WASHINGTON — Some of hip-hop’s biggest names are back on Capitol Hill. Just their names. The superstars — from Grammy-winning Young Thug to his alleged rival YFN Lucci — are currently in prison, in part, over their lyrics.
The racketeering cases putting chart-toppers behind bars are replete with salacious allegations of “murder, assault and threats of violence,” according to prosecutors. But the cases fall apart without the lyrics, according to the artists, their attorneys and advocates.
“It hurts when an indictment – the charging document – states rap lyrics as a basis for the issuance of the indictment,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) told Raw Story outside the U.S. Capitol. “Of course, the jury gets the indictment when they go out to deliberate. When you have that kind of decision making going on at the front end of a prosecution, you're almost guaranteeing at the back end what's going to happen.”
That’s why Johnson teamed up with Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and industry leaders to re-introduce their R.A.P. – Restoring Artistic Protection – Act, which would limit prosecutors' ability to use artist’s own lyrics against them in court.
The legislation applies to all musical genres, although as its name indicates, the R.A.P. Act is especially aimed at today’s hip-hop generation. (The feds, after all, never went after Johnny Cash for shooting a man in Reno, supposedly, just to watch him die.)
For decades now, the FBI has tied rap to gang culture, accusing some artists of laundering money through record labels to fuel their lawless lifestyles.
More than 500 hip-hop artists have had rap lyrics used against them in court, according to a new Hulu documentary, “Rap Trap: Hip Hop on Trial.” The targeting dates back decades: In 1989, the feds sent an ominous letter to N.W.A. over their hit, F— tha Police. In 1993, then-Snoop Doggy Dogg beat a murder charge, even after lyrics of his song “Murder Was the Case” was played for the jury. In the early 2000s, as Wu-Tang Clan was upending hip-hop, the FBI was compiling a thick file that accused members of being a gang laundering money through music.
Since the early aughts, trap music — slower, grittier, realer — has outshined its gangsta rap predecessor. Birthed out of contemporary southern culture where the trap — or “drug” — house is the biggest job creator in miles, is attracting federal attention.
Creatives emerging from these communities — some where it’s easier to get guns than fresh veggies — have different stories to tell. Their songs paint vivid and violent portraits of the everyday life of millions of Americans living in government-sponsored-blight-turned-warzones. Today’s raw lyrics have been weaponized against a slew of today’s top artists, includingTekashi 6ix9ine,Fetty Wap,Casanova andKay Flock.
In Atlanta, rap lyrics are being used as bludgeons to dismantle entire record labels. In 2016, Young Thug — who’s performed on Saturday Night Live and collaborated with the likes of Elton John, Nicki Minaj and Camilla Cabello — founded YSL, which stands for Young Stoner Life Records. It’s been a launching pad for young artists, like Gunna and Lil Keed.
To prosecutors, it’s a front. They say YSL stands for Young Slime Life gang. Last May, Fulton County, Georgia’s tough-on-crime District Attorney Fani T. Willis — a Democrat who’s investigating former President Donald Trump over whether he attempted to illegally tamper with her state’s 2020 presidential results — slapped Young Thug (born as Jeffery Williams), Gunna (or Sergio Kitchens, who has since taken anAlford plea) and26 other YSL affiliates with state RICO — racketeer influenced and corrupt organizations — charges.
Georgia investigators allege YSL is actually a deadly “criminal street gang” affiliated with the California-born Bloods gang. Prosecutors accuse the defendants of racketeering, murders, home invasions, trafficking, carjackings and weapons charges. Young Thug alone is accused of illegally possessing a sawed-off shotgun, machine gun and silencer.
Willis says YSL’s beef with studio and street rivals, YFN Lucci (Rayshawn Bennett, per his birth certificate) has resulted in upward of 50 murders or gun fights between the two crews in the past eight years. She’s also used RICO, social media posts and music videos in a against 26 members of the Drug Rich 220-count indictment tied to 13 home invasions in the Atlanta area – including the likes of Mariah Carey’s $5 million pad – some of which allegedly involved kidnapping, attempted murder, aggravated assault, terroristic threats and illegal weapons.
