Young Thug has become a pop culture icon with his lyrics. Now the justice system is making him public enemy number one because of them.
Last Thursday, Thug was denied bond for his RICO charge in the YSL indictment. Judge Ural Glanville stated that he had fears that Thug was a flight risk and would intimidate witnesses if he was released on bond. The denial, which comes after bond denials for YSL Records artists Gunna and Yak Gotti, became the latest setback in a torrent of legal precarity for the 28 individuals who were ensnared on a 56-count indictment in May, including charges of murder, racketeering, armed robbery, and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The indictment lists dozens of song lyrics and music videos as evidence.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis claimed in a May press conference that YSL isn’t just a label named Young Stoner Life, but a “criminal street gang” called Young Slime Life that she surmises is responsible for over 50 murders in the Atlanta area, “committing, conservatively, 75 to 80 percent of all of the violent crimes in our community.”
Willis believes YSL has “to be rooted out of our community,” and says her number one focus as a DA is targeting gangs, warning that we can expect to see more RICO indictments against other street gangs in the near future. Her comments, and a leaked Georgia Bureau of Investigation document that mentioned YSL and Lil Baby’s 4PF as “criminal street gangs targeted for investigation,” spurred concerns that more Atlanta artists and crews would be ensnared in RICO cases.
Predatory politicians and prosecutors all over the country have used rap lyrics and music videos as evidence in their investigations and court cases recently, criminalizing an art form that’s historically faced racist treatment. Gun violence has risen in economically deprived areas that have suffered even more deprivation over the course of the pandemic, but instead of blaming poverty—the root of criminality—many politicians like Willis are blaming the music. When citizens are desperately searching for answers to stop the violence, it’s easy for them to buy into prosecutors’ tales that artist’s violent songs are real-life admissions of violence and propose to get them off the streets. And it’s advantageous to court headlines by claiming that platinum acts like Young Thug and Gunna are using their resources to fund gangs that actualize the violence some of their music depicts. It’s not a difficult sell for citizens who never liked rap anyway, and the line between art and reality is delicate in hip-hop. But unfortunately, DAs like Willis are bulldozing through the notion of artistic license in furtherance of the justice system’s goal to disproportionately warehouse Black and Brown people. And because of that, RICO is becoming a too-common part of the rap lexicon.
Atlanta is a rap mecca dubbed “Black Hollywood.” But Devin Franklin of the Southern Center For Human Rights, a nonprofit firm that works “for equality, dignity, and justice for people impacted by the criminal legal system in the Deep South,” tells Complex that he believes city brass may be looking to shed that reputation in order to push their gentrification efforts, and they’re using the justice system to do so.
“The parts of town where these [rap crews] are from are also some of the most heavily gentrified parts of town,” the Atlanta native and former public defender clarifies. “South downtown, the area by the Courthouse and Mercedes Benz Stadium going east, there is a lot of development potential. You’re starting to see artist renderings of what this renovated part of town would look like. This part of South Downtown that they’re trying to bring this economic presence to is literally on the other side of the highway from Mechanicsville, Pittsburgh, and Peoplestown. So there is absolutely a desire to rid Atlanta of this element that once upon a time is what made Atlanta cool in the first place. It’s like, ‘We used it, we got popular off of it, but now we got another level that we want to get to, so we need to get you all out of here.’”
Franklin, who had 12 years of experience as a public defender before joining SCHR, says he’s seen prominent Atlanta political figures and journalists follow in the lead of cities like New York and L.A. by stoking “crime wave” fears amongst the public. He says there’s a culture of “targeted fear-mongering by everybody who can hold a press conference to advance this narrative of dangerousness,” citing “Fani Willis, the DA’s office, our local news agencies [like] WSBTV, WXIA, the NBC affiliate, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution” as the most prevalent spokespeople for crime wave narratives.
When it comes to sensationalist media coverage, Franklin remembers reading a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed noting that shootings have gone down, but there have been more murders. “It was kind of an odd thing to see them write about, and to actually read about,” he says. “We’re talking about wanting crime to go down and you’re able to say, ‘Look, less people are actually pulling guns out.’ The fact that they wanted to mention the fact that despite there being fewer shootings, more of them are resulting in deaths, was an indication to me that they’re still trying to work from this place of fear.”
