More and more criminal prosecutions involving hip-hop artists are using their own song lyrics as evidence against them. The indictment against Atlanta hip-hop artist Young Thug is the most recent example, citing several of his song lyrics in the government’s RICO case against him.
RICO — the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — is a federal law that allows for prosecution and civil penalties for activity related to gangs and organized crime. It was originally used in the 1970s to prosecute the Mafia and others involved in ongoing organized crime.
Can someone’s art, such as song lyrics, be legally used against them in a criminal case?
In an 88-page indictment, prosecutors listed lyrics from nine of Young Thug’s songs, according to a Los Angeles Times report.
Prosecutors allege that Young Thug’s music is not just art but a way to promote his criminal activities — part of a broader pattern of criminal activity, “protecting and enhancing the reputation, power and territory of the enterprise” and “demonstrating allegiance to the enterprise and a willingness to engage in violence on its behalf.”
Young Thug was arrested on May 9. He could face a jail sentence of up to 20 years and a fine of $250,000.
Legal scholars say music lyrics should be protected and the use of hip-hop lyrics in criminal court cases has racial underpinnings.
Rap lyrics and hip-hop cultural aesthetics should not be used to prove criminal activity, said Jovan Blacknell, a Culver City-based attorney who represents the family of the late South Los Angeles hip-hop artist Drakeo the Ruler. Drakeo was stabbed to death backstage at the Banc of California Stadium before he was scheduled to perform on Dec. 19, 2021.
Before his death, there was a criminal case involving Drakeo in which his music and music video were used as evidence to prove Drakeo was involved in a murder and that his Stinc Team crew was a criminal gang. After two years in jail, Drakeo was acquitted of the murder charge and released on a plea deal.
According to Blacknell, using Drakeo’s musc as evidence was the “flawed tactic of using young African American men’s art as a tool of incrimination.”
“These artists often express dramatizations of stories and events that persist in their communities,” Blacknell told the L.A. Times. “The U.S. government knows that song lyrics are rarely a narration of actual events, yet they seek to exploit unfounded race-based stereotypes to achieve an unjust end. To use these artist expressions as a sword is a stifling form of censorship, which flies in the face of our country’s most rudimentary values.”
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Legal and criminology experts at the University of California, Irvine say lyrics should be protected by First Amendment rights. In 2021 they released “Rap on Trial: A Legal Guide for Attorneys,” to help protect artists from having their lyrics used against them in court.
Hip-hop lyrics can bring out anti-Black racism in jurors, according to previous UCI research.
“Putting rap lyrics on trial is a practice that continues unabated as a way to sidestep the hard work of a case and cut corners to get convictions,” said lead author Jack Lerner, clinical professor of law at UC Irvine, in a UCI News report. “Prosecutors are relying on stereotypical, exaggerated, hyperbolic, graphic lyrics and videos to make the jury think that if someone could write this, they could do it.”
Photo: Atlanta rapper Young Thug (Jeffery Lamar Williams) was one of 28 people indicted May 9, 2022, in Georgia on conspiracy to violate the state’s RICO Act and street gang charges. ( Booking photo from Fulton County Sheriff’s Office via AP)