prosecutor who isn’t part of the YSL case, told Yahoo News that the RICO and gang act indictment gives the prosecution the ability to present the case as a narrative to the jury.
“Atlanta is unique in that most of our gangs are hybrid gangs, which in some ways makes them a little more dangerous,” Timmons said. “They don’t have territories like Los Angeles where you’ve got the Crips and the Bloods, and there are defined zones as to what is Crip territory or what is Blood territory. There aren’t territories in Atlanta — they more sort of coexist among each other.”
According to Willis, gangs are responsible for an estimated 75% to 80% of all violent crime in Atlanta.
While gangs, drugs and violence are expected to be key topics throughout the trial, the prosecution’s case is built around Williams’s creative expression. The indictment includes over a dozen songs, with some lyrics that are eight years old.
“The initial indictment contained very few factual allegations about activity that Mr. Williams was accused of doing,” Jack Lerner, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, told Yahoo News. “The vast majority of factual allegations about him involved his social media postings and lyrics.”
Some lyrics in the indictment include:
“I never killed anybody but I got something to do with that body”
“I killed his man in front of his momma”
“We are committing them crimes”
“You wanna be slime? Go catch you a body”
“You’re punishing people for their creative expression,” Lerner said. “You’re punishing people for talking about the world that they grew up in and that they live in. And you’re making it more dangerous for, you know, anybody who wants to lay down a rap track in the future.”
Williams’s lawyer filed a motion to remove the defendant's lyrics from evidence, but a judge has yet to rule on the matter.
“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 as the same is unlawful character assassination,” Steel’s motion said.
Some studies have shown that rap lyrics can affect people’s perceptions. In a 2018 study, Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology law at the University of California, Irvine, found that “people who thought that they were evaluating violent rap lyrics, as opposed to both country and heavy metal, thought that the artist associated with those lyrics was more likely to have a violent criminal history and also be a member of the gang,” Kubrin said.
But Willis disagrees. In a press conference last August she gave this admonition to the defendant: “Don’t confess to crimes in rap lyrics if you don’t want them to be used.”
Erik Nielson, the author of “Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America,” who was retained by Williams’s legal team as an expert witness, says the use of creative expression takes away an individual’s right to a fair trial.
“It has the potential to prejudice a jury by using somebody’s fictional persona against him or her — though it’s almost exclusively young men, particularly young Black and Latino men,” Nielson told Yahoo News.
Last June 12, while behind bars, Williams spoke out about the use of rap lyrics in the courtroom, in a prerecorded message to a crowd at Hot 97’s Summer Jam.
“You know, this isn’t just about me or YSL,” he said. “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. Everybody please sign the Protect Black Art petition and keep praying for us. I love you all,” he said.
Over the seven months leading up to jury selection, eight defendants have secured plea deals and 14 defendants who are allegedly tied to YSL are set to stand trial with Williams.
“It is important for prosecutors to go after gangs, it's important for cities to shut them down,” Timmons said. “It’s also important to figure out on the front end, how do we keep [people] out of gangs?”