Can Young Thug’s lyrics be used against him? Prosecutors say yes in RICO case against rapper
Over the last decade, the Atlanta rapper Young Thug has dropped a steady barrage of tracks about pistols and snipers, mob life and gangsters.
“I never killed anybody, but I got something to do with that body,” he rapped on the 2018 track “Anybody,” featuring Nicki Minaj. “I told them to shoot a hundred rounds ... ready for war like I’m Russia ... I get all type of cash. I’m a general.”
By 2020, he was more brazen, issuing a direct challenge to authorities.
“Take this s— to motherf— trial,” Young Thug rapped on 2020’s “Take It to Trial” with two other artists on his Young Slime Life label, Gunna and Yak Gotti.
According to a sweeping 56-count indictment filed by Georgia prosecutors, these weren’t streetwise fantasies or idle boasts.
On Monday, Georgia prosecutors arrested Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffery Lamar Williams, on felony charges of participating in gang activity and violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute. Controversially, the Grammy-winning rapper’s lyrics and social media posts are a key part of the indictment.
In an 88-page document, Fulton County prosecutors list lyrics from nine of his songs, from 2014’s “Eww” to last year’s “Ski,” a collaboration with Atlanta rapper Gunna, who is also named as a defendant.
Prosecutors allege that the 30-year-old hip-hop star, known for his melodic, mournful flow and gender-bending fashion aesthetic, is a key founder and organizer of Young Slime Life, or YSL, a criminal street gang that engaged in or conspired to engage in violent crimes including murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, armed robbery, carjacking, theft and drug dealing.
If Williams, who appeared before a Fulton County magistrate judge Tuesday and remains in jail until the case goes before Superior Court, is convicted of a RICO Act charge, he could face a jail sentence of up to 20 years and a fine of $250,000.
Young Thug was charged in a 56-count indictment that identified him and 27 other people, including rapper Gunna, as members of a criminal street gang.
Williams’ attorney, Brian Steel, said the charges against his client — one of the most influential acts to emerge from Atlanta’s bustling hip-hop scene — were “baseless,” and that Williams was “not involved with any criminal street gang activity whatsoever.”
But prosecutors allege Young Thug’s music is not mere artistry or gritty work of fiction, but propaganda designed to attract new recruits to YSL and inspire criminal acts of violence.
The Fulton County district attorney’s office laid out a decadelong narrative that places Williams, who grew up in southwest Atlanta’s Sylvan Hills neighborhood, as one of three founders of Young Slime Life, a local gang established in 2012 that claims affiliation with the national Bloods gang.
Using Georgia’s RICO statute, prosecutors identify Williams and 27 other people as members of what they allege is a criminal street gang that conspired to illegally obtain money and property through a pattern of racketeering activity including murder, aggravated assault and threats of violence.
Under RICO, a complicated statute closely modeled on the 1970 federal law that was used to convict top mobsters and gangsters who engaged in organized crime, a defendant need not have committed a crime to be found guilty. Williams, for example, would not have to have committed a murder to be convicted if he were found to have participated in an interrelated pattern of criminal activity.
To be found guilty, the state has to prove that the defendant committed two or more predicate crimes, such as murder or theft. Then they have to demonstrate that those crimes were carried out by two or more people as part of a broader enterprise of racketeering activity that the defendant controlled or was employed by.
Prosecutors allege that as Young Thug, Williams promoted and popularized YSL. His videos and songs, messages and images, they argue, are part of a broader pattern of criminal activity, “protecting and enhancing the reputation, power and territory of the enterprise” and “demonstrating allegiance to the enterprise and a willingness to engage in violence on its behalf.”
Five defendants — including the rapper Yak Gotti, whose real name is Deamonte Kendrick — are charged with murder. Another, Christian Eppinger, is accused of seriously wounding an Atlanta police officer in a February shooting. Quantavious Grier — Williams’ brother, the rapper Unfoonk — is charged with theft by receiving stolen property, a Taurus 9-millimeter handgun. Sergio Giavanni Kitchens, the chart-topping Atlanta rapper known as Gunna, is accused of receiving stolen property and possession of drugs with intent to distribute.
