Young Thug performs onstage during the 2022 SXSW Conference at Waterloo Park in Austin on March 17, 2022.
Amy E. Price—SXSW/Getty Images
June 29, 2022 4:57 PM EDT

When the Grammy Award-winning rapper Young Thug, real name Jeffery Lamar Williams, was arrested May 9 on conspiracy and street gang activity charges, the indictment heavily cited his lyrics, music videos, and social media posts—and reignited a controversial debate on the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases.

Williams, a veritable hip-hop superstar from Atlanta with three No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200, has been credited with shaping the contemporary sound of rap. His distinctive flow and sound are often heralded as the preeminent example of “mumble rap,” a microgenre named for the unclear or slurred vocal delivery of its artists. Young Thug’s music is rife with emotions, freestyles, and ad-libs, and draws on a dizzying range of influences, from psychedelia and punk to Lil Wayne. His lyrics are both familiar and absurd, referencing the realities of the world in which he grew up as a Black man in Atlanta and his own capricious flights of fancy.

Williams, along with 27 other people associated with his record label Young Stoner Life (YSL Records), including his protegé, the rapper Gunna (real name Sergio Kitchens), was named in an 88-page indictment. The document lists 56 counts of racketeering charges dating back to 2013, including accusations of possession of drugs and illegal firearms, armed robbery, assault, and attempted murder.

The indictment, which cites lyrics like “I’m prepared to take them down,” and “I never killed anybody but I got something to do with that body,” alleges that Williams is a founder of Young Slime Life, a criminal street gang started in 2012 that’s affiliated with the national Bloods gang. Williams’ record label refers to its artists as the “Slime Family,” and he is often referred to as “King Slime.” The label has also released two collaboration albums featuring the Slime Family: 2018’s Slime Language and last year’s Slime Language 2.

Williams, who was denied bond twice, is currently being held at Cobb County Jail in Marietta, Ga. His lawyer Brian Steel did not respond to a request from TIME for comment. In a May 9 interview with the New York Times, Steel said the rapper is innocent: “Mr. Williams came from an incredibly horrible upbringing, and he has conducted himself throughout his life in a way that is just to marvel at,” he told the paper. “He’s committed no crime whatsoever.”

At Hot 97’s Summer Jam in mid-June, Williams made a pre-recorded audio statement, thanking fans for their support and urging them to sign a Change.org petition started by music industry executives Kevin Lilles and Julie Greenwald that condemns the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases.

“You know, this isn’t about just me or YSL,” Williams said in the clip. “I always use my music as a form of artistic expression, and I see now that Black artists and rappers don’t have that freedom. Everybody please sign the Protect Black Art petition and keep praying for us. I love you all.”

The racial implications of using rap lyrics in criminal cases

Williams’ case is a pivotal example of a controversial legal trend where rap lyrics are used as evidence against defendants—a tactic that has been critiqued for disproportionately targeting Black and other BIPOC men as the predominant groups in rap, relying on racist stereotypes, and infringing on First Amendment rights. In his 2019 book, Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics and Guilt in America, co-authored with Andrea L. Dennis, University of Richmond professor Erik Nielson identified about 500 criminal trials over the past decade in which rap lyrics were used as evidence—many more cases than during the ’90s-era war on crime, when the practice originated.

Nielson argues that the focus on the issue shouldn’t center on free speech as much as on systemic racism, emphasizing that artists in other genres like country or heavy metal hardly see their work being used to prosecute them. In a March 30 opinion piece for Type Investigations and the New York Times, journalist and researcher Jaeah Lee, who worked with Dennis, noted that her research uncovered only four examples of artistic works like fiction or lyrics being used as evidence of assault or violent threats in mediums and genres aside from rap dating back to 1950.

Meanwhile, rappers, whose art form often relies as much on figurative language and hyperbole as it does on rhymes and beats, are disproportionately fighting against their work being taken literally. “This is almost exclusively something affecting young Black or Latino men,” Nielson says, “so this practice is sort of emblematic of the much larger, more systemic inequalities that we see throughout the criminal justice system.” These cases have become more common as hip-hop has grown to become the most popular genre of music in the U.S., eclipsing rock in streaming consumption in 2018.

This year in Atlanta, the city that many consider to be the capital of rap, Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis has said her “number one focus” is targeting street gangs. She contends that street gangs are responsible for the majority of violent crime in her city—a line of reasoning that led to Williams’ indictment. And earlier this year in New York City, Mayor Eric Adams seemingly blamed the deaths of two aspiring rappers on the drill rap music scene, recommending that music videos for the genre not be allowed on social media. (Following a meeting with a group of drill rappers, Adams later clarified that he does not want to ban drill music, but would like to work with the artists to prevent gun violence.)

