Jeffrey Lamar Williams, one of the most critically revered and commercially successful figures in contemporary poetry, has been held in solitary confinement in a Georgia jail since his arrest on May 9. Williams emerged from Atlanta’s thriving poetry scene in 2011 with I Came From Nothing, a genre-reshaping collection filled with imagery from his childhood in Jonesboro South, the notorious housing projects where a young Williams watched his older brother die of gunshot wounds. That collection and the prolific output that followed would launch a slew of imitators and protégés, many of them childhood friends who were members of Williams’s Young Stoner Life star-making poetry collective. But in an 88-page, 56-count indictment, Georgia prosecutors allege that YSL is not a poetry collective but a front for a “criminal street gang” whose members have committed crimes including armed robbery, aggravated assault, carjacking, and murder. All 28 people charged, including Williams—whom prosecutors name as a cofounder of the gang—are accused of conspiring to violate Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute. The most frequently cited evidence for the charges leveled against Williams? Incredibly, lines lifted directly from his own poetry.
If it sounds odd that verses of poetry might be used to prove a poet’s participation in a criminal enterprise, hold that thought. I neglected to mention that Williams is a multiplatinum, Grammy-winning rapper who goes by Young Thug—you can replace every instance of “poetry” above with “hip-hop”—and YSL has been his record label since 2016. If you think the First Amendment should protect painters from having their works used as evidence in a criminal prosecution or that charges against film directors shouldn’t rely on the plots of their movies, then consider the incongruity of how rap lyrics are treated when rappers are charged with illegal acts. I’m not arguing that Young Thug is innocent—that’s a job for his defense team—but I am defending his right not to have his art be treated as an admission of guilt.
In addition to citing social media posts and photos, the YSL indictment points to music videos and lyrics from nine Young Thug songs to make the state’s case, quoting lines such as “I never killed anybody / but I got something to do with that body,” and “Smith & Wesson .45 / put a hole in his heart / better not play with me / killers they stay with me.” (The latter lyrics are misattributed to Young Thug by prosecutors; they were actually uttered by the late rapper Juice WRLD.) None of the lyrics listed in the indictment are linked directly to the alleged crimes. Instead, each line cited is identified as “an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.” At a press conference to announce the charges, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, the first Black woman elected to the position, addressed the issue by stating: “I believe in the First Amendment; it’s one of our most precious rights. However, the First Amendment does not protect people from prosecutors using [speech] as evidence if it is such.”
This keeps happening with rap, the now fortysomething music genre created overwhelmingly by young Black people, the most criminalized folks in this country. In their book Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, Erik Nielson and Andrea Dennis trace the practice of using rap music against criminal defendants to 1991, when lyrics written by Derek Foster helped prosecutors secure his conviction for drug trafficking. In 1993, Francisco Calderon Mora was convicted of second-degree murder; lyrics from a rap song he’d written were included in the prosecution’s discovery. His attorneys appealed, arguing that Mora’s lyrics had prejudiced the jury, but to no avail. “Nothing makes these rap lyrics inherently unreliable,” Appellate Judge William Bedsworth wrote in his decision, “at least no more unreliable than rap lyrics in general.”
Bedsworth, however unwittingly, identified the problem. Art is generally understood to be the manifestation of a creator’s imagination. But hip-hop has long been denigrated as a confessional non-art, perhaps because of a collective unwillingness to recognize that young Black folks are capable of crafting story lines that, while informed by their own experiences, extend far beyond them. Young Thug might just be casting himself as a power broker in a fictional narrative, which, like so much hip-hop, portrays American society’s materialism and misogyny in their most extreme forms.
The use of rap lyrics in criminal cases has had dire consequences for hip-hop musicians, many of whom have few resources to defend themselves. In 2001, McKinley “Mac” Phipps Jr., a rapper with no criminal history, was convicted of manslaughter by an all-white jury because of his lyrics, despite a lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime and the fact that another man had already confessed. Phipps was finally granted clemency in 2021. Vonte Skinner, sentenced largely on the strength of rap lyrics to 30 years, had his conviction overturned in 2012, when a New Jersey appellate court found that prosecutors used “highly prejudicial lyrics” which “bore little or no probative value as to any motive or intent.” And after another man confessed, Nathaniel Woods appealed his death sentence for the murder of three Alabama police officers, only to have his appeal derailed when prosecutors cited rap lyrics he had supposedly written: “Seven execution-style murders / I have no remorse because I’m the fucking murderer.” The state killed Woods in 2020. Those lyrics were from a song by Dr. Dre.
Nielsen has uncovered nearly 600 cases in which rap lyrics were used against criminal defendants at trial. In a New York Times article, Jaeah Lee reported that she has found only four criminal cases since 1950 in which “fiction writing or lyrics” by non-rap artists “were considered to be evidence of assault or violent threats.”
Young Thug will likely remain in jail until his trial in January 2023. After his arrest, label heads Kevin Liles and Julie Greenwald launched the Petition to Protect Black Art, which calls the use of lyrics against rap artists “shameful and un-American.” A video promoting the petition features a voice-over by Young Thug: “I always use my music as a form of artistic expression, and I see now that Black artists and rappers don’t have that freedom,” he says. “Everybody please sign the Protect Black Art petition and keep praying for us. I love you all.”