ATLANTA (AP) — When rapper Young Thug goes to trial later this month on gang and racketeering charges, prosecutors will be allowed to use rap lyrics as evidence against him, a judge ruled Thursday.
Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Ural Glanville said in court he would allow prosecutors to introduce 17 sets of lyrics they have identified as long as they can show that the lyrics are related to crimes that the rapper and others are accused of committing. Defense attorneys had asked the judge to exclude them, arguing the lyrics are constitutionally protected speech and would be unfairly prejudicial.
Young Thug, whose given name is Jeffery Lamar Williams, was indicted last year along with more than two dozen others. After some defendants reached plea deals and others were separated to be tried later, opening statements are set to begin Nov. 27 in the trial of Young Thug and five others.
Prosecutors have said Young Thug co-founded a violent criminal street gang in 2012 called Young Slime Life, or YSL, which they allege is associated with the national Bloods gang. Prosecutors say the rapper used his music and social media posts to promote the gang, which they say was behind a variety of violent crimes, including killings, shootings and carjackings.
Young Thug has had enormous success as a rapper and has his own music label, Young Stoner Life. Defense attorneys have said YSL is just a music label, not a gang.
Artists on his record label are considered part of the “Slime Family,” and a compilation album, “Slime Language 2,” rose to No. 1 on the charts in April 2021. He co-wrote the hit “This is America” with Childish Gambino, which became the first hip-hop track to win the song of the year Grammy in 2019.
Prosecutors used Georgia’s expansive gang and anti-racketeering laws to bring the indictment. All of the defendants were accused of conspiring to violate the anti-racketeering law, and the indictment includes rap lyrics that prosecutors allege are overt acts “in furtherance of the conspiracy.”
“The question is not rap lyrics. The question is gang lyrics,” prosecutor Mike Carlson told the judge during a hearing Wednesday, later adding. “These are party admissions. They happen to come in the form of lyrics.”
Carlson argued that First Amendment speech protections do not apply because the defendants are not being prosecuted for their lyrics. Instead, he said, the lyrics refer to the criminal act or the criminal intent related to the charges.
Prosecutor Simone Hylton separated the lyrics into three categories: those that prove the existence of YSL as an enterprise, those that show the gang’s behavior and actions, and those that show that Young Thug is a leader of the gang.
Defense attorney Doug Weinstein, who represents defendant Deamonte Kendrick, who raps as Yak Gotti, argued during the hearing that rap is the only art form or musical genre that is brought into court as evidence of crimes.
He said his client’s lyrics are a performance done as a character, not admissions of real-world things he’s done. But, Weinstein asserted, because of the nature of rap music, with its violence and extreme language, the lyrics will unfairly prejudice the jury.
“They’re going to look at these lyrics and instantly say they are guilty,” he said. “They are not going to look at the evidence that’s actually probative of their guilt once these lyrics get in front of them.”