Judge rules rap lyrics can be used as evidence in hip-hop artist Young Thug’s racketeering trial | Courthouse News Service
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Judge rules rap lyrics can be used as evidence in hip-hop artist Young Thug’s racketeering trial

While defense attorneys argued that lyrics are forms of protected free speech and should be excluded from the upcoming trial, Atlanta prosecutors told the judge they were admissions of gang activity.

ATLANTA (CN) — Rap lyrics can be used as evidence by prosecutors in the upcoming racketeering trial against award winning hip-hop artist Young Thug and others, a judge ruled Thursday.

During an hourslong hearing on Wednesday, prosecutors argued that the lyrics were "admissions" of criminal activity committed by members of what they claim to be an Atlanta street gang called "Young Slime Life."

“The question is not rap lyrics. The question is gang lyrics,” said prosecutor Mike Carlson. “These are party admissions. They happen to come in the form of lyrics.”

Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, has been accused of being the co-founder and leader of YSL, although the artist claims that the acronym only applies to his record label, "Young Stoner Life."

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.

Prosecutors contend that certain lyrics and music video scenes glorified YSL’s alleged criminal activities, including fatal shootings of at least three rival gang members, selling drugs and violence against police.

Defense attorneys fought to have the lyrics excluded from evidence, arguing that the rap verses were protected forms of creative expression and subject to interpretation by the listener.

“Rap is the only fictional art form treated this way,” Doug Weinstein told the judge. The attorney represents defendant Demontre Kendrick, who performs under the stage name Yak Gotti. “No other musical genre, no other art is treated the same way.”

Weinstein said that the stage name his client uses represents a character he portrays on screen and in performances and argued that the lyrics such as "bodies on bodies" can have multiple meanings and interpretations.

"If you let it in, there is a high risk that the jury will misinterpret that," Weinstein said.

The attorney gave several examples of music artists from other genres, including Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, that never had their lyrics used against them in court.

But prosecutors argued that is because those artists were never charged with committing crimes expressed in their lyrics.

“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.”

Despite the use of rap lyrics as evidence in court being largely criticized by First Amendment advocates as prejudicial, Carlson argued that free speech protections do not apply because the defendants are not being prosecuted for the lyrics. Instead, he said the lyrics refer to the criminal act or intent behind the charges.

One of the songs included in the state’s evidence is Young Thug’s 2018 track “Anybody” featuring Nicki Minaj, where he sings, “I never killed anybody, but I got something to do with that body,” and later refers to himself as “a general.”

During trial, prosecutors plan to argue that in the song, Williams is admitting to being the leader of the purported gang and ordering to have people killed.

Fulton County Chief Judge Ural Glanville said there were 17 sets of lyrics that he would preliminary admit as evidence, and that additional verses may also be admitted if prosecutors can “lay the foundation” and tie them directly to the crimes.

The trial against Williams and five others is set to begin Nov. 27 after a grueling ten monthlong jury selection process. Some defendants also charged in the case reached plea deals or were separated to be tried later.

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Categories / Criminal, First Amendment, Trials

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