Young Thug’s lyrics don’t make him a criminal

No artist should be indicted because of their music.

AUSTIN, TEXAS - MARCH 17: Young Thug performs onstage at 'Samsung Galaxy + Billboard' during the 202...
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Culture

When the news broke Monday that Atlanta maverick Young Thug had been arrested, it, at first glance, seemed like yet another example of the state targeting a successful Black man. He, along with YSL signee Gunna and 27 others were charged with involvement in gang activity, in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

But the accusations took on a peculiar twist: a lengthy section of the grand jury indictment cites a litany of songs from Thugger’s catalog, dubbing them under “an overt act in the furtherance of the conspiracy,” or an action done to carry out the conspiracy in question — usually the stuff of old Sopranos eps and A&E mob biographies. They include the stoner bop “Bad Boy,” where, in a classically Thugger-esque flight of fancy, the artist born Jeffery Lamar Williams compares both himself and his watch to a newborn baby. Alleged crimes notwithstanding, it’s absurd that in the year of our lord 2022 authorities find themselves combing through rap annotation websites like some wild-eyed stan who runs a low-key fan page.

For some time now, hip-hop has been taught at Ivy League institutions. It has been the subject of whole exhibitions at venerable museums worldwide. Yet there's still this notion that it’s somehow responsible for violence. Of course, its representation in the art world ivory tower doesn't exempt it from responsibility. But if the negative content in songs can have some influence on listeners, then so too can positive symbolism. The 2018 Pulitzer Winner in Music was, after all, Kendrick Lamar. And the Library of Congress is distinguished by such block-appropriate works of art as Nas’ Illmatic, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and Jay-Z’s The Blueprint. Hip-hop, as an art, should be respected enough to exist as a form of creativity and expression like other genres of music and film — not as the basis for accusations of crime against its creators.

Young Thug himself, for most fans and even casual observers, is something like a non-conformist polymath — a gifted hood savant who made posing in a ruffled, purple designer dress (on the cover of 2016’s Jeffrey) look drippy. For all the recent focus on his alleged street ties, Young Thug is first and foremost an artist; he makes brilliant melodies out of free-associative, cotton-mouthed warbles that feel like the rhyme equivalent to a “pinkies-up” salute. He co-wrote Childish Gambino’s scathing, protest-minded 2018 song “This Is America” and deconstructs so-called mumble rap with the addled precision of some left-of-center linguist high off lean. (When he enunciates actual words, as he does on Drake’s 2018 single “Sacrifices,” it's even more of a noteworthy experience.)

This is not the first time a rapper’s lyrics have been used against them by law enforcement. When Bobby Shmurda and members of the GS9 crew were arrested in 2014 on drugs, guns, and weapons charges, prosecutors in New York attempted to link some of the lyrics from Bobby’s hit “Hot Nigga” — particularly the lines, “I been selling crack since the fifth grade,” and “Mitch caught a body ‘bout a week ago” — to those alleged crimes. Prosecutors later decided that the lyrics would not be used in court, and Shmurda was eventually released from prison last February. Similarly, the lyrics of the late L.A. visionary Drakeo the Ruler were under investigation by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department — a detective there said the songs would serve as “the soundtrack” to a slam-dunk conviction — in connection to the 2016 death of a man named Davion Gregory. Drakeo was acquitted in 2019.

One of the songs included in the indictment against Young Thug is “Just How It Is,” from his 2019 album So Much Fun. An excerpt from the court documents reads:

Defendant JEFFERY WILLIAMS, an associate of YSL, posted a video titled “Just How It Is,” with lyrics stating “I escaped every one of the licks cause I was supposed to be rich, I don’t care nothing bout no cop, I’m tellin you just how it is,” “Hit em with the MAC now, now his whole body scabbed,” “I done for the crew, I done did the robbin, I done did the jackin, now I’m full rappin,” “last nigga tried me almost got popped in Lenox, ask the cops, ask the detectives, they know all the business.

While some of those lyrics are admittedly violent, Young Thug is likely taking creative license, as all brilliant artists have done since time immemorial. Like so many rappers who come from violent and impoverished circumstances, he’s transcended his environment and made a way for himself. He shouldn’t be prosecuted in the public court of opinion (or in the actual court) because of some random bars.