Gordon Campbell on the criminalising of rap music

thugga2As a reader has forcefully pointed out, the original opening sentence to this article could be read as perpetuating racist tropes. My apologies. My intention had been the exact opposite. To make the intended meaning crystal clear, I’ve written a new opening sentence to this article.

As the work of the US sociologist William Julius Wilson has shown, inner city youth tend to have limited options when it comes to the pursuit of social mobility – and that’s especially the case if they happen to live in areas with high concentrations of poverty.

Moreover… If the escape from slum life has been a narrow one, chances are this parallel universe will be tapped into for creative inspiration – and as a connection to fans who still have to face those realities every day. And that’s where things become deeply problematic. Because America’s white Establishment – and its enforcement arms– are treating the fantasy worlds of rap music as a real life mission statement. Rap lyrics are being treated not as imaginary deeds, but as a confession statement.

At an accelerating rate, the U. S. justice system has been using rap lyrics in court as evidence of actual crimes. The New York Times recently explored an this example of a 17 year old teenager committed to life behind bars by a jury asked to treat the rap lyrics he had written as evidence. We’ve been here before of course, with the West Memphis Three, the notorious case in which a moral panic about heavy metal lyrics and black clothes put three teenagers behind bars for a decade, and landed one of them on Death Row.

Earlier this month, a D.A. in Atlanta ordered the arrest of the hugely successful/influential rap star Young Thug, his protege Gunna (and over 20 members of Thug’s entourage) and charged them with serious crimes including criminal racketeering, via Georgia’s 1981 version of the so-called RICO statutes. Thug himself faced only two charges under the original indictment – conspiracy to violate the RICO Act and participation in criminal street gang activity. Under RICO, consorting with criminals, (or “supporting” their behaviours in any way imaginable) can in itself comprise a criminal offence. (A subsequent search of his house led to the discovery of some weapons and drugs, leading to additional felony charges.)

Some centre-right politicians in New Zealand have made similar noises about needing further tools to prosecute gang members and their associates. The US criminalisation of rap lyrics – despite the safeguards the US Constitution supposedly provides for free speech and artistic freedom– has implications for this country as well, given that we have hate crimes legislation waiting in the wings.

Behold, The Conspiracy.

Young Thug is accused of fraternising with people who allegedly did a range of bad stuff – and these crimes were taken to be somewhat similar to what Young Thug had sometimes written about in his lyrics, thereby allegedly rendering him guilty of supporting the crimes at issue.

The prosecutors claim Thug co-founded YSL (his record label and crew Young Stoner Life ) 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.”

For nine years, the police have combed through Young Thug lyrics looking for clues. Their findings include these examples cited in the indictment as evidence of criminal intent and collusion:

“I’m not new to this, hey, I’m so true to this, hey, done put whole slime on hunnid licks.”

“I escaped every one of the licks cause I was supposed to be rich / I don’t care nothing ’bout no cop, I’m just tellin’ you how it is.”

“I had to break in the safe, yeah, and I didn’t leave ’em a trace.”

“All I ever wanted was the money, put your hands in the air if you dare, any motherfucker to step over here, F&N put em in a wheelchair.” [The indictment lists that lyric as “an overt act in furtherance of the Conspiracy.”]

“I red just like Elmo / but I never fuckin giggle.”

Huh? Part of Young Thug’s appeal has always been grounded in his unpredictably emotional delivery, often accentuated by a fevered incoherence that sounds more like he’s ad-libbing messages to himself, rather than giving instructions to the troops. The word “red” cited above is – according to cops – provides objective evidence that Thug owes some kind of allegiance to the Bloods. And “green” or “slime” is a supportive reference to the YSL record label and crew – but by police definition YSL is really some sort of criminal street gang. The entire indictment is available here.

Read it and be amazed. The alleged “Conspiracy” (I love the upper case) is broken down into three sections: “The Conspiracy,” “The Enterprise,” and “Acts in Furtherance of the Conspiracy.” Most of the rap lyrics quoted fall into part three. Supposedly, they comprise a coded signal that’s obvious to those in the know, and that’s meant to advance the aims of The Conspiracy.

In total, the charging documents list more than 180 different acts by Thug and the YSL crew that allegedly aided the Conspiracy. They include the ritualistic way the defendants rub their noses ( it’s a signal of gang membership!) how they point their fingers when they’re mimicking firing a gun (one of their fingers points backwards at themselves!) what words they use (The word “Slatt” ? It really means Slime Love All The Time! Who knew…) Is this a criminal gang, or a bunch of kids in a treehouse?

