The American rapper Young Thug was set to go on trial Monday on charges that his record label is a front for a crime ring.
The influential hip-hop star, born Jeffery Williams, was one of more than two dozen people charged last spring by a Georgia grand jury, which said those named belong to a branch of the Bloods street gang identified as Young Slime Life, or YSL.
The indictment shook the rap world in Atlanta – long a nexus of hip-hop, where Young Thug is considered among the industry’s most impactful figures, one who forged contemporary rap’s sound.
Georgia prosecutors hit all the defendants with conspiring to violate the state’s criminal racketeering law, which is modeled on the federal RICO Act.
In its early days, that statute was used to go after the mob, and more recently to take down the disgraced R&B singer R. Kelly for sex crimes.
Alleged individual crimes supporting the YSL conspiracy charge include murder, assault, carjacking, drug dealing and theft.
Young Thug, who founded the hip-hop and trap label YSL Records in 2016, also faces one count of participation in criminal street gang activity.
Defense lawyers insist YSL – also known as Young Stoner Life Records – represents nothing more than a label and vague association of artists.
Controversially, prosecutors are holding up rap lyrics from musicians including Young Thug and Gunna – who was also charged but took a plea deal – and even a bar from a posthumous Juice WRLD single.
“I think if you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I’m going to use it,” said Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, which includes Atlanta.
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‘Rap on Trial’
It’s far from the first-time hip-hop lyrics have featured in courtrooms, a practice that’s sparked controversy numerous times over the past decades.
Erik Nielson, a University of Richmond professor and specialist on rap music as evidence in criminal trials, will likely testify as an expert witness on behalf of the defence.
His 2019 book with Andrea L. Dennis, “Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America,” holds that courts routinely take slice-of-life lyrics out of context to criminalize and imprison both professional rappers and aspiring artists who are primarily Black and brown.
Out of the 28 people originally named in the YSL indictment, 14 are anticipated to stand in the trial, which could last six to nine months.
Six of the original defendants will be tried separately, and eight – including Gunna and Young Thug’s brother, Quantavious Grier – have taken plea deals.
Court documents show the state could potentially call well over 300 witnesses, including prominent rap world figures like Lil Wayne.