A judge ruled on Nov. 9 that song lyrics used by Atlanta rapper Young Thug and his associates will be admissible as evidence in racketeering trial of the YSL group.
YSL (Young Stoner Life) is a label founded by Young Thug, whose legal name is Jeffrey Lamar Williams. But prosecutors have alleged in an 88-page indictment that YSL is a criminal enterprise affiliated with the Bloods gang and the letters stand for “Young Slime Life.”
The sprawling 56-count racketeering case naming 28 defendants was brought by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who recently brought a racketeering case against former President Donald Trump and 18 of his associates.
Prosecutors list 182 examples of alleged gang activity, arguing that those named in the indictment are responsible for committing violent crimes, including murder, armed robbery, and carjackings.
Eight individuals named in the indictment have accepted plea deals, while 12 others will be tried separately.
After months of competing court filings, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville ruled that prosecutors will be allowed to introduce 17 sets of lyrics they have identified, as long as they can show that the lyrics are related to crimes Williams and other defendants are accused of committing.
Defense attorneys have argued that the lyrics used in songs are constitutionally protected speech under the First Amendment.
“They’re targeting the right to free speech,” Brian Steel, an attorney for Williams, told the court in a statement quoted by The New York Times.
Doug Weinstein, a lawyer for Deamonte Kendrick, a YSL rapper who goes by the name Yak Gotti, said, “There is art here, and the art has got to be separated from real life.”
He added, “They’re going to look at these lyrics and instantly say these guys are guilty,” explaining to the court that rappers are playing characters. “It’s what his audience is looking for and demands in gangster rap,” he said.
As the Times reported, prosecutors say they are not charging the rappers for the content in their lyrics but are simply using lyrics as supporting evidence that other crimes were committed and argued that they are not constitutionally protected speech.
Prosecutors said, “The Defense would seem to opine that if the Unabomber’s manifesto had been set to music, it could not be used against him.”
Mike Carlson, a Fulton County executive district attorney, referenced the issue of an oft-cited Johnny Cash lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” arguing that if Cash had actually been accused of shooting and killing a man in Washoe County, where Reno is located, “his lyrics would have in all likelihood been used against him.”
Carlson also said that in a racketeering case such as this, “evidence of existence and the nature of the organization is not only relevant, it’s required.”
As the Times notes, some of the specific lyrics Glanville will allow are bars that prosecutors say would establish the existence of YSL (“this that mob life”); the expectations for its self-professed members (“for slimes you know I’ll kill”); and Young Thug’s role as a leader (“I’m the principal (slime!),” “I’m a boss, I call the shots,” “I was a capo in my hood way before a plaque”).