Judge to rule on rap lyrics in Young Thug’s trial Thursday
Rapper Jeffery Williams is facing several organized-crime charges in Atlanta.
ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - With a jury finally seated and opening statements set for Nov. 27, the use of rap lyrics in Young Thug’s trial was the focus of a Wednesday hearing.
Last week, Fulton County Chief Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville was set to hear motions as to whether lyrics from hip-hop songs can be used against the rapper - real name Jeffery Williams - in his RICO trial.
“If you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I’m going to use it,” Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has said. “I’m not targeting anyone. You do not get to commit crimes in my county, and then get to decide to brag on it, which you do that for a form of intimidation and to further the gain and to not be held responsible.”
“I believe in the First Amendment,” Willis has said. “It is one of our most precious rights. However, the First Amendment does not protect people from prosecutors using it as evidence if it is such. In this case, we put it as ‘overt, predicate act’ in the RICO count, because we believe that’s exactly what it is.”
Williams is on trial in Fulton County in a massive RICO case involving himself and five other defendants. Prosecutors allege Williams and his co-defendants are members of the Young Slime Life (YSL) gang, while defense attorneys argue YSL is simply the name of a record label, Young Stoner Life.
In 2022, Fulton County prosecutors included lyrics from the rapper, referencing drugs and violence, as evidence of an “overt act in furtherance of a (gang) conspiracy.”
Defense attorneys argued Wednesday that Williams’ lyrics had nothing to do with his alleged crimes and that use of the lyrics would sway the jury and prevent a fair trial.
“That’s why rap music is introduced, that’s why no other genre is introduced because rap music is inherently prejudicial,” attorneys said.
Jury selection lasted longer than any other trial in Georgia history, and was repeatedly plagued by arrests, charges, and disruptions. The trial itself could last for more than a year. Georgia’s longest jury selection and its longest trial both came in the Atlanta Public Schools teacher scandal of 2014-15.
Young Thug is facing eight criminal counts under a federal law that was originally enacted to fight organized crime. Georgia is one of 33 states that has its own RICO law, but in the Peach State, the alleged criminal enterprises do not have to have existed as long as the federal law.
“Black history is under attack, Black culture is under attack, rap music is under attack,” said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia), a Democratic sponsor of federal legislation that would protect artists from having their lyrics and creative expression used against them in court.
According to the Associated Press, Johnson spoke in support of the legislation to attendees of a Rolling Loud hip-hop music festival in Miami earlier this year.
In late April, Johnson and U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) reintroduced and sponsored the Restoring Artistic Protection Act, or RAP Act. Similar legislation in a handful of states would require prosecutors to prove a defendant’s lyrics aren’t figurative, exaggerated or out-right fictional.
The legislation, originally introduced in the 117th Congress, is the first bill of its kind at the federal level, according to Johnson’s office. The RAP Act adds a presumption to the Federal Rules of Evidence that would limit the admissibility of evidence of an artist’s creative or artistic expression against that artist in court.
The Atlanta City Council is also considering a proposal urging the Georgia General Assembly to pass laws limiting the use of rap lyrics in trials.
As of 2020, prosecutors in more than 500 criminal cases have used artists’ lyrics as evidence against the artist.
More from the Associated Press:
A study by University of Georgia law professor Andrea Dennis, who co-authored the 2019 book “Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics and Guilt in America,” found roughly 500 criminal trial cases dating to the late 1980s in which rap lyrics were successfully used as evidence. Dennis and other advocates believe the cases, brought against mostly Black defendants, have led to unjust incarceration.
Some have pointed to the criminal street gang conspiracy case, brought under Georgia’s criminal racketeering law, against Young Thug and over two dozen purported affiliates of the rapper’s YSL record label.
Young Thug co-wrote the Childish Gambino hit “This is America,” which is a commentary on violence and systemic racism in the U.S. The song made history in 2019 as the first hip-hop track to win the Song of the Year Grammy, and it was parodied by global artists to speak to corruption and injustice in Nigeria, Malaysia and Australia.
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