What Young Thug and Gunna’s Indictment Means for Rap Music on Trial

What Young Thug and Gunna’s Indictment Means for Rap Music on Trial

On May 9, Young Thug was arrested at his Atlanta home after being named in a broad 56-count gang indictment. According to the indictment, the rapper and 27 other people, including Gunna, allegedly conspired to violate the Georgia criminal racketeering law. The government claims that YSL—Young Thug’s rap collective and label also known as Young Stoner Life—is a criminal gang with ties to the national Bloods organization.

Specifically, the 28 people named in the indictment are all charged with conspiracy to violate the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. That’s Georgia’s version of the federal law originally designed to fight organized crime. Under this complicated statute, prosecutors must prove that the defendants committed at least two specific offenses within a 10-year period that were part of a racketeering scheme. If found guilty, penalties for RICO include up to 20 years in prison, a monetary fine, or both.

Young Thug is also charged with participation in a criminal street gang—a state violation also carrying a potential prison sentence of up to 20 years. Gunna is charged only under RICO. Charges against others named in the indictment span murder, attempted murder, robbery, assault, carjacking, and theft, along with possession of drugs and firearms.

As for Young Thug, prosecutors claim he co-founded YSL as a “criminal street gang” in 2012. According to the 88-page indictment, Young Thug committed more than 30 crimes under RICO from 2013 to 2021, among them theft, terroristic threats, and possession of drugs with the intent to distribute. Some of Young Thug’s alleged crimes, per the indictment, include the lyrics to several songs and various social media photos over the years of him “flashing a YSL gang hand sign.”

Some of the most serious charges in the indictment involve the January 2015 death of Donovan Thomas, Jr., who was shot at an Atlanta barbershop in a suspected drive-by shooting, according to a local news report at the time. Five of Young Thug’s alleged YSL associates—including another YSL rapper, Yak Gotti, whose real name is Deamonte Kendrick—are now charged with Thomas’ murder. Yak Gotti and the four other people are also charged with the attempted murder of two others.

Three days before the alleged murder, the indictment asserts, Young Thug rented a silver Infiniti sedan that was used in the killing. The indictment claims that Thomas was a rival gang member. A little more than two weeks after Thomas’s death, Young Thug and a different alleged gang leader purportedly took part in a conversation where one of them said that “sacrifices must be made, soldiers must fall in order for battle to be won.” The next day, Young Thug allegedly said in a video posted to social media: “So a n**** lie to they momma, lie to they kids, lie to they brothers and sisters then get right into the courtroom and tell the God’s honest truth, don’t get it, y’all n***** need to get fucking killed bro, from me and YSL,” in what prosecutors argue was another RICO offense.

Thomas’ death isn’t the only alleged murder in the indictment. On March 14, prosecutors claim, four YSL associates shot and killed Shymel Drinks, allegedly another rival gang member. Drinks, who was 23, was found with multiple gunshot wounds, according to a local news report.

Other allegations that stand out concern YFN Lucci, an Atlanta rapper who has been in jail following his own 2021 state RICO indictment. On February 9, 2022, the indictment alleges, three YSL associates attempted to murder YFN Lucci by stabbing him with a shank. YFN Lucci is also a rival gang member, prosecutors claim. On top of that, on February 22, two other YSL associates discussed how to get Young Thug’s “permission” for a second murder attempt on the incarcerated YFN Lucci, the indictment asserts. (On February 7, one of the two YSL associates who sought Young Thug’s permission to murder YFN Lucci attempted to murder an Atlanta police officer, prosecutors claim.)

Notably, the indictment also names rapper Peewee Roscoe. Along with conspiracy to violate Georgia’s RICO law, Roscoe faces additional drug, gun, and gang charges, which could lead to more prison time. Roscoe’s RICO crimes, the indictment alleges, include shooting Lil Wayne’s tour bus in April 2015. In August 2020, after an earlier sentence was thrown out by a judge, Roscoe pleaded guilty to two gang-related charges in connection with the tour bus shooting. (Prosecutors dropped the other charges, which originally included violation of the RICO Act and multiple counts of aggravated assault.)

The most recent crimes alleged in the indictment took place on April 27 or April 28. According to prosecutors, one of the co-defendants (who had apparently been a murder target years earlier) ordered a fellow YSL associate to murder an alleged gang member. The killing does not appear to have been carried out.

Gunna’s alleged RICO acts in the indictment ranged from September 2017 to March 2022. They included allegations of theft by receiving a stolen firearm, possession of drugs with intent to distribute, and participation in gang activity, and a traffic stop for speeding involving vehicles that purportedly were armed with an AK-47 and other weapons. The government also cited Gunna’s lyrics and social media posts, including his June 2020 appearance in Lil Keed’s “Fox 5” video, where Gunna allegedly wears “YSL” and “Slatt” pendants while rapping, “We got ten-hundred round choppers.”

Young Thug’s lawyer, Brian Steel, told Pitchfork on May 10 that the rapper “has committed no violation of law, whatsoever.”

In a press conference, also on May 10, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis touted the indictment as a victory against violent crimes. She estimated that 10 of the defendants were already jailed and said that three, including Young Thug, were arrested on the evening of May 9. (Gunna turned himself into authorities on May 11, and it is unclear if he currently has an attorney who can comment on the situation, as The Associated Press notes.) A Democrat elected in 2020, Willis has signaled that she may also invoke the state RICO law as she investigates efforts by former President Donald J. Trump and his associates to undermine his Georgia electoral defeat.

Willis has indicated that she plans to keep bringing RICO charges against alleged gangs. “I believe it allows juries and the communities to see the complete picture of a crime,” she said at the press conference. But rappers and their crews may be particularly vulnerable to such charges when placed in front of jurors perhaps not familiar enough with the form to make a distinction between art and reality. Prosecutors have brought RICO charges in recent years against rappers Bobby Shmurda and Tekashi 6ix9ine, along with the disgraced singer R. Kelly.

Not coincidentally, the Young Thug indictment has also drawn scrutiny for quoting the rapper’s lyrics, a prosecutorial practice long criticized by advocates for hip-hop and free speech. For instance, the indictment quotes Young Thug rapping in 2018, “I never killed anybody but got something to do with that body.” Jay-Z and Meek Mill have recently championed a bill that would block rap lyrics from being used as evidence in the state of New York.

District Attorney Willis has shown no qualms about using lyrics as evidence. “The First Amendment does not protect people from prosecutors using [music] as evidence if it is such,” she said at the press conference.

One of the songs cited in the indictment is “Take It to Trial,” by Young Thug, Gunna, and Yak Gotti, from last year’s YSL compilation Slime Language 2. On it, as the indictment notes, Yak Gotti raps, “For my slimes, you know I’ll kill.” Young Thug sings the hook.