Young Thug and what happens when prosecutors use social media

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young bandit and Huns are two of the most prolific and playful talents in music. Despite being a popular rap star, they are still not afraid to change shape. For many years, by force of will and sheer joy, they have maintained an interest in radio.

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On May 11, they were arrested and charged in the Fulton County Superior Court of Georgia with conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. In the 88-page indictment, Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis portrayed Bandit and Gunna as members of a criminal organization. The indictment alleges that their music was not a front for their criminal activities, but, in fact, their basis. Thug and Gunna maintained their criminal organization’s “reputation, power, and territory,” according to the district attorney, “by posting messages, images, videos, and songs.” The prosecution points to content posted on social media as evidence of a real crime. It even includes screenshots of Instagram posts.

Strange as it may seem, this is nothing new. Prosecutors across the country have repeatedly used rap lyrics as evidence. It happened to Brandon “Tiny Doo” from San Diego Duncan, Gary Bryant Jr. of Contra Costa County., Lawrence Montagu of Marylandand 6ix9ine in New York. The latest case prompted two New York state senators submit a rap music bill on probation last fall, the purpose of which is to protect the authors from the use of their texts by the prosecutor’s office against them.

Accusers have also previously portrayed organizations such as the music group Thug YSL as not rap teams and the music labels they reputedly are but like real gangs. In particular, this happened to Ruler Drakeo of Los Angeles, who, along with his Stinc Team, was charged with a number of charges, including first-degree murder.

Drakeo was acquitted of murder in 2019 and, after several trials and three years in prison, eventually agreed to a plea deal on lesser charges in 2020 and went free. He was assassinated the following year, and much of his short, brilliant life was lost to the criminal justice system. Following the arrest of Thug and Gunna, journalist Jeff Weiss, who covered Drakeo’s trial extensively, tweeted“This sounds eerily similar to the abuse of the Drakeo/Stinc team — where prosecutors use weak and circumstantial links to a crime to indict the crime itself. This is the 21st century plan for prosecuting rappers: calling a rap group a gang and filing mafia-style charges.”

What is it like to deal with harassment that is partly based on words?

John Hamasaki, Draceo’s attorney throughout his many trials, never had any illusions that by helping Draceo get out, he was discouraging other prosecutors from harassing rappers. Regarding the Thug and Gunna case, he says, “It’s unusual that it’s targeting some very famous rappers. As a rule, the prosecutor’s office was able to use rap lyrics against people at the local level. It’s an unfortunate fact, but jurors are more likely to recognize that rap is an art when it comes from an established artist.” On the other hand, Hamasaki suggests that Tag and Gunna’s fame itself may be a motivator for Willis, who can “chase fame” by chasing the two celebrities. (Willis will be re-elected in 2024; her office did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)

I ask Hamasaki what role social media played in the Drakeo case. “You give me PTSD,” he sighs. “I think we had 4 terabytes of discoveries. DM, photo, video. Backup your Instagram or Twitter accounts. Anything they can electronically pick up now, they do. The problem is that prosecutors can come in and take bits and pieces from both to paint a picture. On the defense side, you enter and must complete the picture.” Using these song snippets and social media, prosecutors will attempt to build a story for the YSL as a hierarchical criminal organization.

Hamasaki adds that the use of social media as evidence does not only occur in high-profile cases. “Social media is a permanent tool in the arsenal of law enforcement,” he says, adding that police departments routinely obtain arrest warrants using social media activity. “They write it in legal language, but basically they say: “Here” – on social networks – “proof X of the crime.” Orders for this are issued several times a day, every day.”

Thug and Gunna’s indictment is full of charges against 26 of their co-defendants, including the attempted murder of young rapper YFN Lucci and aggravated assault on elderly statesman Lil Wayne. There are also allegations of possession of cocaine and oxycodone.

If there is evidence of these allegations, then the Fulton County Attorney’s Office will likely have a serious case against these co-defendants. But the way these alleged crimes are linked to Ganna, aka Sergio Kitchens, and Thug, aka Geoffrey Williams, is through content posted online. Again and again, the indictment cites the following version: “Defendant JEFFERY WILLIAMS, a YSL employee, appeared in a video posted on social media titled ‘Eww’ where the defendant states: ‘Redhead like Elmo, but never fucking chuckles “… open action in support of the conspiracy.”

I ask Hamasaki if he thinks that the prosecutors in the Dracheo case made their case in good faith. Did they sincerely believe that lyrics about killing a person amounted to an admission of guilt? Choosing his words carefully, Hamasaki says, “I found it hard to believe that they couldn’t tell fact from fiction.”

In cases like with Tag, Gunna, and YSL, the definition of artistic expression becomes a moot point. After their arrests, Willis noted that the First Amendment is a “precious” right of Americans, but still “doesn’t protect people from prosecutors using it as evidence, if that’s the case.” But as Gunna’s lawyer put it“It’s very problematic that the state is relying on song lyrics as part of its charges. These lyrics are the artist’s creative expression, not a literal statement of facts and circumstances.”

Producer JoogSZN was a co-writer and friend of Drakeo. “This is the only art form that is looked at as an autobiography and not as art,” he says. A few months before Drakeo was released from prison, Jug and Drakeo were put out Thanks for using GTL, a critically acclaimed album recorded over the phone with the Global Tel Link prison call service at an exploitative price. Jug spoke to Drakeo on a daily basis during his imprisonment, and he says that their conversations were filled with laughter as they discussed the elemental incredulity of the prosecution’s case.

Both Drakeo’s Stinc Team and Thug’s YSL operate as record labels, and “it’s kind of ridiculous because I don’t know of any band that has an established business,” says Joog. (Slight clarification: Thug has always been flexible about what YSL stands for. In the indictment, his band is called Young Slime Life, and YSL Records is also known as Young Stoner Life Records.) Joog chuckles, “The Bloods, LLC!” For Jug, the Thug and Hun case brings him back to Drakeo’s imprisonment and to the record GLT. “If Tag and Gunna want to sign up, I’m right here.”

Since their arrest, both Tag and Gunna have been trying to reconstruct the narrative with the same platform that was used against them. Recently in an open letter posted on your instagram, Gunna wrote: “The picture being painted of me is ugly and untrue. My fans know that I love to enjoy life, I love my family, I love to travel, I love music, I love my fans. I fully believe that God will grant me justice for the purity of my heart and the innocence of my actions.” AT freestyle delivered by phone to his nephew and also posted on Instagram, Thug read, “Damn, I’m really in jail/God, give me one more chance to show you that I can win.”

After Tag and Gunna pleaded not guilty, they were denied bail and are in jail awaiting trial due to begin in January.

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