On May 9, 2022, rapper Jeffery Williams, commonly known by his stage name, Young Thug, was arrested due to his gang involvement and racketeering charges. The Fulton County District Attorney’s office alleges Young Thug and one of his label mates Sergio Kitchens––also known as Gunna––have been using Williams’ record label, Young Stoner Life (YSL), as a front for an organized crime syndicate responsible for “75 to 80% of violent crime” in Atlanta since 2013. The indictment cites lyrics from 11 songs from both musicians as evidence pointing to their alleged gang activities. Whether or not Williams or Kitchens are innocent remains to be seen, but the prosecution’s strategy in their respective cases opens up a larger conversation about the freedom of artistic expression.
The motif of violence has been portrayed in paintings, sculptures and literature since their inception to convey religious or political messages. Although artists may be criticized for gore in their work, it has never been distorted by the government to convict them of a crime. In more contemporary settings, no one thinks Freddie Mercury is a murderer despite his confession in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” On a similar note, all of Quentin Tarantino’s highly acclaimed movies glorify violence but no jury would convict him if something coincidentally similar to the climax of “Kill Bill” happened in the real world. Yet, according to the BBC, rap lyrics have been used as evidence in more than 500 criminal cases around the U.S. So why is rap music viewed as an exception?
Due to its grassroots history, the content of rap music is more reflective of the world we live in. The lived experience of many rappers––including Williams and Kitchens––are consequences of America’s failed war on drugs, lack of social safety nets and overall criminalization of poverty. Their lyrical content adequately illustrates the economic hardships, addictions, rampant crime and violence that afflicted their communities. But art does not solely rely on lived experiences. Creatives like Young Thug should be given the liberty to delve into their imaginations as well, without fear of being held legally accountable at a later date.
Rather than viewing Williams’ and Kitchens’ artistic output in this context, it’s easier for prosecutors to cherry-pick threatening lyrics to play upon and perpetuate the preconceived notions many jurors already hold about the criminality of Black men. The official court indictment wrote incorrect lyrics for one of Young Thug’s songs (“Just How It Is”) which paints him in a more abrasive light and demonstrates the sheer unreliability of using any song’s lyrics in a court of law.
Recently, a California bill passed in the state senate and assembly which prohibits the use of a defendant’s creative work in court unless it can be proven the evidence won’t “inject racial bias into the proceedings.” This should be the standard adopted by every state to ensure the creative liberties and free speech of all artists are protected. The beauty of art is its ability to be interpreted in a myriad of ways, but prosecutors are unfairly pigeonholing rap songs to look at their violent segments.