And prosecutors are using the artist’s own tweets, videos and lyrics to make their case against them.
a year before YSL, the Atlanta DA charged YFN Lucci & crew—YSL’s alleged rivals—with a RICO
he's been in jail ever since, almost 2 years, & still has no trial date bc it was bumped in favor of Thug's
lawyers pushing for emergency bond, noting he was stabbed in jail+quoting MLK pic.twitter.com/g3NMzsrEge
— Joe Coscarelli (@joecoscarelli) February 2, 2023
“I’m in the VIP and got that pistol on my hip, you prayin that you live I’m prayin that hit, hey, this that slime s—,” part ofthe 88-page indictment reads. “F—, f— the police (f—’em), in high speed,” “huindred [sic] rounds in Tahoe,” “I’m prepared to take em down,” “got banana clips for all these niggas actin monkey”.
The court has gone 1,200 potential jurors, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And they all know hip-hop is central to the case, because, according to local station 11Alive, each is forced to sit through three hours of Judge Ural Glanville’s monotone reading of Young Thug’s hits.
The bonkers — and livestreamed — court proceedings are made for TMZ. Evidence has leaked. One YSL defense attorney was arrested. The judge tossed one prospective juror in jail for three days for filming part of the proceedings. Another potential juror skipped town, then was assigned a 30-page essay (10 primary sources and 10 secondary sources required) on the importance of jury duty.
While some of the defendants cut plea deals — including Gunna — jury selection alone for 14 members of YSL has now stretched into its fifth month. Once the court settles on what suffices as a jury of YSL’s peers, the trial itself is expected to last six- to nine months, with the state promising it has some 300 witnesses. Young Thug says the case and system are racist, through and through.
Young Thug: Judge reads out rapper's explicit anti-police lyrics in court 👀https://t.co/V6FNeAyMyfpic.twitter.com/MiOewAWroQ
— HipHopDX (@HipHopDX) January 7, 2023
"You know, this isn't about me or YSL," Young Thug said from prison in a video recorded for a stadium full of fans at last year’s Summer Jam, which he had been slated to play. “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.”
In the video, Young Thug encouraged fans to sign the Protect Black Art petition on Change.org, which – at the time of this writing – has 84,848 signatures.
The trial is being watched by artists of A-list stature, including the likes of Jay-Z, Fat Joe, Big Sean, Killer Mike, Drake, John Legend, Alicia Keys and Megan Thee Stallion.
It’s not just an overzealous DA, as her critics claim. It’s also a federal issue. Less than a month ago, on April 5, the federal Department of Justice used RICO charges and hip-hop lyrics to build a case that resulted in Devon Powell — known as ‘Smuppy’ on Baltimore’s streets — receiving a 20-year prison sentence.
Democrats say this practice must stop, and they’ve seen some progress, at least at the state level.
In 2014, for example, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in most cases rap lyrics can’t be used against defendants.
Last year, California became the first state to pass a law protecting artists from their own lyrics. In New York, the state Senate passed a “Rap Music on Trial” bill — which still allows prosecutors to use lyrics, but only if they provide “clear and convincing evidence” they were meant literally — but it still needs to make its way through the state Assembly.
Back at the Capitol, Johnson is a lawyer by trade who serves on the House Judiciary Committee. On paper, at least, the committee oversees the nation’s courts. He’s hoping the committee’s effort will impact some of the current cases slowly grinding their way through the system.
“I think jurors, or potential, prospective jurors are not immune from this kind of information. They are being educated on cutting through to get to the wheat from the chaff,” Johnson says.
Many in Hollywood also have these musician’s backs. Rap music is “folk music,” according to actorFran Drescher, president ofSAG-AFTRA, the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
The actor of “The Nanny” fame was at the Capitol last week, lobbying lawmakers alongside representatives of the Recording Academy and for two back-to-back Grammys On the Hill 2023 lobbying days. They came to plead with lawmakers to protect artistic freedom, arguing the issue cuts to the heart of democracy.
“It is their right to express themselves, because they're expressing the voice of people,” Drescher says.
It’s not just about prison. Music is life to Bowman, a member of Congress now in his second term. He says hip-hop’s been essential to keeping hope alive in impoverished Black communities nationwide.
“Our creativity is our humanity. And our art is our air. If you crush our art, you take away our air – you choke us off from breathing and participating in a democracy,” Bowman says. “I would not be here without the movies and music that inspired me.
“Imagine being a young Black teenager in New York City and watching the movie ‘Do the Right Thing’ directed by Spike Lee? The story ofRadio Raheem. The story ofSal’s Pizza. The story ofno Black people on the wall. Now I'm in Congress in 2020 walking around asking, ‘Where the hell are the Black people on the wall?’”
In the 1980s, asTipper Gore was in Washington wagingher successful battle to slap warning labels on albums she deemed offensive, the Bronx representative was a kid being inspired on the streets. Bowman says he’d be nothing — and certainly not a federal lawmaker — without the classic hip-hop that was the soundtrack of his youth.
