The young men came before a judge, handcuffed in county jumpsuits, answering to their government names rather than their rap monikers: Slimelife Shawty, Unfoonk, Lil Duke and even the chart-topper Gunna. Each pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge, some to other crimes. Each agreed that the famed Atlanta rap crew they were associated with, YSL, headed by the Jeffery Williams, or Young Thug, was not only a renowned hip-hop collective but also a criminal street gang. At the hearing for Slimelife Shawty, born Wunnie Lee, a prosecutor prompted him to acknowledge that his associates “have committed at least one of the following acts in the name of YSL: murder, aggravated assault, robbery, theft and/or illegal firearms possession.” “Yes, ma’am,” Lee, 24, said. The case pitted law enforcement officials who say they are determined to stamp out a violent gang problem against those who see it as a moral panic inspired by rap, the New York Times reports. It has again raised questions about whether lyrics should only be taken as artistic expressions meant to portray a harsh reality, or as evidence of crimes. The guilty pleas by the four Atlanta rappers and four other men associated with YSL, all now free on probation after seven months in jail, may have bolstered prosecutors’ blockbuster case against 14 other alleged members of the group, who are accused of conspiracy to commit racketeering, gang statute violations and more. Most remarkable is Williams, 31, whose iconoclastic mystique and psychedelic flow have landed him on pop hits, the “Saturday Night Live” stage and in Vogue. With a maximum 120-year sentence, the man who fans know as Young Thug, but whom prosecutors describe as a cutthroat gang leader, is facing the prospect of growing old in prison. Williams has denied everything. “Jeffery is a kind, intelligent, hard-working, moral and thoughtful person,” said his lawyer, Brian Steel, arguing that the rapper had been wrongly targeted by law enforcement because of his fictional persona.
The case has shaken the pop culture universe, especially in Atlanta, Williams’s hometown, which can stake a claim as the world's hip-hop capital. Fans, fellow artists, record executives and influential figures including Stacey Abrams, have sounded notes of concern, even outrage. The case has prompted an outcry; Young Thug’s nickname and YSL’s slang term of choice, slime, has gone international, its “wipe your nose” hand gesture a popular N.F.L. celebration. In Atlanta, law enforcement officials say, it has become difficult to discern the difference between some rap crews and street gangs, and to disentangle where exactly the credibility-obsessed art form overlaps with criminality. Prosecutor Fani Willis contends that Atlanta is suffering from a plague of gang violence, estimating that up to 80 percent of violent crimes are committed by gang members. She says that an eight-year war between YSL and a rival gang known as YFN has accounted for more than 50 incidents. While many young Black men in Atlanta see an escape in turning their dire circumstances into hard-edged rap music, investigators say some of it serves to establish clout, inspire fear, recruit members and fund illegal activity. “We believe that Mr. Williams doesn’t sing about random theoretical acts, he sings about gang acts he’s a part of,” said prosecutor Don Geary last year.