Is Young Thug on trial for using his imagination?

Young Thug’s 2019 album “So Much Fun” opens with the century’s most innovative rap star evoking life’s ups and downs in tones that swing from warm to cool, playful to austere, intimate to mysterious. But because the man holding the microphone is one of the most idiosyncratic voices that American popular music has ever known, the playtime jumps out. “Ooo-woo, diamonds peek-a-boo,” Young Thug coos during the opening hook of “Just How It Is,” initiating baby games with his jewelry as if it were sentient and adorable. Then he makes a surprise left turn into the zoo. “Kidnap a kangaroo,” he raps. “I can send a moose.” Lyrically, he’s leaning toward the absurd, but his voice remains mild and solemn — and that exquisite ambiguity helps make “Just How It Is” feel as broad, weird and unknowable as life itself.

Yet, somehow, prosecutors in Georgia claim to know precisely what they’re hearing in this song: evidence of criminality. Other lyrics from “Just How It Is” have been admitted as evidence in the state RICO case currently being tried in the rapper’s native Atlanta where Young Thug — born Jeffery Lamar Williams — has been incarcerated for nearly 700 days. In May of 2022, Young Thug and other artists and associates affiliated with his YSL record label were identified in a grand jury indictment as a “criminal street gang,” alleged of being involved in a coordinated pattern of unlawful activity, including individual charges of attempted robbery, aggravated assault with a weapon, and murder. Strangely, the indictment relied heavily on Young Thug’s lyrics, with the prosecution citing numerous lines from “Just How It Is,” along with lyrics from eight other songs, two credited to other YSL artists and six more featuring Young Thug.

What a sickening, nonsensical tactic. Is there any other way to describe such an abject failure to differentiate between artistic expression and criminal evidence, such a flagrant punishment of Black creative thought? Even more shameful is the fact that prosecutors are making this practice more common in criminal trials across the country, whether the rapper is a chart-topping superstar as famous as Young Thug or an aspiring unknown posting their music on YouTube. According to Andrea Dennis and Erik Nielson, authors of the book “Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America,” there have been nearly 700 cases in the United States in which rap lyrics were used as evidence since the late 1980s, and while that number feels staggering, the two most important words to note here are “rap” and “lyrics.” Not crime novels. Not slasher movies. Not mafia screenplays. Even when pop singers confess to murder in song — think: Johnny Cash, Freddie Mercury, Bob Marley — we hear their lyrics as the fictional works they are. Why are rap lyrics any different? Maybe because rap is a Black art form. It’s predominantly made by young, Black artists. In America, sadly, that’s all it takes. Being Black means your imagination can be used against you in a court of law.

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Of the hundreds of cases cited by Dennis and Nielson, very few have been as high-profile and protracted as the one Young Thug is currently experiencing. Following a jury selection process that lasted nearly 10 months, the trial in Fulton County Superior Court has since been riddled with messy delays, moving with a glacial slowness that is expected to generate steady headlines through the summer. But, as Dennis and Nielson write in their book, most cases in which rap lyrics are used as evidence take place far outside the national spotlight, and they tend to involve defendants who do not have the power of celebrity on their side. “Amateurs are presumed to be rapping about their real lives,” they write, “as if they have little artistic ability or aim.”

Unfortunately for these defendants, the baseline rap literacy of the average American juror appears to be woefully low. Defendants in these cases also tend to be younger than their so-called peers in the jury box — and this often enables prosecutors to let tacit racism do their work for them. Despite its global cultural dominance over the past 20-plus years, rap music still tends to confuse those who didn’t grow up with it. Even regular rap listeners can fail to recognize the line between a human being and a persona. Yes, rappers often present their work as a reflection of reality, but it doesn’t have to be their reality. This is why Rick Ross continues to have a successful rap career after it was revealed that he used to be a corrections officer, not the international narcotics kingpin he rhymes about being. Rap is a musical form with a deep tradition of fantasy and hyperbole. But when most judges and jurors hear rap music inside the courtroom, they routinely fail to hear it for what so often is: young Black men creating narrative-shaped art inside their minds.

It seems unlikely that a majority of citizens will suddenly become expertly fluent in the intricacies of rap writ large anytime soon, so Dennis and Nielson offer some other prescriptive solutions. They encourage citizens to vote for progressive judicial officials. They urge jurors to nullify rap lyrics as evidence during deliberations. Their biggest push — advocating for laws that will keep lyrics out of court forever — seems to be gaining momentum. In 2022, California enacted a state law preventing the use of rap lyrics in prosecutions. Maryland legislators are currently weighing a similar bill. And last year in Congress, lawmakers introduced the Restoring Artistic Protection Act, which would limit “the admissibility of evidence of a defendant’s or creative or artistic expression against the defendant in a federal criminal or civil case.”

The pure spectacle of Young Thug’s trial will surely draw increasing attention to these bills while continuing to throw the broader issue into a starker light. This is the first time lyrics from an album that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 have been used as criminal evidence against the artist who wrote them. Beyond that, it’s important to know that since making his big splashdown in the greater rap consciousness roughly ten years ago, Young Thug has taken rap music’s hyperbolic traditions to exponential frontiers. His lyricism can feel otherworldly and strange, filled with wild metaphors and alien non sequiturs, frequently delivered in high-pitched yelps and chirps. The idea that rapping this stylized could be used as anything other than proof of Young Thug’s musical ingenuity is a total farce.

The prosecution doesn’t mention any kangaroos or sentient gems in its indictment, but the lyrics from “Just How It Is” that are cited — including “I don’t care nothing ’bout no cop, I’m tellin’ you just how it is,” and “Ask the cops, ask the detectives, they know all the business” — seem as if they were chosen to portray Young Thug as a malefactor with contempt for authority rather than an artist imagining a world where laws don’t apply. The prosecution’s indictment originally included only two charges against Young Thug, participation in criminal street gang activity and conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, but has since come to include additional charges — three counts of violating Georgia’s controlled substances act, possession of a firearm while committing a felony and possession of a machine gun.

That said, debating how Young Thug’s lyrics might or might not square with the charges against him remains entirely beside the point. What happens inside a song and what happens in reality are two completely separate things. Yet, in our current legal system, Young Thug’s surrealistic music seems to be what landed him in an entirely real jail cell, where irreplaceable years of creativity will have been stripped away by the end of this ordeal, even if he’s acquitted. As an artist, his imagination seems uncrushable — but music is still an art form that unfolds in time, over time. When someone takes it away, there’s no getting it back.

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