When news surfaced on May 9 that Young Thug and Gunna had been taken into custody, I hoped it would be another forgettable, quickly-resolved incident that would end in a leaked mugshot and bail. Then more details began to emerge, and it didn’t look good at all. 28 associates of Young Thug’s label Young Slime Life (YSL) had been arrested as part of a 56-count indictment for allegedly violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. And then there was one damning factor: the rappers’ lyrics would be used as evidence in court. While this is clearly in violation of constitutional free speech, it’s only the latest in a growing number of criminal proceedings targeting artistic expression in hip-hop. Weaponizing lyrics to convict and incarcerate artists is a legal onslaught that is unique to rap; if this precedent stands, no one who has ever rhymed on a beat is safe.
Young Thug’s charges date back to 2013 when the Atlanta rapper began to make the pivotal transition to global superstardom. The indictment paints a picture of the YSL label as a cover for criminal activities and gang recruitment, reigned over by Thug. He is accused of over 30 RICO violations. Meanwhile, Gunna has one single RICO charge pinned on him that his lawyers described as “so thin as to be transparent.” And with District Attorney Fani T. Willis looking to pursue the “maximum penalties,” Thug and Gunna could be facing 20 years each. In the indictment, alleged crimes ranging from gang murders to making “terroristic threats” depict Young Thug as a ruthless crime boss rather than a generation-defining artist, his entire career and flourishing label twisted to resemble nothing but a front for a criminal masterplan. And Thug’s associates, childhood friends – many of whom are Black and grew up in the same impoverished neighborhoods, are lumped into the “gang” narrative and held responsible for its alleged activities. Prosecutors claim they can prove all of this based on YSL’s lyrics and social media presence.
In their case against Thug and Gunna, the prosecution presented a selection of lyrics from some of their most popular songs – including one Juice WRLD bar that’s been wrongly attributed to Young Thug. Lyrics like “I never killed anybody but I got something to do with that body” from the song “Anybody” and “gave the lawyer close to two mil, he handles all the killings” from “Just How It Is,” are postured as street realisms to be taken literally, instead of the expressive metaphors and braggadocio-heavy storytelling that hip-hop is all about. The irony is that the precise art form that’s been used as a means to rise out of violent systemic oppression is the same thing law enforcement is appropriating to put successful Black men behind bars.
Once used to combat the mafia and other highly organized crime groups, the RICO Act has recently gained notoriety for going after high-profile rappers. Drakeo the Ruler, Boosie, Tay-K, and YNW Melly have all been involved in trials where their rap videos and lyrics were introduced into the courtroom. In 2017 a Louisiana judge went so far as to lecture the then-teen rapper YoungBoy Never Broke Again, saying, “Your genre has a lot to do with the mindset people have. Your genre has normalized violence.” Perhaps most famously, in 2014 Bobby Shmurda and 15 members of his GS9 crew were arrested on a wide-ranging conspiracy indictment. In a 2014 Vulture interview, Shmurda recalled the police using his hit song “Hot N*gga” to taunt him. “The day they locked me up they said, ‘We’re tired of our kids listening to your music.’ They said it to my face, laughing.” After serving seven years, Shmurda was released in 2021 and while his return to hip-hop was widely celebrated, one can’t help but think of what career this promising star could have had if not for his incarceration.
Rap-specific RICO indictments are notable because they’re quick to stamp the “gang” label on rap crews and will go to unconstitutional lengths to make it stick. In 2018, for example, Jamal Knox was awaiting trial for other charges, when Pittsburgh authorities stumbled across his rap persona Mayhem Mal and a music video called “F**k the Police.” Although unrelated to the case at hand, and even though Knox maintained he was an artist exercising his freedom of expression under the First Amendment, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that his lyrics crossed the line between protected free speech and terroristic threats and intimidation. The track landed him a two-year jail sentence. “I'm an entertainer. This is what we do. I'm only 18,” Knox defended himself in a video at the time. “We're chasing our dream. That's all that it is. It's music to me. I'm a poet."
Knox went on to appeal the ruling at the Supreme Court but was denied. A coalition of rappers, including Meek Mill, Killer Mike, 21 Savage, and Chance the Rapper, responded by sending the Supreme Court a legal brief teaching the justices about the history of rap music. They argued for rap as a form of poetry where word choices are often informed by “rhyme and meter” rather than real-world threats. “Outlaw country music is given much more poetic license than gangster rap, and I listen to both," Killer Mike explained in an interview with the New York Times. “And I can tell you that the lyrics are dark and brutal when Johnny Cash describes shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die and when Ice Cube rapped about a drive-by shooting early in his career... It’s no different from stop and frisk. It’s another form of racial profiling.” The document failed to make the Court reconsider Knox’s case, if anything, the system only doubled down on its precedent. In 2019, the Maryland court of appeals ruled it legal to use rap lyrics as evidence in murder trials. America’s legal system was officially putting an entire genre on trial.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon of witch-hunting rappers isn’t uniquely stateside. In the UK, since the mid-2010s, there has been a surge in cases treating lyrics and videos from the rap subgenre drill as hard evidence. The practice often relies on the testimony of so-called “rap interpreters,” police officers tasked with decoding the music. Officers who entirely lack the cultural know-how to take into account that drill music, while it may be violence-themed, like all great art tells you something about the society that cultivated it. Instead, these rap interpreters use their presence in courts in urban areas across England to vilify rappers by treating their art as confessions. In court, common street slang is subverted into incriminating gang-speak. It’s as absurd as it is chilling, police officers stumbling through the complexity of inner-city dialects and urban slang with people’s lives hanging in the balance.
Nearly all the defendants in these types of cases are Black young men or boys, and it’s clear this will have an impact on stereotypes of Black youth as inherently violent. “For some Black kids, stigmatized and overpoliced, the toxic ‘gang’ label, once you scratch the surface, seems to be little more than who your friends are, what music you like and where you live,” Dr. Richard Bramwell, a specialist in UK hip-hop culture, told Vice. In such cases in both the UK and the US, the goal, it seems, is to dehumanize rappers in the eyes of the court – and society more broadly – through the use of their music.
When scenes of explicit violence and murder dominate our screens, why is rap the hill law enforcement is willing to die on? Across the board, rappers aren’t given the same creative freedom as other artists. In fact, no modern art form has been plagued with the ambiguity of fact-versus-fiction as much as rap. When rap is being seen as a proxy for Blackness it’s clearly also policed as such. So, it came as no surprise on May 23, two weeks after being arrested, that Young Thug and Gunna were denied bail and Gunna’s trial date was inexplicably set for January 2023. That’s almost a whole year behind bars awaiting trial, like with Shmurda, time is crucial for Gunna at this stage in his career. And I get the despairing sense that that’s the point. Even if Gunna and Thug beat the case, they will come out of it millions of dollars poorer and having endured humiliation and inhumane treatment. They say the pen is mightier than the sword, and in the case of rap, until its artistic value is recognized and protected by law, rappers will continue to be crucified with their lyrics.