'Protect Black art': How the indictment of Young Thug, Gunna sparked a movement

The rappers' lyrics are used as alleged evidence in a sweeping RICO indictment.

ByDeena Zaru, Ashan Singh, Tenzin Shakya, and Sally Hawkins ABC logo
Sunday, October 16, 2022
Young Thug, Gunna denied bond on gang-related charges
Rapper Young Thug's bond was denied on a RICO charge related to the YSL gang; Gunna was also denied bond.

Rap lyrics have been used by prosecutors in the U.S. for decades as alleged evidence in criminal cases, helping put rappers behind bars. But it wasn't until lyrics were used in the indictment of hip-hop stars Young Thug and Gunna on gang-related charges that the controversial practice sparked a movement in the music industry and fueled a wave of support for legislation seeking to limit the practice.

"I will protect Black art like it's my family because it's my family," Kevin Liles, the CEO of 300 Entertainment, the home of Young Thug's Young Stoner Life label, told "Nightline," adding that to him, this is not just about the lyrics - "our culture is on trial."

Liles, the former president of Def Jam Recordings, is backing federal legislation that would limit the use of rap lyrics in court and is joined by the top power players in the music industry, including the Recording Academy, the Recording Industry Association of America, Universal Music Group, Sony Music Group, Warner Records, Atlantic Records, Warner Music Group and the Black Music Action Coalition.

"I'm proud that the Recording Academy ... that many of my friends - rock friends, pop friends, country friends, alternative friends, and jazz friends have joined the movement of protecting Black art," Liles said.

The music industry also backed a California bill that was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this month that limits the use of rap lyrics as evidence in court. A bill banning the practice is being proposed in New Jersey and one that limits the practice stalled in the New York state assembly last year.

Hip-hop artist Fat Joe, who is advocating for such legislation, told "Nightline" that the practice is "unfortunate."

Referencing lyrics from rapper Rakim, "we like to exaggerate, dream and imaginate," the Grammy-winning New York rapper said. "This is all art, and to actually use something that was just made up and use it against you in a trial, it's very dangerous."

Hip-hop artist E-40 backed the legislation in his home state of California and spoke with Newsom about the importance of the bill.

"Just like people write books, we write lyrics and make music and songs," he told "Nightline. "Music is our art...and the goal is to protect our heart and our creative expression."

Attorney Areva Martin told "Nightline" that the growing movement could lead to change on the legislative front.

"As rappers become businessmen and as they become involved in social justice and social action movements, I think we are going to see some changes, at least in liberal states and liberal counties," she said.

Referencing the lyrics of hip-hop artists in criminal charges - some of which mention acts of violence or criminal activity - is a practice that has drawn criticism from both freedom-of-speech advocates and the musicians themselves, who argue that introducing lyrics into case with the implication that they are reflections of reality, discounts rap as a form of artistic expression.

"Violence in music is nothing new. Whether it's outlaw country music or rap music. But what I saw in my childhood is that rap was treated radically different," said Atlanta hip-hop artist Killer Mike, who has been advocating against the practice for years.

According to Erik Nielson, the co-author of the 2019 book "Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America," rap lyrics used by prosecutors in court usually lack a factual connection to an alleged crime and are often used as a form of character evidence that could prejudice a jury and prevent a defendant from getting a fair trial.

"It's absolutely racist," Nielson said. "Rap music is the only art form that's targeted this way."

Nielson, who has served as an expert witness in close to 100 cases across the country in which rap lyrics were used as alleged evidence in court, has been advocating against the use of rap lyrics in court for years. He said that the indictment of Young Thug brought national attention to the controversial practice.

"This practice targets amateurs, up-and-coming artists who don't have name recognition and who typically don't have the resources to mount a vigorous defense," Nielson said. "Young Thug is one of the most prominent artists to be caught in this web."

Young Thug, whose legal name is Jeffrey Lamar Williams, was initially charged with one count of conspiring to violate the state's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and one count of participating in street gang activity, according to charging documents obtained by ABC News. He now also faces six additional drugs and weapons charges after law enforcement searched his home following his arrest.

"Mr. Williams has committed no violation of law, whatsoever. We will fight this case ethically, legally and zealously. Mr. Williams will be cleared," Young Thug's attorney Brian Steel told ABC News.

Meanwhile, Grammy-nominated rapper Gunna, whose real name is Sergio Kitchens, was charged with one count of conspiring to violate the RICO Act.

"Mr. Sergio Kitchens, known as Gunna, is innocent. The indictment falsely portrays his music as part of criminal conspiracy," the rapper's attorneys, Steve Sadow and Don Samuel, told ABC News.

Both rappers pleaded not guilty and were repeatedly denied bond.

Their trials were scheduled for January 2023, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis requested a 2-month delay.

Although the scope of the indictment, which names 28 individuals, goes far beyond the lyrics, the use of rappers' lyrics as part of the alleged evidence is what has drawn pushback from the music industry.

"We gotta stop somewhere," Liles said. "... that next kid that's coming up on YouTube, that next kid that's thinking about being creative, I'm fighting for them too."

But Willis argued that Young Thug is the ringleader of the YSL gang and his lyrics are fair game.

The district attorney defended the use of lyrics as alleged evidence in the YSL indictment, saying in a May 10 press conference, "the First Amendment does not protect people from prosecutors using it as evidence."

"We put it as overt within the RICO count because we believe that's exactly what it is," she added.

The DA's office did not immediately reply to ABC News' request for comment.