On June 12, Young Thug made a plea from jail. “You know, this isn’t about just me or YSL,” he said in a prerecorded address screened at Hot 97’s Summer Jam. “I always use my music as a form of artistic expression, and I see now that Black artists and rappers don’t have that freedom. Everybody please sign the Protect Black Art petition and keep praying for us. I love you all” he concluded.
The Petition to Protect Black Art is a document co-written by 300 Entertainment co-founder and CEO Kevin Liles — who first signed Thug and helped get his label YSL off the ground as a subsidiary company — and Atlanta Records COO Julie Greenwald. The document asks both federal and state legislators to adopt bills that limit the use of rap lyrics as evidence in a court of law. The rapper’s plea arrived on the heels of a sprawling, 56-count RICO case against Thug, Gunna, and 26 members of his Young Stoner Life collective.
The 88-page grand-jury indictment characterizes YSL, “Young Slime Life,” as a “criminal street gang” and alleges 182 instances of the collective’s participating in gang activity and criminal conspiracies, citing lyrics, social-media posts, and clothing or accessories with SLIME emblazoned on them as evidence. Atlanta’s Fulton County grand jury also charged some individuals with violent crimes that include attempted armed robbery and murder. Both Young Thug and Gunna have been denied bond multiple times. Not only has the case arrived under the specter of a 60 percent rise in violent crime in Atlanta, which Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis has promised to fight, but it has reverberated throughout the hip-hop community, where many have argued that this trial is but the latest instance of the criminal-justice system unfairly tying rappers to violent crime through their art.
A little over seven months after his arrest in May, Gunna walked free December 14. The rapper pleaded guilty to a charge of racketeering conspiracy in what is known as an Alford plea — a deal that allows him to plead guilty if it’s in his interest while maintaining his innocence. His five-year sentence was commuted to time served and 500 hours of community service in the deal. Young Thug is awaiting his January trial from behind bars. Here’s everything you need to know about the case, updated as it develops, from the people involved to a summary of the charges and the lyrics cited.
The grand-jury indictment identifies Young Thug and 27 other associates as members of the “criminal street gang” YSL, or Young Slime Life. Thug, the heartbeat of Atlanta’s fertile rap scene, is allegedly the founder of this street gang, which formed in the city in 2012. The prosecution claims that YSL has “affiliation with the national Bloods gang, and some associates also claim the Blood subset gangs Sex Money Murder or 30 Deep.” The rapper founded record label Young Stoner Life in 2016 as an imprint of 300 Entertainment. YSL Records calls its roster of artists the “Slime Family.” Gunna was also named in the indictment, along with rappers YSL Duke, Yak Gotti, and Thug’s brother Unfoonk.
Fani Willis is the district attorney overseeing the case. She is a Democrat known for investigating whether the former president Trump and his team engaged in election fraud in Georgia. “It does not matter what your notoriety is or what your fame is. If you come to Fulton County, Georgia, you commit crimes, and certainly if those crimes are in furtherance of a street gang, then you are going to become a target and a focus of this district attorney’s office, and we are going to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law,” Willis said in a May 10 press conference. She said has reason to believe that gangs “are committing conservatively 75 to 80 percent of all the violent crime that we’re seeing within our community. And so they have to be booted.”
Brian Steel, Young Thug’s lawyer, told the New York Times that YSL is not a criminal street gang. “Mr. Williams came from an incredibly horrible upbringing, and he has conducted himself throughout his life in a way that is just to marvel at,” Mr. Steel said. “He’s committed no crime whatsoever.”
Gunna’s guilty plea serves as a public acknowledgement of his “association with YSL,” the rapper said in statement, though he emphasized that his association is purely musical. He maintains his innocence despite the plea. “While I have agreed to always be truthful, I want to make it perfectly clear that I have NOT made any statements, have NOT been interviewed, have NOT cooperated, have NOT agreed to testify or be a witness for or against any party in the case and have absolutely NO intention of being involved in the trial process in any way,” Gunna told WSB and other outlets in a statement.
All 28 individuals named in the indictment were charged with conspiracy to violate the state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, by participating in a pattern of illegal activity to obtain money and property. The Georgia law closely resembles its federal counterpart and was created with the aim of ensnaring large criminal organizations like the mafia. According to the Times, this is not the first time Willis has sought RICO charges: In 2014, the attorney argued that Atlanta public-school teachers accused of cheating on standardized tests were part of a racketeering conspiracy. In her investigation into Trump, she insinuated that the former president and his associates may have violated the state RICO law in their alleged attempts to commit election fraud in 2020.
