(ATLANTA) – Atlanta rappers Young Thug and Gunna have been charged with gangs in a case that sent shockwaves through the music industry and highlighted the controversial use of rap lyrics as evidence before the courts.
“[Young Thug] came out of a desperate situation,” Atlanta rapper and activist Killer Mike told “Good Morning America.”
“The side of town he’s from – Cleveland Avenue in southeast Atlanta – has been forever scarred by poverty…he managed to escape the streets using rap lyrics and he succeeded in helping people change their lives.”
But now some of those lyrics have been named in a 56-count grand jury indictment in Fulton County, Georgia.
Young Thug, whose legal name is Jeffrey Williams, and Gunna, whose name is Sergio Kitchens, have each been charged with one count of conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of the United States. state and have pleaded not guilty.
Young Thug is also charged with an additional count of participating in street gang activity, according to charging documents obtained by ABC News.
Major music executives launched a Change.org petition this week, calling for the protection of black art and legislation that addresses the criminalization of rap lyrics.
“Today, in courtrooms across America, Black creativity and art are criminalized,” wrote Kevin Liles, CEO of 300 Entertainment. “With disturbingly increasing frequency, prosecutors are attempting to use rap lyrics as confessions. This practice is not only a violation of First Amendment protections for speech and creative expression. It punishes already marginalized communities. and silences their stories of family, struggle, survival, and triumph.”
Killer Mike, real name Michael Render, is a longtime advocate against the use of rap lyrics in court. He said it’s important to remember that hip-hop is a form of entertainment and artists are performers who play characters.
“Young Thug – it’s a character that Jeffrey Williams created…but Jeffrey Williams is a father,” he said. “He is a human being capable of love, care and compassion.”
Erik Nielson, the author of ‘Rap on Trial,’ tells ‘GMA’ he has advised and testified in nearly 100 cases across the country in which rap lyrics have been used as evidence in court – a practice that often targets amateur local rappers.
“I was surprised that prosecutors were brazen enough to prosecute someone as well-known as Young Thug,” Nielson said. “But I was also surprised how much the lyrics seem to be part of the accusation as part of their first argument that he is involved in criminal activity.” .
Young Thug was among 28 people listed believed to be associated with the Atlanta-based Young Slime Life (YSL) gang, which authorities say he co-founded in 2012. YSL is also the name of Young Thug’s record label, Young Stoner Life, to which Gunna is also signed. It is an imprint of 300 Entertainment and is not named in the indictment.
Court documents detail instances where individuals allegedly associated with the YSL gang wore or displayed “YSL” symbols in music videos posted on social media between 2016 and 2021 and rapped lyrics mentioning “YSL” and/or various descriptions of criminal activities.
“These lyrics are nothing more than swagger rap lyrics,” Killer Mike said. “It’s nothing more than Killer Mike saying I’m a killer on the mic.”
Prosecutors allege YSL is responsible for three murders, including the 2015 murder of Donovan Thomas – an incident they say ‘triggered’ other gang-related killings in the city.
Young Thug, a Grammy-winning rapper, is charged with various crimes, including theft and possession of illegal drugs with intent to distribute.
“Mr. Williams has not committed any violation of the law. We will fight this case ethically, legally and zealously. Mr. Williams will be exonerated,” Young Thug’s attorney Brian Steel told ABC News.
“Mr. Sergio Kitchens, known as Gunna, is innocent. The indictment falsely describes his music as part of a criminal conspiracy,” the rapper’s attorneys, Steve Sadow and Don Samuel, told ABC News.
“It is extremely problematic for the state to rely on song lyrics as part of its claims. These lyrics are an artist’s creative expression and not a literal account of facts and circumstances,” the authorities said. attorneys in a court filing obtained by ABC News.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis defended the inclusion of the lyrics in the indictment.
“The First Amendment does not protect people from prosecutors using [lyrics] as evidence,” she said at a May 10 news conference when asked about First Amendment concerns. is exactly what it is. ABC News has contacted the district attorney’s office for more information. comment.
Nielson, a liberal arts professor at the University of Richmond, says hip-hop music is the only genre targeted in courtrooms in this way.
“Rap music is the only fictional form – musical or otherwise – that is targeted in this way in court,” Nielson said.
“It’s absolutely racist,” he added. “…what’s essentially happening is that rap music is being denied art status.”
Killer Mike, who wrote the foreword to “Rap on Trial,” said targeting black art speaks to the dehumanization of black people in America.
“Hip hop is not respected as an art because black people in this country are not recognized as full human beings,” he said.
“…If we allow the courts to prosecute these men based on the characters they created and the pretend stories they tell in rhyme, then then they’ll be on your doorstep.”
Both Young Thug and Gunna were denied bail and their trials are scheduled for January 2023.
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