December 15, 2023 culture

Rap music on trial. Debate resurfaces over evidence ruling in Young Thug case

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Jeffery Lamar Williams, American rapper known professionally as Young Thug.

Picture: CC BY 3.0

Jeffery Williams, otherwise known by his rap alias Young Thug, is currently in an Atlanta court after being arrested in May 2022 for numerous charges, including suspicion of gang-related involvement.

He was arrested alongside twenty-seven people who hold charges of attempted murder, drug dealing and more.

On November 8, in Alabama, a key decision was made in the case of Jeffrey Williams.

Ural Glanville, the judge of the case, ruled that Williams’s rap music lyrics could “conditionally” be used as evidence, allowing 17 sets of lyrics to be presented against him after Williams’s legal team asserted that it could affect his right to freedom of speech and expression as well as prejudicing the jury.

Prosecutor Simone Hylton quoted lyrics in court: “I just beat a murder rap, I paid my lawyer 30 for that.” And “Me and my slimes are above the law.”

Many high-profile rappers have spoken out about the discrimination in the Young Thug case, following the use of rap music in his trial.

Meek Mills is among those calling out the judgement in American rapper and singer Young Thug’s case, branding it a ruling against free speech.

Writing on the popular social media platform X, Mills described how “Locking us for rapping got me scared to do an interview. Free Jeff Free lucci.”

Michael Render, known as the rapper Killer Mike, also took to Instagram to share how he is “scared” by the decision. This ruling sets the precedent for similar cases, where rap music can now be considered as evidence in a trial.

As reported by Fox 5 Atlanta, Williams’s representative Brian Steel stated that: “If you let this in, nobody should ever say anything to anyone else,” arguing that rap music should be a protected expression due to the First Amendment, which protects the freedom of speech in America.

Justice Glanville stated in his verdict that he did not consider it an attack on free speech since the lyrics were being used to prove involvement.

At a news conference in 2022, District Attorney Fani Willis told reporters: “I think if you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I’m going to use it.”

Willis argues that lyrics are important to understanding the rapper’s intent and mindset as well as, in some cases, being literal confessions of crime.

The issue of using rap lyrics as evidence in court has recently been reignited by such high-profile cases, with an open letter published in November 2022 in regards to rap lyrics and creative outputs being used as evidence.

Learn more:

Art on Trial: Protect Black Art

‘In courtrooms across America , the trend of prosecutors using artists’ creative expression against them is happening with troubling frequency’.

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Titled ‘Art on Trial: Protect Black Art’, it has been signed by over 100 artists, industry leaders, and legal experts. The letter defines this use of lyrics to prosecute as ‘simply wrong’ and labels it as ‘racially targeted practice’ aimed at already marginalised communities.

Julie Greenwald, who is the CEO and Chairman of the Atlantan Warner Music Group, commented on the open letter, saying that “the harsh reality is that Black artistic creativity is being threatened,” further describing this as an “unethical, discriminatory approach to prosecution.”

Speaking overall on the subject on an episode in November 2022 of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Law in Action’, attorney Chessie Thacher noted the bias against rap music as a genre.

“No-one thinks that Bob Marley shot the sheriff (..) but in rap lyrics there is an implicit and explicit bias where people somehow think that those lyrics are real,” which further describes how this is a “blind spot” in the American Legal System.

Thacher stated that rap lyrics are “fictionalised, expressive, artistic statements that should not be taken as literal or real.”

The University of California also looked into the issue. In a study entitled ‘The threatening nature of rap music’, it was found that the relationship between perceived violence and rap lyrics ‘can inappropriately impact jurors’ when used as evidence in a trial.

The study tested participants on identical lyrics characterised in two different genres: rap and country music. Overall, participants were far more likely to perceive the rap lyrics as literal and offensive.

This shows that jury members would be likely to perceive rap music as violent and confessional when presented with them in a court setting.

Glanville’s decision remains conditional, and rap lyrics will be evaluated with respect to the protections of free speech before being presented in court.

In the New York State Senate and New Jersey, a bill is currently under consideration to be implemented alongside the ‘Restoring Artistic Protection (RAP) Act’, which has been introduced in the US Congress by Representatives H. Johnson and J. Bowman to protect artists from their art being used against them as evidence in criminal proceedings.

Written by:

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Cressida Anness Lorenz

International Affairs editor

London, United Kingdom

Hailing from Islington, London, Cressida was born in 2006 and has been interested in creative writing and journalism from a young age. She joined Harbingers’ Magazine as one of the winners of the Harbinger Prize 2023, and in 2024 became the International Affairs editor for the magazine.

An abstract thinker, her main areas of focus are varied and philosophical in nature. In her spare time she enjoys involving herself in the art world, attending numerous practical art groups. This involvement in art has led to a curiosity in perspective and how it can be used as a lens to see the world in many different ways.

She enjoys both reading and writing which are her main pastimes and aims to study law.

Edited by:

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Megan Lee

Culture Section Editor

Hong Kong | United Kingdom

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