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Young Thug — and his rap lyrics — are on trial. Northeastern experts say the case raises legal and ethical concerns

Young Thug faces a camera during his trial in a courtroom.
Atlanta rapper Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, faces nine charges in a trial where his rap lyrics are being used as evidence. Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

The trial of Jeffery Lamar Williams, better known as Young Thug, has made headlines not just because the defendant is a celebrity rapper. 

It is already the longest trial in Georgia history, with no end in sight. 

The defense attorney was ordered to jail for contempt after suggesting that the judge and prosecutors pressured a key witness — a sentence that eventually was stayed. 

Then there is pornographic Zoom-bombing, a co-defendant being stabbed in jail, jurors’ faces accidently being live-streamed and another co-defendant allegedly involved in a hand-to-hand drug swap in the courtroom. 

But Northeastern University law and music experts say the case also raises legal and ethical concerns based on the prosecution’s use of the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act (yes, the same act being used by the same prosecutor to try former President Donald Trump), as well as its strategy of using the defendant’s rap lyrics to implicate him in an alleged crime.

“It is problematic to use artistic expression of an individual as evidence,” says Aliza Hochman-Bloom, assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Law. “Courts are increasingly wary of allowing rap music in particular to be used as evidence of ‘violence and criminality.’ In instances where groups are being charged with criminality, it compounds that risk of prejudice.”

Prosecution’s case ‘goes too far’

Northeastern Teaching Professor David Herlihy concurs, saying that the prosecution’s case “goes too far.”

“Some of the allegations are that he appeared in a video, he has this lyric, he had a TIkTok video — I think it’s really dangerous to criminalize speech in such a way, albeit speech that I might find abhorrent,” Herlihy says. “I think there should be a bright line between RICO defendants: the perpetrators themselves — the people who actually pull the trigger — versus people who talk about triggers being pulled.”

Williams faces nine charges including possession of drugs and weapons, participation in criminal street gang activity, and conspiracy to violate the state’s RICO Act. His case is linked to 27 other alleged gang associates, five of whom are being tried as co-defendants. All six defendants have pleaded not guilty.

The prosecution alleges Williams runs a violent criminal street gang under the guise of a record label. 

Williams is being charged under the RICO Act, which Hochman-Bloom explains is a tool the state can use to address what is perceived as group criminality.

But under the RICO statute, the prosecutor’s burden of proof is reduced. 

“Normally, when a person is convicted as an individual, prosecutors have to prove their act and intent to commit said act,” Hochman-Bloom says. “Sometimes in group criminality you don’t have to do that, because the intent of one person in a group can be imputed to another.”

Williams could be held liable

In other words, under the RICO statute, Williams could be held liable for others’ illegal acts. 

Herlihy calls the statute “an available mechanism, but a slippery slope.”

“I think it’s a double standard to prosecute people of color and condemn lifestyles we don’t approve of,” Herlihy says. “I understand that these are potentially very bad actors, but I think that it’s dangerous — (prosecutors) need to establish a common enterprise, but you have a First Amendment right to associate, a right to freedom of speech.”

Which gets to the use of rap lyrics as evidence.

“This is not novel,” says Andrew Mall, associate professor of music at Northeastern. “That doesn’t mean it’s not uncontroversial.”

Mall points out that other genres of music have violent lyrics: Bob Marley sang “I shot the sheriff,” for instance; heavy metal often depicts violence; and there are “murder ballads going back centuries.”

“But it’s only in rap that attorneys have submitted these as evidence and judges have allowed it,” Mall says.

He calls that “frustrating” because allowing rap lyrics to be taken literally sets a legal precedent that can be cited and thus lead to more instances of rap lyrics being used as literal evidence.

“It’s frustrating for defense attorneys, but also for really anyone who wants to have the right or the ability to talk about things figuratively that, if taken literally, would be an admission of guilt to something criminal,” Mall says.

So why only rap lyrics?

“Rap lyrics read as real life,” Mall says. “Even if someone is singing about things they’ve fantasized, there’s an immediacy that people find very compelling.”

Northeastern professor and hip-hop expert Murray Forman says that rap’s focus on authenticity in both subject matter and in practice, as well as its being often “strategically illegible” to certain audiences, makes it not only compelling, it provides an angle for prosecutors.

“Part of what hangs up rap is its curious historical relation to authenticity — saying ‘this is the real thing. I’m the real deal. This is me articulating, expressing, expounding on everyday experience,’” Forman says. “Prosecutors are saying, ‘well, you said this is true, you said this real, you’ve placed yourself in the middle of this’ … in a prosecutor’s hands that’s about as close as you’re going to get to saying, here’s the correspondence.”

Race undoubtedly plays a role

And as a genre practiced predominantly by young Black Americans, race undoubtedly plays a role in making rap as a genre feel more threatening to certain audiences, experts say. 

“Its Blackness, I think, poses a threat and an uncertainty,” Forman says.

Herlihy agrees.

“Most of what Young Thug’s done in the allegations I’ve read about is express himself,” Herlihy says. “And the government, or enforcers who have the power to put you in prison, probably don’t like young Black people speaking their mind.” 

Which can make the use of rap lyrics as evidence — to use the legal terms — “prejudicial,” rather than “probative,” Hochman-Bloom says.

In fact, many courts, including Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court in Commonwealth v. Correia, have ruled that rap lyrics can be more prejudicial than probative and need to be closely scrutinized.

“You can’t submit evidence that will poison a jury against the defendant,” Hochman-Bloom says. “The SJC is recognizing in Correia that this risk of prejudice is exacerbated by a reality that rap has been used by Black Americans to voice observations of violence, poverty and crime. Every rap lyric needs to be scrutinized individually. To be admitted, lyrics should have some sort of nexus to facts in the case.”

And ultimately, admitting lyrics as evidence has implications not just for Williams and his trial, but for art itself.

“Art has always been provocative: that’s art’s job — and the powers-that-be oftentimes don’t approve of art,” Herlihy says. “But art serves a critical function — sometimes art is ugly or points to ugly truths. We need that. We need art to shine a light on ugly truths.”