Joe Coscarelli and Richard Fausset, New York Times, January 13, 2023
Day after day, the young men came before a judge, handcuffed, clad in county jumpsuits and answering to their government names rather than their rap monikers: Slimelife Shawty, Unfoonk, Lil Duke and even the chart-topper Gunna, who is nominated for two Grammy Awards at next month’s ceremony in Los Angeles.
Each pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge, some to other crimes. And each agreed, in open court, that the famed Atlanta rap crew they were associated with — YSL, headed by the enigmatic star 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,” Mr. Lee, 24, said.
The case has pitted law enforcement officials who say they are determined to stamp out a violent gang problem against those who see it as yet another moral panic inspired by rap, in a city with one of the most vibrant scenes in the nation. And it has once 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 of whom are now free after seven months in jail on probation or with requirements that they meet special conditions, 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. Jury selection began last week, and the judge estimates that the trial could last six to nine months.
Most remarkable among the remaining defendants is Mr. 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 hanging over his head, the man who fans worldwide have come to love as Young Thug — but whom prosecutors describe as a cutthroat gang leader — is now facing the prospect of growing old in prison.
The indictment charges Mr. Williams with participation in criminal street gang activity and of furthering the interest of a criminal conspiracy through a number of illegal acts; it does not charge him individually with most of those acts, which include accusations that he rented the car used in the murder of a rival gang leader and provided safe harbor for those responsible after the killing.
Mr. Williams has denied everything. “Jeffery is a kind, intelligent, hard-working, moral and thoughtful person,” his lawyer, Brian Steel, said in a statement, arguing that the rapper had been wrongly targeted by law enforcement because of his fictional persona. “Despite the unthinkable oppressive, impoverished and cruel conditions of his upbringing, he has been able to cultivate his creative genius to lawfully and ethically attain phenomenal worldwide success.”
The case has deeply shaken the pop culture universe, especially in Atlanta, Mr. Williams’s hometown, which can stake a claim as the hip-hop capital of the world. Fans, fellow artists, record executives and influential figures including Stacey Abrams, who was the Democratic nominee for governor last year, have sounded notes of concern, even outrage.
Some have accused the prosecutor, Fani T. Willis — the aggressive district attorney for Fulton County, a Black Democrat who is best known for pursuing the criminal investigation into postelection meddling in Georgia by former President Donald J. Trump — of applying a “gang stereotype” to Atlanta’s rap community, and putting Black art on trial.
The case has prompted an outcry, given how artists from the poorest parts of Atlanta have shaped global popular music. 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.
Ms. Willis contends that Atlanta is suffering from a plague of gang violence, estimating — with a hazy explanation for the figures — that up to 80 percent of violent crimes in the area are committed by gang members. She says that an eight-year war between YSL and a rival gang known as YFN, headed by another major-label rap artist, has accounted for more than 50 incidents.
So while many young Black men in Atlanta see an escape in turning their dire circumstances in neglected communities 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,” Don Geary, then a lawyer for the district attorney’s office, said in court last year.
Authenticity, an always slippery but foundational concept in hip-hop, has taken on even greater significance in the internet age. In places like Atlanta, it is a crucial selling point for the unflinching style of hip-hop known as trap music, which builds on earlier iterations of gangster rap and centers on the drug trade.
Atlanta was not traditionally a stronghold of the major national gangs that took root in prisons and cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. But as a rapidly gentrifying city with some of the highest income inequality in the nation — and in a state with some of the laxest gun laws — gang culture has changed.
Most common now, experts say, are what are known as “hybrid gangs”: looser constellations mixing members from various national sets, local crews and neighborhood cliques. These groups may have connections to the Bloods, Crips or Gangster Disciples, but often without their rules and hierarchies.
In places like Atlanta, law enforcement officials contend, it has become commonplace to align primarily with homegrown stars, who can offer aspirants prestige and money.
“The new color lines,” said Marissa Viverito, a gang investigator in Ms. Willis’s office, “are the rappers.”
Ms. Willis has expanded her anti-gang team and promised to make vigorous use of the state’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act and its Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act, or RICO. She charged Mr. Williams, or Young Thug, under both laws, and has done the same for his rival Rayshawn Bennett, the rapper known as YFN Lucci, and his associates.
Her beefed-up focus on gangs stands in contrast to other prosecutors, like George Gascón, the Los Angeles County district attorney, who in 2021 reduced, renamed and reorganized his office’s famous Hardcore Gang unit, moving away from a “purely prosecutorial model.”
Ms. Willis has faced criticism for her hard-line approach to gangs, especially her office’s use of rap lyrics in indictments, which critics say raises First Amendment concerns.
Lawyers for Mr. Williams have called the practice unconstitutional, arguing it is “racist and discriminatory because the jury will be so poisoned and prejudiced.”
Some critics are concerned that the justice system’s focus on young Black men seems to come at the expense of other issues, including Georgia’s white nationalist groups, and worry that Ms. Willis’s aggressive use of RICO statutes, which give prosecutors wide leeway, could wrap up innocent people.