At the end of 2021, Young Thug was one of hip-hop’s biggest rising stars: a critically-adored rapper with three chart-topping hits, three-chart topping albums, a Grammy award for song of the year and his own record label (YSL, short for Young Stoner Life) under Warner Music’s 300 Entertainment.
Two years later, Thug (real name Jeffery Williams) is set to face a grueling trial starting Monday (Nov. 27) over allegations he ran a violent Atlanta street gang that committed murders, carjackings and many other crimes over the course of a decade — charges that, if proven, could send him to prison for decades.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, whose office is prosecuting the case, has said that YSL wrought “havoc” on the Atlanta area for nearly a decade: “It does not matter what your notoriety is, what your fame is,” Willis said hours after the superstar rapper was first arrested. Thug’s lawyer, Brian Steel, says he is innocent: “Mr. Williams committed no crime whatsoever.”
The YSL case pits prosecutors in America’s rap capital against one of the country’s biggest hip-hop artists, making it one of the music industry’s most closely-watched criminal cases in years. To get you up to speed before the trial, Billboard is explaining the YSL case: How did we get here? What exactly is this case about? And what comes next? Here’s everything you need to know.
What’s Young Thug accused of doing?
In May 2022, Willis unveiled a 56-count indictment against Thug and 27 other alleged members of YSL — an entity that she says is not really a record label called “Young Stoner Life,” but actually a violent Atlanta gang called “Young Slime Life” that’s affiliated with the national Bloods gang.
The case claims that since 2012, YSL members have committed a wide range of criminal wrongdoing centered on the Cleveland Avenue area of Atlanta, including murder, assault, robbery, theft, illegal gun possession, illegal drug possession and sales, and more. And prosecutors say that Thug was the clear leader of the organization — they’ve called him “King Slime — who “made YSL a well-known name” by “referring to it in his songs.”
In addition to Thug, the charges also targeted his star protégé Sergio “Gunna” Kitchens, as well as Deamonte “Yak Gotti” Kendrick, Arnold “Lil Duke” Martinez, Thug’s brother Quantavious “Unfoonk” Grier and many others.
The case is built on Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law based on the more famous federal RICO statute that’s been used to target the mafia, drug cartels and other forms of organized crime. Such racketeering laws make it easier for prosecutors to sweep up members of an alleged criminal enterprise based on many individual actions.
Some of the most serious accusations in the indictment center on the 2015 killing of Donovan “Big Nut” Thomas Jr., who prosecutors say ran a rival gang in Atlanta. Five YSL members are directly charged with the murder, while Thug himself is accused of renting the car that was used to commit the killing.
Prosecutors also say other members looked to Thug for leadership on serious crimes. In one allegation, the indictment claims that two other YSL members discussed “how to obtain permission” from the rapper before attempting to murder rival rapper YFN Lucci (Rayshawn Bennett) while he was in jail.
After an updated, 65-count indictment was filed August 2022, the star himself is now facing eight counts, including one count of participating in the RICO conspiracy; one count of participating in a criminal street gang; three counts of violating the Georgia Controlled Substances Act; one count of possession of a firearm while committing a felony; and one count of possession of a machine gun.
Go read the full indictment here.
What happened to Gunna?
In the 18 months since the YSL indictment was first handed down, many of the original 28 defendants have either accepted plea deals or been separated from the case for procedural reasons, leaving only six defendants to face trial this week. Just weeks ago, for instance, Derontae “Bee” Bebee pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison.
The biggest plea came from Gunna, a critically-acclaimed YSL artist who has frequently been described as Young Thug’s protégé. Last December, he took a so-called Alford plea — a legal maneuver that allows a defendant to enter a formal admission of guilt while still maintaining their innocence. The deal made sense: Gunna had been charged in only one count of the indictment and faced far less serious accusations, mostly centered on his participation in music and social media that promoted YSL.
