Young Thug: Should a Rapper’s Lyrics Be Used in a Court of Law?

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RapShould a rapper’s lyrics be used in a court of law? The jury is still out on that, but Rapper Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffery Lamar Williams, recently landed in jail with his lyrics allegedly supporting his arrest. Williams was named in a 56-count indictment on Monday in Georgia. Charges include conspiring to violate the RICO Act, murder, armed robbery, and participation in criminal street gang activity. Federal prosecutors appear ready to paint Young Thug as a key figure in a sprawling criminal operation, and they are relying heavily on his music to do so.

Many in the music industry have said rap is an art, and the lyrics are just words. Others feel the power of words, along with the responsibility that should accompany its use, has been lost. As a society, musicians tend to hide behind the power of free speech but have constantly displayed how irresponsible the culture has become when speaking freely.

Williams was one of 28 members or associates of the alleged Young Slime Life “criminal street gang” arrested Monday, May 9, following a 56-count grand jury indictment (fellow rapper Gunna, real name Sergio Giovanni Kitchens, was among the others arrested and charged). Williams, whom prosecutors identified as a founder of YSL, was hit with two charges — violating the RICO Act and participation in criminal street gang activity — and beneath those umbrellas are a handful of serious accusations.

The exact nature of the evidence the government has in relation to these charges is not laid out in the indictment. But in scanning the document, prosecutors appeared to rely heavily on social media posts and song lyrics to paint Williams as a violent gang figure. Many within the Black community have said this makes them very uncomfortable that prosecutors would use fictional writings as evidence against defendants in criminal cases.

In total, Young Thug lyrics from nine different songs were listed in the indictment, the earliest being 2014’s “Eww,” and the most recent being last year’s Young Thug/Gunna collaboration “Ski.” Other lyrics in the indictment came from Young Thug’s 2018 collaboration with Nicki Minaj “Anybody”

I never killed anybody but I got something to do with that body.

And 2018’s “Just How It Is”

Gave the lawyer close to two mil, he handles all the killings.

As well as 2020’s “Take It to Trial”

For slimes you know I kill, trial, I done beat it twice, state, I’m undefeated like feds came and snatched me.

It is true that many rappers are so insulated by money and fame, they feel invincible. This mentality is the reason they are bold enough to put their crimes in a song. However, there are also rappers who spit violent, even criminal, lyrics about a life they have only heard about. The pressure for some of these young people to declare stories they have never lived is real. This type of gangsta rap was born out of the Hip Hop community.

As the 1980s came to a close, Hip Hop’s popularity only increased as different styles and approaches emerged throughout the 1990s. While numerous subgenres gained traction, a recognizable division fell into place between so-called “Gangsta Rap” and “Conscious Hip Hop.” Gangsta Rap grew in part out of the social and political climate on the West Coast, where cities such as Compton, California, became engulfed in gang violence fueled by the crack cocaine epidemic. The tension between the Black and “Blue” community increased during the Rodney King case and came to a head after the announcement of its verdict.

Gangsta rappers began to write explicitly about inner-city violence. Songs were marked by a liberal use of profanity and images of the gun-toting toughs who lived amidst the brutality of the inner city. Fiction seemed to become fact when rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. were victims of unsolved, highly public murders.

Not long after, a countermovement called “Conscious Hip Hop” began to emerge, primarily on the East Coast. Many fans saw it as an answer to the often violent and controversial lyrics common in Gangsta Rap. Though in many ways responding to the same conditions to which Gangsta Rap reacted, this subgenre sought to inspire positivity through its lyrics, much like some of the earliest Hip Hop music. Lyrics were intended to challenge and inspire, while also questioning the social and political status quo.

Both subgenres helped define Hip Hop’s diverse spectrum of creative possibilities, as well as expanding its capacity to question and critique society. Ultimately, both movements addressed the same issues and concerns. But, should these lyrics be allowed as evidence in criminal trials?rap

Critics argue lyrics are just music, and playing rap songs or reading the musician’s lyrics in trials unfairly causes a jury to become prejudiced. They maintain that it is just a musical art form and should not be used as evidence against the artist. Law enforcement and much of the judicial system believe a suspect’s lyrics can help establish intent, motive, and even confessions. They do not buy the story that the lyrics are fictional in all cases.

Should a rapper’s lyrics be used in a court of law? In the case of rapper Vonte Skinner, this is exactly what happened. In 2014, Skinner’s murder case weighed primarily on two eyewitnesses when his rap lyrics entered the trial. Although the testimony of the eyewitnesses changed several times, his lyrics were strong enough to persuade the jury.

Skinner admitted he was present when Peterson was shot, but did not pull the trigger and does not know who did. He said he was there to buy drugs from Peterson. Ultimately, Skinner was found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Amar Dean, Skinner’s younger brother, said he was in the courtroom when the lyrics were read out loud to the jury.

Two to your helmet and four slugs drillin’ your cheek to blow your face off and leave your brain caved in the street…

Dean said faces immediately began to frown, and their body language spoke volumes. Even though the lyrics had nothing to do with the case, he could see that a lot of their faces were in shock, as if they were thinking, “Whoa, did he say that? Did he do that?” To no avail, Skinner challenged the value of the rap lyrics as evidence versus its prejudicial effect on his trial.

In 2012, the New Jersey Appellate Court said the lyrics should not have been admitted, because they were not written near the time of the shooting. The judges stated they have “significant doubt if the jurors would have found Skinner guilty if they had not been required to listen to the extended reading of the highly prejudicial and disturbing lyrics.” As a result, the rapper’s conviction was overturned.

Again, the rap community faces multiple convictions based on song lyrics. There have been previous high-profile instances of these tactics being used against established and aspiring rappers. In 2014, San Diego rapper Brandon “Tiny Doo” Duncan’s lyrics were used to prosecute him under California’s Proposition 21 law, which allows prosecutors to roll anyone who “promotes, furthers, assists, or benefits from any felonious conduct” into a gang conspiracy.

The state of California prosecutors argued that the album art for his No Safety mixtape (which featured a gun and bullets), as well as his “ain’t no safety on this pistol I’m holding” lyric, implicated him in the conspiracy. Duncan argued, “The studio is my canvas. I’m just painting a picture.” Ultimately, the California superior court agreed with him, dropping the conspiracy charges.

Today, things look bleak for Young Thug. On Wednesday, he was denied bond and remains behind bars. Judge Robert Wolf of the Fulton County Magistrate Court sided with the state prosecutor to deny bond to the rapper, with claims that Young Thug is a flight risk, and added that he would pose a risk of committing additional felonies if he were released. The question remains, should a rapper’s lyrics be used as evidence in a court of law?

Opinion by Cherese Jackson (Virginia)


Complex: Courts Are Preying On Rappers and Their Lyrics
Rolling Stone: Prosecutors Want to Use Young Thug’s Lyrics Against Him
Slate: A Shameful Prosecutorial Act

Image Credits:

Top Image Courtesy of Frank Schwichtenberg – Wikimedia Creative Commons License
Inline Image Courtesy of Alekz’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Featured Image Courtesy of NRK P3’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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