As the high-profile criminal trial of rapper Young Thug began this week, black rappers whose lyrics have been used against them by prosecutors as evidence of criminal activity have renewed calls to end the practice, saying that although violence and other dark themes are prevalent. referenced in many artistic works, they are only used as weapons against hip-hop artists.

Young Thug, whose legal name is Jefferey Lamar Williams, is one of 28 people named in an indictment in May that accuses them of violating Georgia’s Criminal Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act by allegedly engaging in gang activity. related to multiple murders, shootings and a series of home invasions over nearly a decade. Several of the men, who are affiliated with the Atlanta rap team YSL, have pleaded guilty, and 14 of them (Young Thug is the best known) should face charges. The trial is expected to last six to nine months.

Young Thug and the other defendants maintain that YSL is a collective of rappers; Prosecutors, however, say the group is a gang that has committed numerous crimes and plans to use lyrics referencing crime and violence as evidence in court.

The ongoing case has unearthed painful memories for McKinley Phipps, a hip-hop artist known professionally as «Mac.» He signed with No Limit Records before being convicted of manslaughter, for which he spent two decades in prison.

“Hip-hop itself is just a medium, a predominantly black medium, and it can be expressed negatively or positively, but I would say that over 99% of the artists writing these songs are either highly exaggerated or purely fictional,” Phipps said.

In 2001, Phipps was sentenced to 30 years in prison after being convicted of the murder of a 19-year-old boy at a Louisiana club where he was scheduled to perform.

The authorities had no physical evidence or weapon linking Phipps to the shooting, and the then-22-year-old had no criminal record. However, Phipps’ trial focused largely on lyrics used in his rap songs, which prosecutors equated to a likelihood of violence, he said.

“Murder, murder, kill, kill” and “pull the trigger” were some of the lyrics quoted by prosecutors, he said.

The District Attorney’s Office for the 22nd Judicial District in Louisiana did not immediately return a request for comment.

«This idea that it’s autobiographical is not true, it’s more or less a marketing ploy because, unfortunately, the audience has an appetite for that violent, edgy stuff, just like people like movies with a lot of action,» he said. Phipps.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards granted him clemency in April 2021 and two months later he was released from prison on parole. Although his conviction still stands, Phipps has maintained his innocence and remains critical of the evidence used against him at trial.

Phipps said that seeing what he believes to be a story similar to his own in the Young Thug case has unearthed painful memories of years wasted behind bars for creative expression.

«I’d like to think that prosecutors have more than song lyrics to use against someone in court and if there’s real evidence why would song lyrics come into play?» he said. «This has to stop at some point.»

A bias against rap music

It’s not uncommon for prosecutors to use rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials, according to University of Richmond researchers, who documented at least 500 cases from 2009 to 2019 in the book «Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America.»

Prosecutors use the tactic because it is effective in obtaining convictions, said Charis E. Kubrin, a professor at the University of California Irvine who has researched the use of rap lyrics in the justice system.

Criminal cases where lyrics are used to prove intent or show motive are the latest manifestation, but there is a longer history of social control or surveillance of rap music and hip-hop in general, he said.

Through his research, Kubrin has found bias against rap music and artists, he said, adding that much of that bias is racialized.

in a study 2018 by Kubrin and other researchers and published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, different groups of participants were presented with identical music lyrics and told they were from a country, heavy metal, or rap song. Participants gave perceived rap lyrics a higher overall negative score, which determined that the writer of those lyrics was more likely to have a bad temper and engage in criminal activity.

When no information on race was provided, participants who inferred that the composer was black judged him more negatively than participants who inferred that the composer was white on the same scale.

“Rap and race are very intertwined,” Kubrin said. That means using lyrics from rap music, a historically black genre, can infect jurors with anti-black racism, regardless of whether the defendant is black, she said.

defending the practice

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, whose office is handling the case against Young Thug and other YSL members, has defended the use of song lyrics in trials.