At the time, Gunna stressed that he had not agreed to work with prosecutors to convict Young Thug or any of the other defendants, and had “absolutely NO intention of being involved in the trial process in any way.” But at the court hearing where he entered the plea deal, Gunna publicly acknowledged that YSL was both “a music label and a gang,” and that he had “personal knowledge that members or associates of YSL have committed crimes and in furtherance of the gang.”
That has led to some backlash for the rapper, but true to his word, Gunna is not expected to testify at the upcoming trial. Citing an anonymous source, Rolling Stone reported in December that an understanding had been reached that “the state is not going to call him as a witness.” And if he were called, he would still be entitled to exercise his Fifth Amendment right to avoid answering questions.
Why are rap lyrics being cited in court?
The YSL case is one of the most prominent examples of prosecutors using lyrics as evidence against the artists who wrote them — a controversial practice that has drawn backlash from civil liberties activists, defense attorneys and, increasingly, the music industry.
Critics say the use of lyrics as evidence unfairly treats rap as a literal confession rather than a work of creative expression, potentially violating the First Amendment. Even worse, they say rap can have a prejudicial effect on jurors, tapping into existing biases toward young Black men and helping prosecutors win convictions where more concrete evidence is lacking.
California recently enacted first-of-its-kind legislation restricting the practice, and Democrats in Congress have proposed a bill that would do the same in federal cases — an effort supported by major music industry groups. But in the absence of such laws, courts around the country have mostly upheld the right of prosecutors to cite rap lyrics, particularly in gang-related cases.
For her part, the Fulton County District Attorney has offered no apologies: “If you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I’m gonna use it,” Willis said last year. “I have some legal advice: don’t confess to crimes on rap lyrics if you do not want them used, or at least get out of my county.”
At a climactic pre-trial hearing earlier this month, Thug’s lawyer blasted prosecutors for attempting to use creative expression to convict his client. “They are targeting the right to free speech, and that’s wrong,” he said. “They are saying that just because he his singing about it, he is now part of a crime.”
Prosecutors argued back that lyrics were “proclamations of violence” by alleged gang members, making them “highly relevant” to proving that YSL was an illegal criminal enterprise. “The issue here is not rap,” one Fulton County attorney argued. “This is not randomly the state attempting to bring in Run DMC from the ’80s. This is specific. These are party admissions. They just happen come in the form of lyrics.”
In the end, Judge Ural Glanville sided with prosecutors and allowed the lyrics to be used in the case, repeatedly telling Thug’s lawyer that “the First Amendment is not on trial” in the case. “They’re not prosecuting your clients because of the songs they wrote,” Glanville said. “They’re using the songs to prove other things your clients may have been involved in. I don’t think it’s an attack on free speech.”
Go read the full list of lyrics that could be cited in the case here.
What took so long to get to trial?
The case against YSL is almost unfathomably complex — so much so that it has repeatedly strained the local legal system nearly to its breaking point.
With 28 men originally indicted, finding lawyers for all of them — a constitutional requirement — proved difficult. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, prosecutors secured millions in extra funding to bring huge gang cases, but Georgia’s public defense system did not receive equal funding to keep up. That forced the state to contract with numerous private defense attorneys to help cover the YSL case, but even that arrangement nearly fell apart this past spring over inadequate pay.
Jury selection was even harder. With the trial expected to last as long as a year, it proved nearly impossible to find a dozen people who could drop their financial commitments and halt their lives for that long. The selection process started in January with hopes that the trial could kick off in the spring, but it eventually took more than 10 months — by most accounts, the longest ever jury selection in Georgia state history.
Throughout all of that, Young Thug and the other defendants have been sitting in jail. Though Thug’s attorneys argued that he should be placed under house arrest, Judge Glanville repeatedly refused to grant him bond, swayed by arguments from prosecutors that doing so would increase the risk of witness intimidation.
How is Donald Trump involved?
