Jefferey Lamar Williams, better known by his stage name Young Thug, is among 28 individuals who were indicted in May for allegedly violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act by engaging in gang activity that is supposedly linked to multiple murders, shootings, and home invasions over nearly a decade. Some of the defendants have pleaded guilty, while 14 others, including Young Thug, are still facing charges.
The defendants argue that their affiliation with the Atlanta rap group Young Stoner Life (YSL) is purely artistic, while the prosecutors claim that the group is a gang responsible for numerous criminal activities. As a result, the prosecutors plan to use Young Thug’s lyrics referencing crime and violence as evidence in court, a tactic that has been used in at least 500 cases documented by researchers at the University of Richmond between 2009 and 2019.
It raises the question about the role of music in politics and the boundaries it has with freedom of expression. However, over the last year, there has been a growing push to end the use of lyrics as evidence, and in September of last year, California became the first state to restrict the use of rap lyrics as evidence in state court through the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act signed by Governor Gavin Newsom. Unfortunately, support in other states remains reluctant.
It is interesting to note that there seems to be a correlation between rap music specifically and the lyrics chosen to be analyzed in the courtroom. Many genres, including country music, explore the darker aspects of human existence, but such expressions are not seen as an admission of guilt. It’s no surprise that the criminal justice system shows significant bias against young individuals from black and brown communities, both of whom have deep connections with rap and hip hop culture. The way hip-hop expresses certain language is often misinterpreted and there is always the possibility that it is due to intentional misconstruing and prejudices within the system.