For Nielson, this paradox of rap becoming mainstream while continuing to face legal and societal scrutiny is a telling metaphor for larger issues surrounding race in America—and one that isn’t going away anytime soon. “This is a newer and alarming practice on one hand, but it also resides in a centuries-long tradition in the United States of law enforcement suppressing and often punishing Black expression,” he says.

The origins of the legal trend

According to Nielson, the first cases where rap lyrics were used as criminal evidence emerged in the early ’90s amid a moral panic about the influence of gangster rap, which was associated with radical politics (examples such as NWA’s “F-ck Tha Police”), explicit content, and violence. The case most commonly cited as the first to use rap music as evidence in a criminal trial was 1991’s United States v. Foster, where a 7th-circuit appeals court upheld the conviction of Derek Foster, whose prosecution relied on rap lyrics he wrote about drugs and narcotics trafficking.

An early, high-profile example was Snoop Dogg’s 1993 murder trial, in which he was acquitted. The prosecution used lyrics from his track “Murder was the Case” during closing arguments. But it was People v. Olguin in 1994 that has arguably had the biggest influence on the use of this tactic. For the case, in which Cesar Javier Olguin and Francisco Calderon Mora, a part-time DJ, were convicted of second-degree murder for the killing of a rival gang member who had defaced their gang-related graffiti, the prosecution submitted rap lyrics found in Mora’s home that made reference to violence and gang culture generally. While the defense argued that it couldn’t be proven that Mora wrote the lyrics and that their use as evidence could mislead the jury, the prosecution successfully used them. The case is largely considered the seminal precedent for citing lyrics as evidence.

Snoop Dogg, center, is escorted into the Los Angeles Criminal Courts building where he and a former bodyguard were on trial for a 1993 murder, on Feb. 9, 1996.
Mark J. Terrill—AP

As recently as 2018, the late rapper Drakeo the Ruler (real name Darrell Wayne Caldwell) was arrested on murder charges, and his lyrics were used in an effort to connect him to a shooting and to posit that his rap collective the Stinc Team was a criminal street gang. (Caldwell was acquitted in 2019; he was killed in 2021.)

How artists might be impacted in the future

Despite the increase in cases citing lyrics as evidence over time, Williams’ stands out because of his level of fame. The majority of cases have involved amateur or emerging rap artists. Since Williams’ lyrics and social media presence were used heavily as evidence in his indictment, Nielson argues that if prosecutors are successful, it could set precedent on how other prominent artists in the industry will be tried in the future.

“​​What’s important about this case is that it could signal to other DAs across the country that the artists you thought were once out of reach are now within reach, including really well-known artists,” he says. “That’s really concerning, for not just rappers and rap music, but for popular culture and criminal justice reform.”

Williams’ case coincides with legislation that’s been in the works to combat the practice of using rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases; in November 2021, Democratic New York State Senators Brad Hoylman and Jamaal Bailey introduced the “Rap Music on Trial” bill, backed by the likes of Jay Z, Meek Mill, and Fat Joe, which would ban “the use of art created by a defendant as evidence against them in a courtroom” in most cases. The bill, which has so far passed in the New York State Senate, is currently awaiting approval from the State Assembly and Governor Kathy Hochul. In July 2022, a new bill titled the “Restoring Artistic Protection Act” was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Georgia Representative Hank Johnson and New York Representative Jamaal Bowman. The aptly named RAP Act aims to protect artists from the the use of their lyrics against them as evidence in criminal and civil proceedings. According to a press release about the proposed legislation, the legislation is the first bill of its kind at the federal level.

What’s next for Young Thug and the other artists in the lawsuit

Williams and Kitchens are both currently being held without bond in Cobb County Jail in Marietta, Ga. Williams was denied bond twice; his first request for bond was denied on May 12, following a raid on his home after his arrest that resulted in seven new felony charges. A second emergency request for bond, filed after Williams’ attorney Steel claimed the rapper was facing “inhumane” conditions in jail, was denied during a hearing on June 2, under concerns from Judge Ural D. Glanville that bond would result in potential danger to the community and witnesses, as well as flight risk. Kitchens was also denied bond during a May 23 hearing.

According to WXIA-TV, both Williams and Kitchens’ trials will begin on Jan. 9, 2023.

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Write to Cady Lang at [email protected].

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