“I wouldn't be here if it wasn't forEric B. and Rakim,Big Daddy Kane,KRS-One,X Clan,Public Enemy,Brand Nubian. IfRakim didn't tell me, ‘with knowledge of self, there's nothing I can't solve,’ I never would have pursued knowledge of self, which gave me the self-esteem and self-worth to be standing here before you today. Think about that,” Bowman says.
The tropes about “gangsta” rap from the 1980s and 1990s persist today. While dangerous on one level, painful on another, Bowman says the tropes have always been laughable.
“I could differentiate betweenNWA’s music and how I should behave in society. I didn't want to go mimic what they were saying. I knew it was them expressing what was going on in their community and them sensationalizing certain things,” Bowman says of the group’s lyrics book filled with references to sex, drugs and general mayhem. “That's what artists do. That's what Stephen King does. That's what George Lucas does.”
Before being sent to Washington, Bowman served as a teacher, guidance counselor and middle school principal. He now sits on the powerful House Education and Workforce Committee whose actions reverberate in classrooms coast to coast. Even with his devotion to American education and public schools, Bowman says hip-hop was his best teacher growing up.
“It's not just rhythm and poetry. It's foreshadowing. It's personification. It's literature. It's compare and contrast. It’s education. When KRS-One made ‘You Must Learn,’ I learned more from that song than I did my entire K to 12 education experience,” Bowman says, before rapping some of the lyrics from memory:
Eli Whitney, Haile Selassie,
Granville Woods made the walkie-talkie
Lewis Latimer improved on Edison
Charles Drew did a lot for medicine
“I guarantee you I just said something in those six bars that many of you didn't even know,” Bowman says, “because the K-12 school system did not do it, so hip-hop had to come and do it.”
It’s not just rap – and also Trap – music. Fran Drescher warns, allowing prosecutors to use artist’s lyrics against them has broad implications throughout society.
“If we continue to see a little bit of our rights taken away here and a little bit of our rights taken away there – not even just about music, but about books, about so many things, women's rights, gay rights, people of color, everything, voter rights,” Drescher says. “We have to be highly attuned to this, because otherwise we become like the frog in the pot of water. Oh, realizes that he's dead before he even jumps out of the pot.”
The R.A.P. Act is also supported by theRecording Academy,Black Music Coalition (BMAC), theGrammys Awards, among other groups.
For Angelique Kidjo, freedom of expression is what drew her and millions others to America. The singer songwriter hails from the West African nation of Benin and says the notion of arresting someone based on their writings is something she’d expect in repressive countries such China or the strongmen many African nations have endured over the decades.
“The First Amendment is colorless – it’s colorblind. It’s for all of us,” Kidjo says. “[Under] the First Amendment of the Constitution, everybody has the right to speak freely.”
Music was everywhere on Capitol Hill last week, as dozens of artists, advocates and industry representatives were simultaneously pushing the HITS – or Help Independent Tracks Succeed – Act andthe American Music Fairness Act. And they’re pushing lawmakers to overhaul ticketing in this new Ticketmaster-Live Nation dominated world of bots, resellers and staggeringly high-priced ticket fees; money that artists never see. American music’s going through digital convulsions — and if artists aren’t paid we don’t have this conversation, because the feds can’t prosecute superstars we never heard of, right? — The R.A.P. Act is their top priority.
Besides the First Amendment, Johnson says grassroots momentum fuels them. He’s brought evidence to back his claim. Earlier this year, Hulu dropped the painfully eye-opening “Rap Trap: Hip-Hop on Trial” – an expose on the racism infused into anti-hip-hop.
Johnson says the effort is even attracting conservative support. That’s because, in part, hip-hop is what everyone’s kids listen to these days. In Missouri, Republican state Rep. Phil Christofanelli is pushing his colleagues to pass the R.A.P. Act locally. A similar effort is underway in Louisiana, and Johnson says he expects Republicans here in Washington to get the memo.
“They understand the commercial aspect of it,” Johnson says. “Rap music is the top music genre, in terms of sales, generating the most income. You don't want to cut that off. Money talks.”
Though, this time, it’s not all about the Benjamins. It’s about art. It’s about inventors. Dreamers.
“We're made up of storytellers, creators, all different types of artists, and we must allow all of these artists to continue to create their art,” Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. told the small number of congressional reporters covering the event being live-streamed to more than 4,000, presumably outside the Beltway. “To continue to create their magic, to create their inspiration.”