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Friday, June 21, 2024

Young Thug and What Happens When Prosecutors Use Social Media

Young Thug and Gunna are two of music’s most prolific, playful talents. Despite their mainstream rap stardom, they remain unafraid to shape-shift. For years now, by force of will and pure joy, they have kept the radio interesting.

On May 11 they were arrested and charged in Georgia’s Fulton County Superior Court with conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. In an 88-page indictment, Fulton County district attorney Fani T. Willis portrayed Thug and Gunna as members of a criminal organization. The indictment argues that their music wasn’t a cover for their criminal actions but, in fact, their bedrock. Thug and Gunna maintained the “reputation, power, and territory” of their criminal organization, the DA alleges, “by the posting of messages, images, videos, and songs.” The indictment points to content posted on social media as evidence of real crime. It even includes screenshots of Instagram posts.

As bizarre as all of this is, it’s also nothing new. Prosecutors throughout the country have repeatedly used rap lyrics as evidence. It happened to San Diego’s Brandon “Tiny Doo” Duncan, Contra Costa County’s Gary Bryant Jr., Maryland’s Lawrence Montague, and New York’s 6ix9ine. The latter case was a motivation for two New York State senators to introduce the Rap Music On Trial Bill last fall, which seeks to protect creators from having their lyrics used against them by prosecutors.

Prosecutors have also previously portrayed entities like Thug’s music group YSL not as the rap crews and music labels that they are widely understood to be but as literal gangs. Most notably, that happened to LA's Drakeo the Ruler, who, along with his group the Stinc Team, was brought up on a litany of charges, including first-degree murder.

Drakeo was acquitted in the murder case in 2019 and, after multiple trials and three years in jail, eventually accepted a plea deal on lesser charges in 2020 and walked free. He was murdered the next year with so much of his short, brilliant life lost to the criminal justice system. Following Thug and Gunna's arrest, journalist Jeff Weiss, who covered Drakeo's trial extensively, tweeted, “This sounds eerily similar to the Drakeo/Stinc Team overreach—where prosecutors use tenuous & circumstantial ties to a crime to charge for the crime itself. It's the 21st century blueprint for prosecution of rappers: Call the rap group a gang and pursue mafia-style indictments.”

What is it like to fight a prosecution that is based, in part, on words?

John Hamasaki, Drakeo’s lawyer through his multiple trials, never had any illusions that, by helping Drakeo walk free, he was dissuading other prosecutors from targeting rappers. Of the Thug and Gunna case, he says, “what’s unusual is that it’s targeting some very high-profile rappers. Generally, prosecutors have been successful in using rap lyrics against people on the local level. This is an unfortunate fact, but jurors have more acceptance that rap is art when it comes from an established artist.” Then again, Hamasaki speculates, Thug and Gunna’s fame could itself be a motivator for Willis, who could be “chasing glory” by prosecuting two celebrities. (Willis will be up for reelection in 2024; her office did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)

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I ask Hamasaki how much social media played a role in Drakeo’s case. “You’re giving me PTSD,” he sighs. “I think we had 4 terabytes of discovery. DMs, photos, videos. Backup accounts on Instagram or Twitter. Everything they can seize electronically now, they do. The problem is, prosecutors can go in and pick out snippets from here and there to paint a picture. From the defense side, you're going in and having to fill in the picture.” Using those snippets of lyrics and social media, prosecutors will attempt to build a history of YSL as a hierarchical criminal organization.

Hamasaki adds that the usage of social media as evidence does not happen only in high-profile cases. “Social media is a regular tool in law enforcement’s toolbox,” he says, adding that police departments are routinely granted warrants for arrest by utilizing activity on social media. “They’ll put it in legalese, but they are basically saying, ‘Here’—on social media—‘is evidence of X crime.’ Warrants are granted on that multiple times a day, every day.”

The indictment in the Thug and Gunna case is full of damning-seeming charges against their 26 co-indictees, including the attempted murder of the young rapper YFN Lucci and aggravated assault against an elder statesman, Lil Wayne. There’s are also charges of possession of cocaine and oxycodone.

If there is evidence of these charges, then the Fulton County prosecutors would presumably have a robust case against those co-indictees. But the manner by which those alleged crimes are tied to Gunna, aka Sergio Kitchens, and Thug, aka Jeffery Williams, is through content posted online. Over and over the indictment states some version of the following: “Defendant JEFFERY WILLIAMS, an associate of YSL, appeared in a video released on social media titled ‘Eww,’ where Defendant states ‘Red just like Elmo but never fuckin' giggle’ … an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.”

I ask Hamasaki if he thought the prosecutors in the Drakeo case were making their arguments in good faith. Did they sincerely believe that a lyric about killing someone equated to an admission of guilt? Choosing his words carefully, Hamasaki says, “I did struggle to find it credible that they were not able to separate fact from fiction.”

In cases like the one being made against Thug, Gunna, and YSL, the definition of artistic expression becomes a contested issue. Following their arrests, Willis noted that the First Amendment is a "precious" American right but still "does not protect people from prosecutors using it as evidence, if it is such." But as Gunna's attorney put it, “It is intensely problematic that the state relies on song lyrics as part of its allegations. These lyrics are an artist's creative expression and not a literal recounting of facts and circumstances."

The producer JoogSZN was Drakeo’s collaborator and friend. "This is the only art form that's looked at as an autobiography rather than as a form of art," he says. A few months before Drakeo was released from prison, Joog and Drakeo put out Thank You for Using GTL, a critically acclaimed album recorded over the phone via the exploitatively priced Global Tel Link prison call service. Joog talked to Drakeo daily during his incarceration, and he says their conversations were full of laughter as they battered around the basic incredulity of the prosecution’s case.

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Both Drakeo’s Stinc Team and Thug’s YSL operate as record labels, and “it’s pretty ridiculous because I don’t know any gangs that have an established business,” Joog says. (A quick clarification: Thug has always been flexible with what YSL stands for. The indictment refers to his group as Young Slime Life, while YSL Records is also known as Young Stoner Life Records.) Joog scoffs, “The Bloods, LLC!” To Joog, the Thug and Gunna case is taking him right back to Drakeo’s incarceration and the recording of GLT. “If Thug and Gunna wanna record, I’m right here.”

Since their arrests, both Thug and Gunna have attempted to reclaim the narrative via the same platform that has been weaponized against them. In an open letter recently posted to his Instagram, Gunna wrote, “The picture that is being painted of me is ugly and untrue. My fans know I love to celebrate life, I love my family, I love travel, I love music, I love my fans. I have all faith that God will grant me justice for the purity in my heart and the innocence of my actions.” In a freestyle delivered over the phone to his nephew and also posted on Instagram, Thug rapped “Damn, I’m really in jail / God, give me another chance to show you I can prevail.”

After pleading not guilty, Thug and Gunna were denied bond and are in jail awaiting a trial that is scheduled to begin in January.

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