In early May, Atlanta-based emcee Jeffery Williams, better known as Young Thug, was arrested on gang-related charges, along with 28 others. But what’s most striking about his case is that a sizable chunk of the evidence that the government cites in its 88-page indictment are Young Thug lyrics. Unfortunately, there’s already precedent for this. Using lines from rappers’ songs as evidence of a crime is an increasingly common tactic among prosecutors across the U.S. In just the last few years, lyrics have been used in criminal cases against Drakeo the Ruler, Tekashi 6ix9ine, Vonte Skinner and Lawrence Montague, among others.
While prosecutors have argued that the protection of the First Amendment doesn’t apply in these cases because speech can be used “as evidence if it is such,” civil rights attorney and director of the Center for Anti-Racism Research Timothy Welbeck told the Washington Post that other forms of art are simply not criminalized in the same way. The same goes for other types of music. Case in point: No charges were filed against Johnny Cash after he sang that he killed a man in Reno just to watch him die.
“The state has a constitutional requirement to meet their burden of proof if they want to deprive someone of their life and liberty,” Welback told the Post. “They can’t solely rely on rap lyrics. You’re using a genre created by Black people and alleging that these young Black men have a propensity to commit crime because of their link to Black art.”
In a farce of justice, Drakeo also saw his lyrics used against him in court. He would later record an album from his jail cell, and in a review of that album, Washington Post music critic Chris Richards wrote, “It all feels outrageous and absurd. Somehow, our justice system can turn a Black musical group into a gang. Some way, it can present Black art to a jury as criminal evidence.”
Later in that same review, Richards asked why American justice had such a difficult time understanding that rappers aren’t journalists, their lyrics aren’t diaries and their songs aren’t confessions — they’re performances. “We didn’t send James Gandolfini off to prison for Tony Soprano’s crimes,” Richards argued. “We seem to understand the difference between a person and a persona just fine — but not when the artist is Black? That isn’t some cultural blind spot about rap music. It’s just racism.”
In the case of Young Thug, the government alleges that he conspired to commit RICO violations dating back to 2013, along with gang activity in 2018, claiming that Young Thug and his YSL clique are members of the Blood street gang and can be identified by their use of acronyms like BLATT, which allegedly stands for “Blood Love All the Time.” The criminal complaint also extensively quotes from Young Thug’s lyrics to make its case. The indictment claims that these lyrics are all evidence of an “overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.” Some choice examples:
- “last nigga tried me almost got popped in Lenox, ask the cops, ask the detectives, they know all the business, ask the cops and the detectives, all the jun’sdictions”
- “gave the lawyer close to two mil, he handles all the killings”
- “we don’t speak bout shit on wax, it’s all mob business, we know to kill the biggest cats of all kittens”
- “for slimes you know I kill, trial, I done beat it twice, state, I’m undefeated like feds came and snatched me, I don’t know, no point in asking, I was on Bleveland, stuck like a magnet, Bitch ass nigga, I shoot at your mammy, need to stand down, I up my stamina, take it to trial, get an appeal, take it to trial, yeah, you gon wack em”
This is what happens when racist imaginations decide the fate and future of Black lives. In the same way that Chicago gets used as shorthand for Black-on-Black crime, rap music still gets used as a dog whistle for what motivates violence in America.
As any historian can tell you, violence was an American tradition long before the first DJs started throwing parties in the Bronx that gave birth to hip hop. The question of what inspires America’s violence certainly predates rap music — and what is considered violence has also changed over time. As the Christian theologian Gil Bailie said, “There have been periods of history in which episodes of terrible violence occurred but for which the word violence was never used. Violence is shrouded in justifying myths that lend it moral legitimacy, and these myths for the most part kept people from recognizing the violence for what it was.”
But beyond the questions of how we as a culture value violence, and how our excuses for it are determined by the identity of the perpetrator, there’s also the issue of how Black people boasting about fictional violence is somehow immediately interpreted as being autobiographical. In the book, Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics and Guilt in America, Atlanta emcee Killer Mike perhaps says it best: “Often, people don’t care about what’s just, they just care about order. They don’t want it disrupted, and children from marginalized communities, particularly young men who call out injustice by saying ‘fuck government,’ are challenging the order that American society is comfortable with. Prosecutors know that locking up young men of color carries political capital, and they’ve figured out a way to use rap lyrics to do it.”
The issue is so harmful and outrageous that Jay Z partnered with Meek Mill to lobby for a new law forbidding the use of lyrics as evidence in a criminal prosecution. In May, the New York State Senate passed their proposed legislation, and it now must pass the state assembly. Next door, the courts in New Jersey have also determined that a rapper’s lyrics “can’t be used as evidence in a criminal trial.” All of this is promising, but lyrics aren’t just applied in prosecution; they’ve also been used during sentencing, as prosecutors have used them “to portray rappers as dangers to their communities.”
What all of this means is that, if you’re Black, or a person of color, your creativity as an artist can be used to condemn your fate in a court of law and determine how grievous your punishment will be. It’s a racist prosecurial tactic that has no place in our legal system, and yet it’s still being used to criminalize Black artists. It’s like Tupac once rhymed:
I’m stuck in jail the DA’s tryin’ to burn me
I’d be out on bail if I had a good attorney
Want to label me a criminal and cuff me up
Got a pocket full of money so they rough me up
I ain’t trippin’ in the county, and I’m mad as fuck