Legal experts say Young Thug’s words used against him in court are ‘unprecedented racism’

Hip hop, like any art form, is a vehicle for creative expression. And while rapping is often semi-autobiographical, when Kanye West recorded “I Thought Killing You/Premeditated Killing” in 2018, or when Eminem boasted 18 years ago that he put his dead wife in the trunk of a car, it certainly wasn’t These words are meant to be taken literally.

But what happens when song lyrics are used as evidence in a criminal trial?

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Young Grammy-nominated artist Young Thug was arrested this week on charges of gang activity and conspiracy to break the Corrupt Organizations Act and Influence Racketeer (RICO). But while federal prosecutors aim to prove the Atlanta rapper’s involvement in a large-scale criminal operation, they are using his own music against him.

Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffrey Williams, is listed as the co-founder of the so-called “street criminal gang” Young Slime Life, or YSL. He was arrested Monday along with fellow rapper Juna in Atlanta. The indictment alleges that Williams possessed stolen weapons as well as methamphetamine, hydrocodone and marijuana, with intent to distribute them. Williams has also been implicated in the attempted murder of Atlanta rapper YFN Lucci, and is accused of renting a car “used in the commission of the murder of Donovan Thomas Jr., a member of a rival gang.”

The indictment cites nine songs from Young Thug’s songs, including “Ski” and “Slime Shit”. Several lyrics of the 2019 song “Just How It Is” have been listed, including “I done the robbin”, “I done the jackin”, “Now I’m full rappin” and “It’s all mob business, we know to kill cats” The largest of all kittens,” which the court considers in the indictment “a public act of conspiracy furthering.” The court also noted the 2021 song “Bad Boy,” which includes lyrics like, “Smith and Wesson . .

The goal of federal prosecutors is to use these lyrics, or sung in an artistic context, as legal evidence against Williams – a trend that is becoming increasingly popular and controversial.

Veteran music attorney Dina LaBolt put it simply: “This is unprecedented racism.”

LaPolt, who founded LaPolt Law and co-founded the advocacy group Songwriters of North America, stated that scrutiny of violent lyrics targets exclusively rap music. (I’ve written about it before at diverse.) In showing this distinction, LaPolt notes more than a dozen country songs that contain lyrics about murder from artists ranging from Carrie Underwood to Cheeks. One of the songs written by Zach Bryan reads: “I killed a man in Birmingham / I hit him with iron tyres / He didn’t move and I didn’t care.”

After all, why is it such a threat when Young Thug sings about murder, but Johnny Cash’s famous “Folsom Prison Blues” confession—”I shot a guy in Reno just to watch him die”—is a masterpiece of fiction? In fact, “Killing Song,” a mainstay of country music and Americana, is practically promoted as an art form and even recently inspired its own true crime podcast, “Songs in the Key to Death.”

According to legal expert Jack Lerner, “You can draw a direct line between the use of rap lyrics in criminal proceedings and discrimination in the criminal justice system.” Lerner, UC Irvine Professor and Director of Intellectual Property, Arts and Technology at UC Irvine, is co-author of Rap on Trial: A Legal Guide for Attorneys, a comprehensive guide for defense attorneys dealing with raps submitted at any stage Criminal Procedure.

LaBolt frames the case in colloquial terms: “Most of the judges are white men in their 70s, so they don’t quite get to rap.”

Young Thug isn’t the only notable rapper whose words have been used against him in court in recent years. Governor Dricio spent three years in prison before being released and found not guilty on all counts of murder and attempted murder. The court used lyrics from his 2016 song “Flex Free Style” to illustrate rap music and to convince the jury that Drico was targeting another artist named RJ.

Many expect YNW Melly’s words to come back to haunt him in the upcoming first-degree murder trial. A year and a half before the rapper was allegedly involved in the shooting deaths of two of his co-stars, he spent 20 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 with the hit song “Murder on My Mind”.

Despite this, there is precedent battling the use of words in court proceedings. In the 2016 case United States v. Snead, the court held that “a rap about selling drugs does not increase the likelihood that defendant Snead will sell drugs.” Furthermore, “we may not allow the jury to conclude that just because the defendant criticized for selling drugs that he is guilty of selling drugs.” In 2021, a federal court in Pennsylvania excluded rap lyrics from trial in Bay-Cosin v. Powell, asserting that “artistic expression is fictional rather than factual.”

Along the same lines, Lerner notes that “all kinds of people have stage names and public figures that have nothing to do with their real, everyday lives.” This brings to mind the infamous Hulk Hogan case against media outlet Gawker, in which one of the pillars of the professional wrestler’s argument was the idea that Terry Bollea and Hulk Hogan are two completely different people. Could it be Jeffrey Williams and Young Thag?

While allowing song lyrics as evidence in the Young Thug trial may eventually be denied, LaPolt notes that their prominence in the indictment is “harmful” because it likely actually harmed the jury.

Earlier this year, Jay-Z, Killer Mike, Meek Mill, Big Sean, Vic Mensa and more artists supported an attempt to end the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials. The New York state legislature has yet to vote on the rap trial bill, but it has the endorsement of state senators Brad Hoelman and Jamal Bailey.

On a broader level, the idea of ​​using one’s creative expression against them in court sets a troubling precedent for art itself.

“It has a tremendous scare effect,” says Lerner. “It’s unfortunate because it could really affect the way people make music.”

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