By Maxime Tamsett and Nick Valencia, CNN
Atlanta (CNN) — A judge ruled Thursday that rap lyrics can be admitted as evidence in the trial of alleged members of the Young Slime Life (YSL) Gang, including rapper Young Thug, a practice some critics have called a racist double standard.
Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Ural Glanville said he would admit as evidence 17 sets of lyrics the state presented Wednesday, “depending upon or subject to a foundation that is properly laid by the state or the proponent that seeks to admit that evidence.”
Grammy winner Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffery Lamar Williams, was initially indicted along with 27 defendants in May 2022 on conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and participation in criminal street gang activity. More charges were added later.
Prosecutors say he is a founder of YSL, an alleged criminal street gang that began in Atlanta. The initial 88-page indictment charges him and other defendants with counts relating to gang activity and drug and firearms violations.
According to the indictment, Williams and others “conspired to associate together and with others for the common purposes of illegally obtaining money and property through a pattern of racketeering activity and conducting and participating in the enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity.”
It says lyrics from the rapper’s popular songs were used as examples of “overt acts,” some of which constitute racketeering.
Williams’ attorney has denied the charges against him, telling CNN last year his client “has committed no crime whatsoever” and that they looked forward to a trial.
Opening statements are scheduled to begin on November 27, according to a source familiar with the process.
After nine months, 12 jurors and six alternates were selected last week for the trial of alleged YSL gang.
The case against Williams is being brought by District Attorney Fani Willis, who is also leading a wide-ranging case against former President Donald Trump and others regarding the 2020 election using the same law.
Defenders see a double standard
Over the years, some observers have seen a racist double standard in the use of rap lyrics against artists in trials.
“There’s a void in the law and the void allows abuse, and we’ve been trying to fill the void by changing the laws statutorily across the country so that everybody – which is everybody, and I mean everybody – gets their right to a fair trial,” said attorney Alex Spiro, who has represented rappers including Jay-Z, Meek Mill and 21 Savage, in a previous CNN article.
He and other hip-hop defenders have said prosecutors have used rap lyrics against artists in hundreds of cases. They compare that to the lack of similar responses against earlier artists, including Johnny Cash, who was White and sang, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” in “Folsom Prison Blues.”
California lawmakers passed a bill in 2022 requiring courts “to consider specified factors when balancing the probative value of that evidence against the substantial danger of undue prejudice.”
In Congress, a bill was introduced to limit the use as evidence of an “artist’s creative or artistic expression against that artist in court.”
‘Bob Marley did not confess to having shot a sheriff’
The bill cited a federal judge’s 2021 finding in a Philadelphia rapper’s case: “Freddy Mercury did not confess to having ‘just killed a man’ by putting ‘a gun against his head’ and ‘pulling the trigger.’ Bob Marley did not confess to having shot a sheriff. And Johnny Cash did not confess to shooting ‘a man in Reno, just to watch him die.’”
In Atlanta on Wednesday, prosecutors presented lyrics they say demonstrate culpability in the YSL case.
Among presented lyrics included those from Young Thug’s 2018 “Anybody” song.
“I never killed anybody, but I got something to do with that body … I get all types of cash, I’m a general,” one lyric states.
Prosecutors argued that Young Thug’s alleged leadership role in the YSL gang is shown by him rapping, “I’m a general.”
“We know that generals lead armies, so it’s the state’s contention that, again, he’s referencing he’s the leader of this gang, he’s a general,” Deputy District Attorney Simone Hylton said.
Lyrics from rapper Yak Gotti, another defendant whose real name is Deamonte Kendrick, were also presented as evidence, mentioning killing “for slimes” in the 2021 song, “Take it to Trial.”
“I rep my life for real … for slimes you know I kill,” and “Hey, how you doing? I’m Yak Gotti, I got bodies on bodies,” in the 2015 song “Dream” were also presented by prosecutors as possible evidence against Kendrick, who is charged with murder in the indictment, according to Hylton.
“The state’s contention, which our experts will testify to, is that he (Kendrick) has dead bodies on bodies, not just regular bodies,” Hylton told the judge.
Kendrick’s defense attorney Doug Weinstein argued the lyrics don’t equate to actual crimes.
“There’s a giant elephant in the room, which is that we’re ignoring art. There is art here, and the art has to be separated from the real life,” Weinstein argued.
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