Prosecutors are continuing to use musical expression, a protected form of free speech, to charge rap artists with crimes, including in the recent high-profile arrests of Young Thug and Gunna, Courthouse News Service reports. The two popular Atlanta artists, whose given names are Jeffrey Lamar Williams and Sergio Kitchens, respectively, were among 28 defendants charged with conspiracy and street gang activity on May 11. Among accusations of felony drug possession with intent to sell, armed robbery and murder, the indictment includes details from Young Thug and Gunna music videos and lyrics cited as evidence of their alleged association with the Bloods-affiliated gang Young Slime Life (YSL), which is also the abbreviation for their record label, Young Stoner Life. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis said that the First Amendment is “one of our most precious rights” but that it didn’t apply in this case.
Andrea Dennis of the University of Georgia’s School of Law says prosecutors may try to use defendant-authored music lyrics as an autobiographical depiction of actual events, so that they’ll be treated as admissible evidence. The lyrics may also be offered to prove the defendant’s intent, knowledge, motive, or identity. In addition, prosecutors use lyrics to construct a narrative framework or theory of the case, to paint a picture of the defendant at the time of the crime. Race also plays a role. Nearly half of all states do not have a single high court justice who identifies as a person of color, including 11 states where people of color make up at least 20 percent of the population. With minority group members making up just 22 percent of federal judges, some say it is not surprising that prosecutors focus on rap lyrics by artists of color. “Prosecutors do this because they know it makes their job easy. They know that juries that aren’t familiar with rap music, will essentially rob the rap artist of a fair trial. It really creates a chilling effect for the artist and has very serious First Amendment implications,” said law Prof. Jack Lerner of the University of California Irvine.