The Atlanta Police Department and DA’s office plays into its citizens’ collective fears by pursuing sweeping, high-profile indictments like the ones against YSL and YFN. In 2021, rapper YFN Lucci was one of 12 people charged in a RICO indictment that alleged YFN as a subset of the Bloods. The 105-count indictment accuses the crew of charges like murder, racketeering, aggravated assault, gun possession, and armed robbery. Notably, the crew’s social media posts and song lyrics are referenced in the indictment, used as evidence to suggest Lucci’s gang ties.
“You put all this money, effort and energy into creating a way to prosecute folks. But you put no energy, money or effort into figuring out ways to teach folks conflict resolution or to engage folks like Thug or Lucci in nonviolent initiatives.” – Devin Franklin
In the YSL case, Thug and Gunna’s lyrics are also being used to portray their status in what prosecutors claim is a YSL gang. During Thug’s bond hearing, prosecutor Don Geary read out dozens of Thug’s lyrics in an attempt to prove he’s a danger to his community. The use of rap lyrics in court is a controversial, historically racist tactic that’s picked up in recent years after a series of landmark cases. In January 2021, the state of Maryland ruled that rap lyrics were permissible as evidence of guilt after Lawrence Montague was sentenced to 50 years for second-degree murder, in part because of rhymes he recited over a jail phone. The ruling set a dangerous precedent for prosecutors in other states to follow.
Franklin can’t discuss his own cases because of attorney-client privilege, but he says he’s seen Georgia prosecutors use hand gestures in music videos to accuse his co-workers’ clients of gang ties. He says using lyrics in courtrooms is an “issue that is fraught with First Amendment concerns.” He explains, “I think that it puts a more onerous weight on Black creatives than others. We have a culture where movies and music of other genres frequently recognize or portray violence—or even just tough talk in a way that doesn’t mean that it’s a real-life consideration—and I think that it’s dangerous and abusive to hold young Black creatives to a standard that’s not applied to others.”
Willis’ tactic of taking lyrics literally isn’t the first time she’s been creative with RICO cases. She gained national attention last year for admitting that she was considering RICO charges against Donald Trump for election fraud, and she was the lead prosecutor in a 2012 RICO case against 35 Black educators who falsified standardized test scores at their schools, blaming “inordinate pressure” by the city. In all, 23 of the indicted educators took plea deals, and 11 of the 12 teachers who took it to trial were convicted and sentenced to jail time. The Washington Post reported that then-assistant DA Willis said “many of the victims of the cheating were struggling Black students who would have been eligible to receive ‘millions’ in federal aid for tutoring, but never received the money because test scores showed they were meeting or exceeding grade-level expectations.”
However, Franklin bemoans that the students Willis expressed sympathy for grew up in the same areas that the justice system is targeting. “Their rationale was that these teachers are harming the children because they’re not teaching,” he says, “but if you look at the timeline, the same kids she was supposed to be protecting through this prosecution are the same age range and from the same part of town as most of these folks who are tied up in this YSL indictment.”
It’s tenuous to expect someone with the gall to charge teachers with racketeering to care about that connection, however. The RICO law was created to ensnare the Italian mafia and other large criminal organizations, but now prosecutors like Willis are taking advantage of the law’s vagueness to target any grouping of people in her crosshairs. As a University of Michigan study states, the RICO law’s “reliance upon enterprise theory enables prosecutors to introduce all aspects of a gang’s history and criminal conduct into evidence.” In other words, it allows prosecutors to make everyone in the RICO culpable for another person’s actions, regardless of whether they had any real complicity or knowledge of the others’ crimes.
In 2012, Willis proposed that the teachers’ collective plan to defraud test results made them a criminal organization, and now she’s surmising that anyone who wore a YSL chain or rapped violent lyrics were conspiring with the other defendants during their alleged violent acts. It’s an ugly, precedent-setting maneuver in the war on rap that can only happen because the law allows her to be creatively predatory with their definition of a “corrupt organization.”