The indictment juxtaposes Williams and his associates’ alleged social media, song lyrics and jail phone calls with details of the victims of shootings, such as Donovan Thomas Jr., a rival gang member, who was fatally shot in front of a southwest Atlanta barbershop in 2015. The indictment charges Williams with renting a silver Infiniti Q50 sedan that was used in the commission of Donovan’s murder.
The same year, prosecutors allege, members of YSL attempted to murder a string of men and fired a rifle at a woman named Denise Bell, “maliciously causing bodily harm and seriously disfiguring” her buttocks. They also shot at the tour bus of Dwayne Carter Jr., the New Orleans hip-hop star also known as Lil Wayne.
Fulton County Dist. Atty. Fani Willis said Tuesday in a news conference that Williams and his associates named in the indictment created “havoc in our community.”
“It does not matter what your notoriety is, what your fame is,” she said. “If you come to Fulton County, Georgia, and you commit crimes — and certainly if those crimes are in furtherance of a street gang — you are going to become a target.”
Steel, Williams’ attorney, said Tuesday in a telephone interview that his client has committed no crimes.
“The indictment is frivolous,” he said. “And we will fight it and litigate ethically, and lawfully and zealously. Mr. Williams will be cleared of any wrongdoing.”
Any use of rap lyrics and hip-hop cultural aesthetics to put a defendant in a nefarious light should be viewed skeptically, said Jovan Blacknell, a Culver City-based attorney who represents the family of the late South L.A. rapper Drakeo the Ruler.
Prosecutors used videos and lyrics from songs like “Flex Freestyle” as evidence that Drakeo was involved in a murder and that his Stinc Team crew was a violent criminal gang. After spending two years in jail, Drakeo was acquitted of the murder charge and later released on a plea deal.
Officials were resurrecting the “flawed tactic of using young African American men’s art as a tool of incrimination,” Blacknell said.
“These artists often express dramatizations of stories and events that persist in their communities,” he said. “The U.S. government knows that song lyrics are rarely a narration of actual events, yet they seek to exploit unfounded race-based stereotypes to achieve an unjust end. To use these artist expressions as a sword is a stifling form of censorship, which flies in the face of our country’s most rudimentary values.”
Asked about the use of song lyrics in the indictment, Willis said she believed the 1st Amendment was one of “our most precious rights.”
“However, the 1st Amendment does not protect people from prosecutors using it as evidence if it is such,” she said. “In this case, we put it as overt and predicate acts within the RICO count, because we believe that’s exactly what it is.”
Prosecutors have not limited themselves to trawling through Williams’ song lyrics and social media statements and images, documenting threats of violence or gang symbolism, such as wearing red and flashing hand signs that signify his gang allegiance.
They also accuse Williams of two separate counts of felony theft of receiving a stolen firearm in 2013 and 2015 and one felony offense of terroristic threats in 2015 when he threatened a security guard at Atlanta’s Perimeter Mall.
“If you continue to approach, I’ll shoot you in the face with a gun,” he allegedly said.
Prosecutors also allege that Williams furthered the conspiracy in phone conversations with his associates.
In a 2020 conversation about a vehicle theft with another defendant, the state alleges that Williams directed himto tell another, “If he don’t take it back, he goin’ die.”
In a May 2021 conversation with multiple defendants, prosecutors claim, Williams asked: “Y’all ain’t beat ‘em up or shot ‘em yet?”
Then he stated: “Y’all n— getting soft.”
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A Black Democrat who was elected in 2020 and swiftly found herself in the center of the firestorm over whether former President Trump and his associates committed election fraud in Georgia, Willis has consistently said her number one focus is targeting gangs. Atlanta has seen a big spike in violent crime in recent years, but historically, gangs have not been as prevalent there as in larger cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.
“They are committing conservatively 75% to 80% of all of the violent crime that we are seeing within our community, and so they have to be rooted out of our community,” Willis said Tuesday. Shortly after she was elected, she noted, she sat down with the mother of Donovan Thomas Jr., who was shot to death in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill neighborhood, and promised her that her son was as valuable as any other person in the community.
Willis said that the indictment against alleged members of YSL did not necessarily detail every crime committed. Her investigators, she said, had focused on the ringleaders.
“We believe removing these 28 defendants will keep Fulton County safer,” she said.
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