“The question is not rap lyrics. The question is gang lyrics,” said prosecutor Mike Carlson, who argued certain verses could be construed as admissions of real-life crimes.
Prosecutors have accused Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, of being the cofounder and leader of YSL, which they say is a south Atlanta street gang responsible for much of the city’s violence. The 32-year-old Grammy-winning rapper has been in jail since May 2022 after being one of 28 people charged in the sweeping gang and racketeering indictment.
The state displayed several boards that included the star’s lyrics at Wednesday’s hours-long hearing, with prosecutor Simone Hylton reading the lyrics aloud and arguing some amounted to admissions of guilt.
Prosecutors contend the tracks glorified YSL’s alleged criminal activities, including the fatal shootings of at least three rival gang members, the targeting of others and violence against police. The lyrics themselves aren’t crimes, the prosecution said, but evidence of alleged crimes.
“The lyrics are evidence of criminal intent and criminal action,” said Carlson, who argued the lyrics would help prove intent, motive and the state of mind of Williams and his five remaining codefendants.
Defense attorneys sought to have the lyrics excluded, saying the rap verses amounted to creative expression and weren’t necessarily based on real-world events.
Backlash to District Attorney Fani Willis’ decision to use the rappers’ lyrics against them was swift, with a number of popular artists, producers and music executives declaring that “hip-hop is on trial.”
A paid advertisement signed by music groups, record labels and artists ran in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times last year, asking prosecutors to stop using lyrics as evidence in criminal trials.
U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson and Jamaal Bowman, both Democrats, also introduced the RAP Act in an effort to prohibit song lyrics from being used in federal cases.
“Rap is the only fictional art form treated this way,” said attorney Doug Weinstein. He represents defendant Deamonte Kendrick, who performs under the stage name Yak Gotti. “No other musical genre, no other art is treated the same way.”
He gave several examples of music stars from other genres, including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Glen Campbell. All those artists had run-ins with the law, Weinstein said, but none of them ever had their lyrics used against them in court.
Rap music, for some reason, is viewed differently, Weinstein said.
“As soon as you put these lyrics in front of a jury, the blinders drop,” he said. “They’re going to look at these lyrics and instantly say they are guilty.”
Carlson argued that lyrics, writings and films have been used as evidence in cases across the country and cited examples of killings and hate crimes where otherwise protected speech was admitted.
“We are aware that the Johnny Cash metaphor is here but no one’s ever come up with ... proof that Johnny Cash was ever accused of murdering a man in Washoe County, Nevada,” Carlson, said, referring to the 1965 hit “Folsom Prison Blues.”
“Had that happened, his lyrics would, in all likelihood, be used against him.”
One of the songs included in the state’s evidence is Young Thug’s 2018 track “Anybody” featuring Nicki Minaj. In the song, Williams sings, “I never killed anybody, but I got something to do with that body,” and later refers to himself as “a general.”
Prosecutors plan to argue that in the song, Williams acknowledges being the leader of a gang and putting out orders to have people killed.
Fulton County RICO expert John Floyd argued that such tracks celebrate and confirm acts of violence, and said Young Thug’s songs aren’t simply “pulled out of the creative ether.”
“These have real world implications,” Floyd said. “People get hurt. People get killed.”
Judge Glanville said there were 17 sets of lyrics that he planned to preliminarily admit as evidence. If prosecutors can “lay the foundation” and tie additional verses to the case, those lyrics may also be admitted.