If the words “Fani Willis” and “RICO” sound familiar, they should: She’s using the very same statute to bring an even-higher-profile case against Trump and others over alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia.
Back in August, a Fulton County grand jury in August indicted Trump and 18 others over accusations that they participated in a criminal scheme to try to keep the Republican in the White House after he lost the presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden. Several co-defendants in that case have recently pled guilty to lesser charges, including former Trump lawyers Sidney Powell and Jenna Ellis.
Willis recently proposed an August 2024 trial for the case — a timeline that could mean that both the YSL trial and the Trump trial would be happening simultaneously. Like the YSL case, the DA’s office expects the election trial to last many months.
Trump’s lead attorney, Steve Sadow, represented Gunna in the YSL case and negotiated his plea deal to end his involvement.
What do prosecutors need to prove?
As with all criminal cases, the burden is on prosecutors to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Thug and others did what they’re accused of — meaning jurors must be virtually certain that they’re guilty before they vote to convict.
To prove the core RICO charges, the DA’s office will need to show a “pattern of racketeering activity” by the YSL members — meaning they conspired to run an illegal enterprise, or a “racket.”
Prosecutors will try to do so by detailing more than 150 “acts” that were allegedly carried out “in furtherance of the conspiracy.” Some of those will be what are called “predicates” — meaning actions that would crimes on their own, like the like Donovan murder. But others will merely be “overt acts,” meaning any concrete step that YSL members took to help the illegal enterprise, even if it isn’t a crime on its own. That’s where social media posts and song lyrics come into the case.
Importantly, prosecutors don’t need to show that every defendant knew about every element of YSL’s operations. They only need to prove that each YSL member knew about the conspiracy and agreed to be part of it, and took at least two actions to further it.
RICO is best known for the federal law that was created in the 1970s to target mob bosses who didn’t directly commit crimes themselves. But many states have passed their own versions, and Georgia’s, passed in 1981, is notably broader than the federal version. It has a longer list of crimes that can serve as “predicates,” and it covers shorter-term criminal conspiracies than the federal law.
Willis is very familiar with Georgia’s RICO statute. In addition to using it against YSL and former President Trump, she also recently brought a RICO case against a gang that allegedly robbed the Atlanta homes of celebrities like Mariah Carey.
And back in 2014, when she was an assistant DA, Willis served as lead prosecutor in a RICO case against a group of Atlanta educators over their role in widespread cheating on standardized tests. Following an eight month trial — the longest in Georgia history — Willis secured convictions against 11 of 12 of the teachers.
“The reason that I am a fan of RICO is, I think jurors are very, very intelligent,” Willis told reporters last year. “RICO is a tool that allows a prosecutor’s office and law enforcement to tell the whole story.”
How is the trial going to play out?
Starting first thing on Monday, the six remaining defendants — Thug, Marquavius Huey, Deamonte “Yak Gotti” Kendrick, Quamarvious Nichols, Rodalius Ryan and Shannon Stillwell — will go to trial.
The jury, composed of seven Black women, two white women, two Black men and one white man, will hear opening arguments from both sides, and then the DA’s office will begin calling witnesses. According to a report by Atlanta’s 11Alive, prosecutors said in court earlier this month that their list of potential witnesses includes a stunning 737 names, featuring 258 lay witnesses — regular people who can testify to what they saw — and 479 expert witnesses, who will explain complex issues to jurors.
Eventually, the defendants will get a chance to call their own witnesses. In a recent legal filing, Thug listed among his potential witnesses rappers T.I. (real name Clifford Harris) and Killer Mike (Michael Render), as well as music business executive Lyor Cohen, who co-founded 300 Entertainment. Thug’s attorneys will also call their own expert witnesses to counter the testimony from the government.
If convicted on the RICO charge, the defendants face prison sentences lasting anywhere from five to 20 years. But Thug and others also face separate charges over other specific crimes that, if proven, could add additional prison time to any eventual sentence.