The prosecution also alleges that the collective engaged in a wide range of criminal activity. The 56-count indictment claims that YSL members were involved in murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, aggravated assualt with a deadly weapon, theft, drug dealing, carjacking, and witness intimadation. Notably, the indictment portrays Thug as something of a mob boss; he is alleged to have committed multiple crimes that he is not being charged with. While Thug is not being charged for these “overt acts” — which include possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute and threatening to kill a man at a mall — they lend credence to the allegation that the collective was engaged in a criminal conspiracy. Other serious allegations include that Thug rented a car that was used in the commission of the murder of Donovan Thomas Jr., a rival gang leader, in January 2015. Five YSL members, including Yak Gotti, were charged with murder in connection to Thomas’s death.
In addition, three YSL members were charged with attempted murder in connection with an attack on rapper YFN Lucci, who was stabbed in jail in February of this year. In April 2021, Fulton County charged YFN Lucci and 11 other suspects in a 75-page, 105-count racketeering indictment, according to WSB-TV. Lucci is currently in jail awaiting trial.
Later, following Thug’s May 9 arrest, he was charged with seven additional felonies after a reported police raid of his Buckhead home. The new charges include possession of drugs with intent to distribute, possession of firearms, and three counts of being a person employed or associated with a criminal street gang to conduct or participate in criminal gang activity through the commission of a crime, per documents reviewed by Vulture.
Gunna is charged with one count of racketeering. According to the indictment, he allegedly received stolen property and was in possession of drugs — including methamphetamine, marijuana, and hydrocodone — with the intent to distribute. He was arrested on May 11.
On July 6, the New York Times reported that Judge Ural Glanville of Fulton County Superior Court ordered that defense lawyers are not to share witnesses contact information with their clients. Prosecution alleged that Thug and his associates were threatening witnesses and “that they fear not only for their own lives, but for their families’ lives should they testify.” Brian Steel, a lawyer for the defense, denied any witness tampering. “However, I cannot wait to receive the discovery,” he continued, “so that we can continue our march toward clearing an innocent man.”
Gunna was denied bond for the second time on July 7, per Billboard, with Ural refusing to reconsider his original May 23 decision to deny Gunna’s bond. Steve Sadow, Gunna’s co-lead counsel, said in a statement, “The prosecution again produced no evidence at all; instead, it chose to rely on vague and non-specific allegations and speculation through the statements of the prosecutor alone. Gunna deserves better from our justice system.” The rapper, once thought to remain in jail until his trial next year, was released December 14 after pleading guilty per the terms of an Alford plea deal. Despite this, Gunna maintains his innocence. As a term of the deal, the rapper must take the stand if summoned to court and called to testify, though he has the option of pleading the Fifth.
Fulton County judge Ural Glanville once again denied bond for Young Thug on August 18 after an hours-long hearing, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. The decision arrives after an associate planning to testify against the rapper entered protective custody after document leaks on online blogs identified him as a witness. That same day, Fulton County prosecutor Don Geary asked the judge to further restrict the disclosure of certain evidence ahead of the trial, citing witness safety. “We found a lot of information concerning one of our witnesses on basically a celebrity news outlet,” Geary told the court.
District Attorney Wills previously filed a motion on August 15 asking the judge to order defense attorneys to avoid sharing discovery materials, including “the names of all lay witnesses (and) cooperating YSL associates that will be called to testify in this case,” with anyone outside their legal teams. “Since the date of those filings, however, information from the state’s discovery material has appeared on public websites,” Willis wrote in her motion. “As a result, the state now has grave concerns about the safety of that named witness and other potential witnesses in this trial.” None of the defendants has been granted bond since the May indictments because of concerns about witness intimidation and the potential for additional criminal activity.
Kristen Novay, an attorney for Gunna, asked prosecutors to share evidence that witnesses were being threatened. “We want to know what specific threats there are,” Novay said. “There have been many allegations that there are threats to witnesses, and to date, we have received no discovery, not a single shred of evidence from a witness who was actually threatened.” Young Thug has remained in jail since his May arrest.
