OPINION: Young Thug: A stage name? Or a way of life?

DA: Young Thug’s own music, social media used in indictment against him

DA: Young Thug’s own music, social media used in indictment against him

In December 2020, Atlanta rappers Young Thug, Yak Gotti and Gunna released a video called “Take it to Trial.”

This week, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis took the trio up on their macho street bravado, saying, “OK, fellows, let’s go.”

Jeffery Williams (aka Young Thug), Sergio Kitchens (Gunna) and Deamonte Kendrick (Yak Gotti) are now well-known defendants in a far-reaching RICO (racketeering) and gang crimes indictment. It accuses Williams of heading a murderous street gang called YSL (or Young Slime Life, with affiliation to the Bloods), a crew that has fueled mayhem on Atlanta’s streets, as well as crafting popular rap tunes.

The 56-count indictment also targets 25 more of their alleged compadres and serves as a road map to bloodshed and disorder, tying together dozens of disparate crimes over the past decade. These include violence like murder, armed robbery and carjacking, as well as offenses like drug peddling, theft and breaking into a CSX cargo container.

In January 2015, the drive-by killing of Donovan Thomas, the alleged head of a rival Blood sect, kicked off a wave of “violence like Atlanta has never seen,” Willis said in a news conference Tuesday. She alleges lyrics from many YSL songs are “overt acts” of the conspiracy, like clarion calls for wrongdoing.

Madame DA’s star-studded RICO indictment comes just a week after the kickoff of her grand jury investigating Donald Trump (aka The Big Orange) and his minions for allegedly trying to steal an election. She says her “No. 1 focus is targeting gangs,” apparently whether they be clad in hip-hop threads or business suits.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (L) talks at a press conference with Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat (R) and Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant in Atlanta on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Willis blames gangs for 75-80% of Atlanta’s violence, which sounds high, because there still is a substantial population of unaffiliated numbskulls out there. But Willis, like any good music promoter, knows you can’t be bashful in your verbiage when Going Big.

Now, violence and the rap game have been kissing cousins for decades. Generations of aspiring hustlers have aimed to lift themselves from the brutality of the streets to untold riches even though success is as fleeting as a winning lottery ticket. But, hey, most of the aspirants have few other paths.

Remaining “real” is vital and, even when they make it, many rappers revel in the surroundings from where they came. Of course, the argument is to be made: Are they singing of past criminal events and fictional acts or are they still dabbling in the life?

Are they John Gotti or Joe Pesci?

Young Thug grew up in south Atlanta, the 10th of 11 children, and has become a Grammy-winning hip-hop superstar. In June, he was to headline a show at State Farm Arena, with some tickets going for $500 a pop.

But prosecutors allege the 30-year-old is living up to his stage name in orchestrating a violent clique. He allegedly rented the Infiniti Q50 sedan used in Thomas’ 2015 killing. Kendrick (Yak Gotti) was one of the five who allegedly committed that crime. Two weeks later, Young Thug allegedly told another gang leader “soldiers must fall.”

Feuding with other hip-hop stars is a rap tradition and Young Thug dutifully went sideways with another Atlanta rapper, YFN Lucci (born Rayshawn Bennett). In August 2020, Yak Gotti stood atop Lucci’s Mercedes parked at an area mall and posted a photo on social media, angering the car‘s owner. (Willis cracked a smile at her news conference, saying “social media is a wonderful tool for prosecutors.”)

YFN Lucci surrenders on gang racketeering charges

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That December, YFN Lucci’s associate, James Adams, was killed while riding in the rapper’s $300,000 Mercedes Maybach and then left on the pavement. Prosecutors allege Adams was shot when Lucci’s crew was involved in a drive-by shooting with rival gang members. Lucci was charged with felony murder, even though it was his guy who died.

In February, a couple of Young Slime Life associates shanked Lucci in the Fulton jail. Two weeks later, two YSL members who were locked up allegedly sought Young Thug’s blessing to finish the job. One of the two jailbirds was Christian Eppinger (or Bhris), an accused carjacker who two weeks earlier allegedly shot an Atlanta cop six times.

Attorney Drew Findling represents YFN Lucci, who was tagged with his own RICO indictment last year. He said his client is a marked man in jail and should be released.

“The government alleges he is a victim,” he said. “If they are so concerned with his plight, let’s let him out” on bond.

Young Slime Life (YSL) rapper Yak Gotti (Deamonte Kendrick) stands on the car of rival rapper YFN Lucci (Rayshawn Bennett) in a taunting move in an ongoing feud between the groups. Both rappers have been charged in separate racketeering cases.

Credit: Photo included in Fulton County indictment

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Credit: Photo included in Fulton County indictment

Atlanta has been a boon to the music industry and now DA Willis is a godsend to defense lawyers. Young Thug has hired top-flight attorney Brian Steel, who is in the spirit of things and vows to “fight to my last drop of blood” on behalf of his client.

Rapper Gunna has employed a local legal dream team of Steve Sadow, John Garland and Don Samuel on his behalf. Samuel was recently hired by GOP legislators being looked at in the DA’s probe. From Republicans to rappers, he’s a full-service legal whiz.

Gunna’s lawyers argue that ginning up an “artist’s creative expression” against him is “intensely problematic.”

Coincidentally, former Atlanta gang crimes cop Tyrone Dennis, who investigated Donovan Thomas’ 2015 killing, was in town with his nonprofit “Clipper and Cops,” presenting an anti-gang sermon to high schools. Cops made arrests in the homicide back then, he said, but there was no appetite to broaden the case to RICO status.

One of Dennis’ methods is to have students read the rap lyrics aloud. It’s telling, he said. “They see how stupid it is.”

Or potentially indicting.