You thought Young Thug was a musician? Thank the Lord the cops listened to his songs for nine years, and deduced that they were actually signals meant to advance and glamourise his crew’s nefarious activities:

[They include] instances of alleged members getting YSL tattoos, wearing clothing and accessories that say “slime,” and a small trove of Thug lyrics that prosecutors are likening to gang propaganda.

Obviously, a menace to society. ‘Cuff him.

Crime by entourage

How did we get to this point? The federal RICO laws of criminal association were created in the early 1970s to crush organised crime and to bring the likes of John Gotti to justice. These days, they’re being used to pursue rap crews as if they were criminal gangs, and to treat trash-talking musicians as if they were crime lords.

Indictments have been issued against high profile rap artists (such as Young Thug or in another example, Bobby Schmurda ) because their success has financed the extravagant lifestyle that their crews and hangers-on have been able to enjoy. Typically, such crews are more like Elvis and his buddies at Graceland than like a variant on the Cosa Nostra. Significantly, the indictment doesn’t credit the community welfare projects YSL has also bankrolled.

Arguably, the most serious crime in the entire indictment is the drive-by shooting of one Donovan Thomas Jnr in 2015. This murder has been linked to Thug because several people now accused of the crime allegedly used a 2014 Q50 sedan from among the limousine fleet of cars rented by Thug. There is no evidence that he sanctioned the crime. In fact, the Thug indictment contains nothing remotely comparable to say, the rapper 6ix9ine filming the robbery and assault that’s been central to his prosecution.

One of the imprisoned Thomas suspects – YFN Lucci who turned himself in back in January 2021– is being widely accused on social media of co-operating with the authorities in order to implicate Young Thug, in return for favours. In March 2022 YFN Lucci broke the bail conditions on the very first day of his release by going immediately to a strip club and a recording studio, and he has been promptly re-imprisoned.

While in prison, YFN Lucci has allegedly been attacked and wounded, although the official incident report on the incident hardly casts him as a defenceless victim :

According to the incident report — obtained by TMZ — both YFN and another inmate possessed sharp objects during a fight. Guards attempted to separate the men, using tasers, but they had little effect … during the fight, Lucci allegedly yelled, “I feel like killing this n****!”

Yep, he certainly sounds like a trustworthy fount of evidence for the prosecution. However, Atlanta’s Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has made no apology for her reliance on dubious sources:

Willis said social media and music played a crucial role in the investigation into Young Thug and his associates.“Social media is a wonderful tool for prosecutors in every indictment we bring these days,” Willis said.

Every indictment is based on social media and rap lyrics? Good grief. Willis also has a tendency to exaggerate for maximum media impact At the same press conference, Willis claimed Thomas Jr’s death marked the beginning of “violence like Atlanta has never seen.” Clearly, Willis has never heard of the Atlanta race riot of 1906. Or even of the Atlanta Rebellion of 1966.

New Zealand’s own moral panics over rap

Thirty years ago, the New Zealand police instigated a nationwide campaign against a proposed solo concert tour by Ice T, in protest at the lyrics contained in the song “Cop Killer” by his group Body Count. “ Having heard a tape of their music,” Auckland senior sergeant Graham Bell said at the time, “I don’t think its the sort of thing New Zealand audiences should be exposed to. “

Hmm. The day the police get to decide what songs are too much for us to bear, would be the day we officially become a police state. “Cop Killer” became synonymous with the 1990s style loosely described as “gangsta rap”. Much of the genre has consisted of cries of rage from communities ravaged by poverty, unemployment and welfare cuts.

From the merciless beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers in 1991, to the killing of George Floyd in 2020, black communities have been given every reason to regard the police as their jailers and persecutors, and not as their guardians.

In that sense, the violent and fantastical content of many rap lyrics are what Ice Cube once called “revenge fantasies” by the powerless. Much of the misogyny in rap music, while inexcusable, can similarly be read as fantasies of male potency and empowerment by men rendered powerless in real life. (In sharp contrast, the misogyny commonplace in rock music tends to be treated more leniently, as boys being boys.)

“I’m singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality,” Ice T once explained, long before he became a loveable presence on afternoon reality television. “I ain’t never killed no cop. I felt like it a lot of times. But I never did it. If you believe that I’m a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut.”.

Far more recently, members of the rap group Odd Future were refused entry visas in 2014 by NZ immigration authorities who said the group “has been deemed to be a potential threat to public order.”

It’s a section in our legislation we don’t use very often, but they are clearly on the extreme edge of the music spectrum” [said an immigration official] explaining that the law is more commonly used to block the entry of Holocaust deniers, Hells Angels bikers or hard-line Muslim preachers.

Finally and spectacularly, two Eminem records – the Slim Shady LP and the Marshall Mathters LP – fell afoul of censorship in New Zealand just over 20 years ago, again because of their anti-social lyric content. The reasoning involved makes interesting reading today. Bill Hastings, the Chief Censor at the time, described Eminem’s music as “sugar coated poison.” The Censor’s review of the Slim Shady record is available here. The Censor’s verdict on the Mathers album is here.