«I think if you decide to admit your crimes by a hit, I’ll use it,» Willis told reporters at the news conference in August. “I’m going to keep doing that; people can still be angry about it. I have some legal advice: don’t confess to crimes in rap lyrics if you don’t want them used, or at least get out of my county.»

“You can’t commit crimes in my county and then decide to brag about it, which you do as a form of intimidation, and not be held accountable,” he said.

Willis’s office did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News.

Willis has said the courts are on his side, but black artists who have been convicted of crimes through their music say the practice impedes their First Amendment rights and also misconstrues and criminalizes a predominantly black art form.

San Diego rapper Tiny Doo, whose legal name is Brandon Duncan, was arrested in 2014 for alleged conspiracy to engage in gang activity, including shootings.

during his preliminary hearingprosecutors submitted his rap lyrics and social media photos to prove his gang involvement despite no evidence connecting him to the shootings.

Duncan was jailed for seven months before a California judge dismissed the charges against him, citing the lack of evidence to bring him to trial.

The ordeal still haunts Duncan, who calls his experience «an injustice.»

Rapper Brandon Duncan, also known as Tiny Doo, leaves court during a lunch break in the motion to dismiss the charges against him in San Diego, California on March 16, 2015. Duncan, who is charged under a conspiracy law that allows prosecution to win
Rapper Brandon Duncan, also known as ‘Tiny Doo’, leaves court in San Diego March 16, 2015. Duncan was charged under a conspiracy law that allows gang members to be prosecuted if they benefit from or further crimes committed by other gang members. . .Mike Blake/Reuters via Alamy

«It’s racism for me at its highest, I know because I went through the exact same thing,» he said. “People can make movies about the mafia or kill others and benefit from them, but we can’t? Where is our freedom of expression, ”he said. You’re not putting the writers of the movies in jail, you’re just doing it with the inner-city people who are actually using the lyrics as a way to get out of environments that were pretty bad.»

Duncan said hip-hop art is based on black life, but that’s not necessarily autobiographical, and he is asking the Georgia prosecutor to drop the use of lyrics in his case against Young Thug.

The push to end the use of letters has gained some momentum over the past year.

Last September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Artistic Expression Decriminalization Act, making him the first state to restrict the use of rap lyrics as evidence in state courts.

In New York, SB S7527which limits the admissibility of evidence of a defendant’s creative or artistic expression in a criminal proceeding, was not passed by the state Assembly last year and will be resubmitted for a vote in the next legislative session.

At the federal level, a bill called Restoration of the Artistic Protection Law or RAPit was introduced in the House in August and is still working its way through legislative channels.

Emerson Sykes, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who specializes in First Amendment cases, said courts have been reluctant to address these issues, in part because they «rarely cut off criminal defendants’ paths.» and partly because we believe that in this situation they have a particular misunderstanding of the artistic expression in question, and may have some particular bias against these defendants.»

With rap music, there’s a propensity to skip the full analysis of whether it’s really relevant and whether there’s «a really clear nexus between the content of the utterance and the specific crime at hand,» Sykes said, adding that the introduction of the handwriting is as much an evidentiary issue as it is a free speech issue.

“No one thinks that Johnny Cash actually shot a man in Reno, right? There’s a lot of really dark country music and other genres about all kinds of treacherous things that are part of human existence, but no one interprets that as an admission of any kind of criminal responsibility,” he said.

«And what we’ve seen time and time again is that courts interpret certain types of lyrics as incriminating, while other similar types of artistic expression don’t carry the same kind of truthful or incriminating connotation.»

Sykes argued that the criminal legal system is deeply unfair and biased against defendants, especially black and brown youth, and his approach to hip-hop is «perhaps a deliberate misunderstanding» of idioms and the way the genre uses certain language. .

“Hip-hop often depicts, in vivid terms, the good, the bad, and the ugly of black life,” he said. “The criminalization of black life is definitely an issue there and you see it reflected in the use of these lyrics and thoughtfully as evidence of criminality.”