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By Stephen Harrelson, Vol. 21 Staff Member
Pick Up the R.I.C.O Charge, Baby
Inside of a 56-count indictment against several individuals in Atlanta, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis recently charged rapper “Young Thug” with gang activity and conspiracy charges under Georgia’s R.I.C.O Act. The indictment for Young Thug cites some of his song lyrics and accompanying music videos, arguing that it is proof of his involvement with the street gang “Young Slime Life.” These indictments have been the source of much controversy, raising concerns of government overreach of the First Amendment rights of musicians.
Gangs, guns, drugs, and the War on Crime: This is America
The indictment was filed against Jeffrey “Young Thug” Williams, alleging a total of six felony charges for conspiracy to violate Georgia’s R.I.C.O Act and participation in criminal gang activity in August of 2022. After a search of his home by law enforcement after being arrested, Williams also faces four other related felonies for violating the control substance act, possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony, possessing a machine gun, and additional drug charges.
Fani Willis and the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office’s theory behind Williams’ charges is that he is the founder of Young Slime Life (YSL), a Blood-affiliated Atlanta street gang sharing the same initials as Williams’ record label Young Stoner Life. Coincidentally (or perhaps not so coincidentally), Young Stoner Life, founded a few years after Young Slime Life, also refers to its musicians as the “Slime Family.”
Like its federal counterpart, Georgia’s R.I.C.O Act seeks to stamp out organized crime. Within the larger 56-count indictment in which the charges against Williams were filed, charges against other individuals allegedly affiliated with Young Slime Life include murder, armed robbery, drug dealing, and other crimes related to gang activity. To try paint Williams as a leader of Young Slime Life, Williams is alleged to have committed several crimes for which he is not being charged, including renting a getaway car used in the murder of a rival gang leader and dealing methamphetamine.
In Williams’ trial, lyrics from four of his songs from the past six years will be used as evidence against him. One of the main lyrics citied in the indictment comes from Williams’ song Slatty, which describes killing a man in front of his family without “leaving a trace.” The indictment also cites the prominent display of “YSL” in Williams’ music videos over the same period. Within the context of the R.I.C.O charge, the prosecution claims that these lyrics and symbols in Williams’ music videos meet the element of “Preserving, protecting, and enhancing the reputation, power, and territory of the [criminal] enterprise.”
The First Amendment Debate: Are Rap Lyrics Protected Artistic Expression or Admissible Evidence of a Real Criminal Lifestyle?
Although this is not the first instance of a prosecutor seeking to admit rap lyrics as evidence of criminal activity, Williams’ indictment has sparked fervent outrage among some First Amendment activists. These activists claim that hip-hop lyrics like Williams are protected artistic speech that may or may not be reflective of the artist’s real-life experience.
In response, like the arguments of other prosecutors before her, Fanni Willis claims that the First Amendment does not forbid the use of lyrics as evidence of criminal activity. In her words, “If you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I’m gonna use it.”
Implications and Possible Solutions
Citing hip-hop lyrics and music video imagery as criminal evidence is a black and white issue. Hip-hop is a space for cultural pride and perhaps one of the few outlets that African Americans have to unapologetically vent their frustration with the effects of historical and current systematic racism, including in regard to their treatment by the American legal system. If that same system uses its power to weaponize such expression, then it could stifle the free speech of African Americans and, ironically, more African Americans being criminalized.
In envisioning the disparate racial impact that a too heavy-handed approach to using hip-hop lyrics as criminal evidence is almost certainly to have, one might consider using such evidence, if at all, only in limited situations where a defendant has abused their platform to explicitly brag about committing a specific crime. For example, if Williams had been more explicit about YSL being a gang and bragged about having a specific rival gang leader killed, it would be clear that he was enhancing YSL’s reputation and power, and it would also be clear that the prosecution could use those lyrics against him. Even the most ardent First Amendment scholars would have trouble arguing the lyrics couldn’t be used in that case.
Taking things a step further, in advocating for using hip-hop lyrics as criminal evidence only very sparingly, one might consider having this approach codified. This is the case in New York, where a bill named “Rap Music on Trial” is being pushed for by Jay-Z, Killer Mike, and other rappers that would require prosecutors to have “clear and convincing evidence” that such lyrics are indicative of a real crime and not creative expression about fictional events. Such statutes may be the compromise that is needed for drawing a clear line for protecting musical expression while not allowing bold, overt confessions of a crime under the guise of First Amendment expression.