Peewee Roscoe, real name Jimmy Carlton Winfrey, was charged with aggravated assault in connection with a shooting involving Lil Wayne’s tour bus in 2015. In the original indictment, Young Thug and Birdman were listed as co-conspirators, but they were never charged. The YSL indictment names Roscoe, who was previously sentenced to ten years in prison for the shooting incident and was released in 2020.
Rap lyrics are being used as evidence against those charged in the YSL case. Though experts have argued that it can be a violation of free speech, the use of rap lyrics to incriminate hip-hop artists isn’t new. Boosie, Bobby Shmurda, Drakeo the Ruler, and 6ix9ine’s lyrics have all been deployed in court as evidence against them. Boosie and Drakeo the Ruler were acquitted, though the others were not. In January 2021, Maryland ruled that rap lyrics could constitute evidence of guilt. Earlier this year, however, Jay-Z and other prominent artists took a stand by publicly supporting Senate Bill S7527, a proposed New York law known as “Rap Music on Trial.” The bill would limit the use of lyrics in criminal trials. Prosecutors in the YSL case have cited multiple songs as evidence of gang affiliation and racketeering activity.
Overall, the hip-hop industry has come out in droves to support Young Thug and Gunna. Drake’s new song “Sticky,” off his new record Honestly, Nevermind, references the case with the lyrics “Hey yo Eric, bring them girls to the stage, ’cause/Somebody’s getting paid and/Free Big Slime out the cage.” The Toronto chart-topper also used the phrase “Free YSL” as a brief title card in the music video for the track “Falling Back.” In an interview with ABC News, Killer Mike said, “Hip hop is not respected as an art because Black people in this country are not recognized as full human beings. If we allow the courts to prosecute these men based on characters they created and stories of pretend that they tell in rhyme then next, they’ll be at your door.”
The distributor behind Young Stoner Life Records has lent their support to Gunna and Thug in a myriad of ways. Following Thug’s bail hearing, the 300 Entertainment co-founder (now 300 Elektra Entertainment, following a recent merger) and Atlantic Records circulated the Petition to Protect Black Art, asking both federal and state legislators to adopt bills that limit the admissibility of rap lyrics as evidence in a court of law. 300 even arranged an audio recording of Thug in which he urges people to sign the petition and shared it with a crowd at Hot 97’s Summer Jam earlier this month. The company also distributed Gunna’s open letter to fans and the public. “I used my art form, my gift from God, to change my circumstances … For now, I don’t have freedom. But I am innocent,” he wrote.
Young Thug will remain in jail until the trial begins. The trial is set for January 2023. In an emergency motion filed May 13, Thug’s lawyer, Brian Steel, blasted his “inhumane” jail conditions and filed a request for bond, which has since been denied. In the filing, he wrote that Thug has been detained in what amounts to “solitary confinement/total isolation” in a “windowless cement compartment with only a bed and toilet and an overhead light which remains on 24 hours per day, preventing any sleep, rest or meditation.”Steel claims that the rapper has no access to media, including TV or the internet, nor any freedom to “exercise, shower or have human contact.” Gunna also spoke out against poor jail conditions in an Instagram post that shared an open letter to his 4.4 million followers. “22 & 2, just a bed & a shower, no windows just walls,” he wrote in the caption. “Can’t see or talk to anyone.”
What’s clear is that Fulton County continues to conflate gang activity with rap music and has not signaled a change in policy. “The optics look like gang stuff,” Lance Williams, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, told The New Yorker. “It looks ugly. But the reality is that most of it is just music. If there’s violence, it’s interpersonal — not organized.” He was troubled by the use of the RICO law, which, in his words, is a “thing created for the Mafia now being used to indict young Black males who are flirting with the culture and the music, but who are not involved with any criminal enterprise.” He continued, “Once they hit you with this RICO thing, you’re finished. It’s a wrap.”
When asked about the proposed Georgia state bill to limit the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal proceedings, Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis said she doesn’t think the legislation would be successful. “I think if you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I’m going to use it,” Willis told reporters at an August 29 press conference before quoting lyrics about alleged criminal activity that are cited in the indictment. “Now I’m using those lyrics that they’re admitting to doing that. I’m going to continue to do that; people can continue to be angry about that,” Willis said. “I have some legal advice: Don’t confess to crimes on rap lyrics if you don’t want them used, or at least get out of my county.” While Willis has vowed to continue to use lyrics as evidence, legislators on both the state and federal levels have introduced bills to limit their use.