Earlier this month, an Atlanta judge ruled to allow against him and other alleged gang members in court during their upcoming criminal trial. While the development is shocking to many, the prosecution in the case has previously been steadfast in its intentions to present such almost since the larger YSL RICO court proceedings began last year.
Thugger and the other defendants in the YSL RICO trial aren’t nearly the first time hip-hop lyrics have been introduced as evidence in court. It goes back over 30 years. In 1992, bars by Bay Area rapper Mac Dre were used in an attempted robbery case where he and two of his friends were arrested and charged. At the time, according to KQED, lyrics to his anti-police song “Punk Police” were used against him in court, which ended up helping convict him. Questions also arose at the time over the Hyphy movement pioneer’s actual nefarious intentions within the song, considering the rapper even admits within the lyrics that he’s “a dope rhyme dealer, not a money stealer.” Regardless, Dre was sentenced to five years in prison.
In 1996, fellow West Coast rapper Snoop Dogg also had his lyrics used against him in court during his infamous murder trial, particularly his single “Murder Was the Case.” That said, he would eventually be acquitted.
Similarly, Boosie Badazz was acquitted in a first-degree murder case in 2012; however, the bars in the song “187” were employed by the prosecution. The track features the line, “Any n***a who ever tried to play me, they dead now,” in its first verse and goes on to refer to “murk” and “cake,” which prosecutors pointed out as slang terms for “murder” and “money” when the jury was listening to evidence. At the time, Judge Mike Erwin ruled that only slang terms may be used against Louisiana rappers because legally using the entire song constituted unfair prejudice.
More recently, both Drakeo the Ruler in 2018 and 6ix9ine in 2019 had their lyrics introduced as evidence in court. The former was indicted on numerous felonies related to a December 2016 murder. At the time, prosecutors knew Drakeo hadn’t killed victim Davion Gregory. However, detectives had obtained audio recordings documenting a 17-year-old alleged gang member confessing to the killing and a man linked to Drakeo’s rap crew confessing to firing additional shots. Civil rights leaders, similarly to now, were watching Drakeo’s case and asserting that it was a seminal free speech test and an example of racist and aggressive policing of Black men and their creative expression.
Last April, the Restoring Artistic Protection Act (RAP Act) was re-introduced to Congress by two Democratic congressmen. The legislation seeks to protect artists from the wrongful use of their lyrics against them in criminal and civil court proceedings. During a press conference in coordination with the reintroduction announcement, politicians Hank Johnson and Jamaal Bowman were joined by representatives of the Black Music Coalition (BMAC), the Recording Academy, the Black Music Collective, SAG-AFTRA, and other First Amendment advocates in making the demand for free speech rights for artists, including rappers.
The bill sought to add a presumption to the Federal Rules of Evidence that would limit the admissibility of evidence of an artist’s creative or artistic expression to be used against them in court. “The Black Music Action Coalition supports and applaud Congressmen Hank Johnson and Jamal Bowman for this forward movement to right the systemic wrong of utilizing rap lyrics as the sole evidence of crimes through the proposed RAP Act,” said Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, Co-Founder/Chair of BMAC at the time. “Hip-hop as a form of art is being critically endangered by this plague taking over our criminal justice system. Rap is undeniably the heart of not just popular music but American culture and deserves the same First Amendment protection as all other creative expression.”
The bill has been awaiting review in the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security since the April reintroduction.
Regarding Young Thug’s trial, a November 9 formal ruling by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville denied Young Thug’s request to ban the lyrics entirely. It granted a motion by prosecutors to preliminarily admit them. Glanville noted that prosecutors would still need to establish why they were using them and that Steel could object during the trial, which is slated to begin with opening statements on November 27.
According to Billboard, Judge Glanville held a hearing about using lyrics as evidence that many claim is against the Atlanta rapper’s First Amendment rights and has drawn heavy backlash from the music industry.
“They are targeting the right to free speech, and that’s wrong,” defense attorney Brian Steel said while blasting prosecutors. “They are saying that just because he is singing about it, he is now part of a crime.”
It’s an argument that Judge Glanville largely rejected, claiming, “They’re not prosecuting your clients because of the songs they wrote,” according to the publication. “They’re using the songs to prove other things your clients may have been involved in. I don’t think it’s an attack on free speech.”
Prosecutor Michael Carlson reportedly urged Judge Glanville to avoid sweeping questions about free speech, claiming the actual issue before the court was not rap lyrics but “proclamations of violence” instead.
“The issue here is not rap,” Carlson said of the lyrics, which he claims are “highly relevant in this case.”
“This is not randomly the state attempting to bring in Run DMC from the 80s,” he added. “This is specific. These are party admissions. They just happen come in the form of lyrics.”
Young Thug, Gunna, and several other alleged members of YSL were indicted in May 2022. Gunna and several defendants eventually reached plea deals. Only Thug and five others will face a jury.
On November 10, Meek Mill tweeted his concern over Thugger’s lyrics being used in court (and/or the practice in general). “Locking us [up] for rapping got me scared to do [an] interview. Free Jeff. Free Lucci,” the Philly rapper wrote.
Among the lyrics reportedly admitted as evidence include bars like, “Come and enroll to the YSL school and I swear I am the principal (slime!) / I do not care if you slime for a dollar and chance, it’s the principle” and “I never killed anybody, but I got something to do with that body / I told them to shoot a hundred rounds / Ready for war like I’m Russia / I get all type of cash, I’m a general.” The full list is provided here.
It’s unclear whether Young Thug’s lyrics will affect the jury’s opinion of his guilt. His involvement in the crimes he’s alleged to have committed should be based on actual evidence presented by the prosecution. Considering how high profile this case is – arguably the biggest since Snoop’s when it comes to lyrics in court – precedent could be further set for future trials. Perhaps the political will to bring the RAP Act to a vote in the House of Representatives will also follow.