Presumably, record retailers can still face three months in prison and a NZ$10,000 fine for selling either of those albums to anyone aged under 18. Given this track record, there’s no reason to feel complacent about the purposes to which even a well meant statute on hate speech might be put further down the track. Just as RICO has been put to other uses, there is an inherent risk of mission creep – from white supremacists to those far less deserving of legal restrictions on their speech.

Crime by Entourage

Over the past decade, only Kendrick Lamar has matched Young Thug’s chart success and creative influence. As the L.A Times recently reported:

For today’s generation of hip-hop fans, Young Thug is as influential and visionary as OutKast was to previous eras of rappers. His oft-imitated style — melancholy and machine-tweaked, yet melodic and flamboyant — places him right beside Future as the defining act of contemporary Southern rap. His reach goes beyond that, though: acts such as Lil Uzi Vert, Juice Wrld and Lil Nas X absorbed his radical aesthetics and peacocking subversions, taking them to pop radio and the Grammy stage.

Critics have likened theYoung Thug prosecution as being the equivalent to charging Leonardo Di Caprio with financial crimes because of his role in Wolf of Wall Street. Or arresting Al Pacino for making cocaine look so glamorous in Scarface. Much of the police reasoning seems entirely circular :

Prosecutors claim in the indictment that Young Thug’s YSL crew engaged in criminal activity in “protecting and enhancing the reputation, power and territory of the enterprise,” thus “demonstrating allegiance to the enterprise and a willingness to engage in violence on its behalf.”

See what they did? YSL is first postulated to be a criminal crew. Therefore, fidelity to it and fraternising with any of its members can then be treated as a criminal undertaking for which every YSL associate can be held jointly responsible – thereby “proving” the original postulate.

This circle jerk by the authorities “proves” YSL to be a gang, and a criminal enterprise. It’s such a selective process, and one exclusively targeted at black individuals, black artists and black popular culture. If they had RICO laws at the time, would the cops have ever tossed Frank Sinatra in jail, for hanging out with mobsters in Vegas? Of course not.

No doubt, bad things do happen to some people in poorer parts of Atlanta. Yet because there was a murder and the body was never found, is it really fair to try and make Young Thug responsible because he once wrote a lyric (for the track “Anybody”) that included these lines:

I got a Smith & in the bag now
I’m gettin’ all type of cash, I’m a general true (Hey)

I never killed anybody (Body)
But I got something to do with that body

In his dreams. Unfortunately, Young Thug’s dreams have now been criminalised.

Footnote: Rap has been popular music’s dominant style for the past 40 years. True, many people still do not like it one little bit. Each to their taste, right? Yet whenever this column has featured a rap track as a footnote, angry email traffic will inevitably arrive along the lines of “ This isn’t music” and “You can’t really like this garbage…”

Evidently the US authorities believe that a middle aged white jury that dislikes rap music just as vehemently will readily conclude that only a very bad person could think such anti-social thoughts, or write such unwholesome lyrics. They’ll therefore be more willing to overlook lapses elsewhere in the prosecution case, and vote to convict. As the rapper Meek Mill says:

Thug and Gunna ain’t no crime bosses, they successful rappers with influence that didn’t leave their environment behind… If you bring your environment with you it’s basically RICO. Watch yourself out here…

It must be shooting fish in a barrel to trace six degrees of separation between Young Thug, some YSL members and some criminal elements and actions. You could do the same with almost any other black celebrity. Yet to inflate that connection into framing Young Thug as the crime lord sitting at the centre of a vast criminal spiderweb follows a sadly familiar pattern. As Meek Mill also says :

“YSL is a registered LLC and has provided countless jobs and opportunities for underprivileged black people and really just all people cause that’s how big Thug heart is. I’ve seen first handed thousands of black people and their families lives changed for the better over the past 10 years – [but] now they are trying to cut the head off the snake because they see how much bigger it gets every year.

“They get terrified every time an iconic black leader emerges with so much influence, respect, power, and appeal so they throw some bullshit charges together to lock him up and slow the movement down. Look at American history. It’s been a pattern for 100+ years.”


And finally… The music.

In light of his arrest, Young Thug’s track ”Safe” sems even more incoherent, tormented and melancholy than it did back in 2017:

The arrest also carries strong echoes of the startling, Grammy winning track “This is America” that Young Thug co-wrote with Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino, who wrote and stars in the TV series Atlanta. Thug wrote some of the lyrics for “This Is America” and sings backing vocals on it. Be successful. But if you’re black in America, you will never be safe: