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On The Criminalising Of Rap Music

For
black youth in America, there can be only three ways out of
the ghetto: athletics, music or drug dealing. And for every
individual who succeeds in making it out, dozens more attach
themselves to their celebrity crews in order to bask in the
reflected glory, and partake of the lifestyle. And what rap
musician can afford to turn their back entirely on the
‘hood, when staying street and staying real is what their
audience demands of them?

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.”

Exactly.

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:

© Scoop Media

 

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