In a racketeering trial targeting rapper Young Thug and others, defense lawyer Brian Steel argued that the artist’s lyrics, which describe the violence and poverty of his upbringing, should not be considered evidence of criminal activity. The trial, which began this week after months of jury selection and delays, accuses Young Thug of leading a street gang associated with his record label, YSL. The prosecution plans to present rap verses as proof of real-life crimes, while the defense argues that no such crime ring exists and that using lyrics as confessions violates free speech and artistic license.
During the defense’s opening statements, Steel detailed Young Thug’s rags-to-riches trajectory, highlighting his upbringing in Atlanta’s closed housing projects where poverty and violence were prevalent. Steel explained that the rapper’s lyrics depict murders, shootings, and drug use because they reflect the environment and people he knew. The defense emphasized that Young Thug’s aspiration for fame was driven by a desire to break the cycle of hopelessness experienced by his family.
Steel also highlighted Young Thug’s deep-seated beliefs about the criminal justice system, shaped by personal experiences. The defense attorney recounted an incident where the rapper’s brother was shot near their building, and the police handcuffed their distressed mother and covered the injured brother with a sheet, despite him still being alive. Steel argued that Young Thug’s engagement in online rivalries was not indicative of gang involvement but rather a common practice in the hip hop industry to generate interest in his work.
Young Thug, 32, is one of 28 alleged street gang members indicted for racketeering in May 2022. Six defendants are being tried together, while others have taken plea deals or will be tried separately. The prosecution accuses the defendants of various crimes, including murder, assault, carjacking, drug dealing, and theft, as part of an overarching conspiracy. The trial is expected to continue into 2024, with both the prosecution and defense presenting extensive lists of potential witnesses.
The use of lyrics as evidence in court has long been a subject of criticism from free speech advocates and the music industry, who argue that it unfairly targets rap and disproportionately affects people of color. However, the prosecution maintains that the lyrics presented in this case correspond to real-world illegal activities. During opening statements, Fulton County’s chief deputy district attorney, Adriane Love, referred to Young Thug as “King Slime” and alleged that YSL operated as a gang with the rapper at its helm.
The trial is taking place at the Fulton County Courthouse, where former President Donald Trump is also involved in a racketeering case related to alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 election.