Art or evidence? Rap lyrics used in charges against Atlanta rappers

Rap lyrics being used against indicted Atlanta rappers
Published: May. 11, 2022 at 6:28 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - Rap lyrics are being used as evidence in a major gang bust allegedly involving two Atlanta rappers. But the Fulton County District Attorney’s office faces criticism for it as some lawyers consider it an “overreach.”

“By saying that ‘we’re using lyrics that a rapper’s using,’ that would basically put everybody that raps out of business or in jail based on those words. Under that logic, Johnny Cash has killed multiple people because his music talks about killing multiple people,” said attorney Manny Arora.

Arora has prosecuted suspects on behalf of the state and defended them too. The former Fulton County Assistant district attorney now has his own law firm where he learned of the indictment announcement Tuesday.

The nearly 100-page indictment accuses Atlanta rappers Young Thug and Gunna, along with 26 others, of engaging in gang activity connected to the local gang named Young Slime Life, known as YSL.

Fulton County officials claim various songs implicate murder and mob life.

But Arora argues this legal strategy disproportionately targets Black artists who may just be bluffing for street cred or entertainment when they rap about violence or crime.

“It’s stereotyping everything and it’s unfortunate that’s what it’s come to,” the former Assistant DA explained.

Fellow attorney Devin Rufus, who represents suspects on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), or gang-related charges, also claims the strategy is prejudicial.

“Most the rap is younger African American gentlemen, especially in Atlanta.” Rufus adds, “I think it’s wrong, it’s an art. It should constitutionally -- it should be constitutionally protected free speech.”

Fulton DA Fanni Willis said in Tuesday’s press conference that she fully expected questions surrounding this very topic.

She maintained her office has every right to rely on the lyrics. Officials cite the lyrics as often brazen and a part of a years-long criminal pattern.

“I believe in the first amendment. It is one of our most precious rights.” Willis continued, “However, the first amendment does not protect people from prosecutor’s using it as evidence if it is such. In this case, we put it as ‘overt, predicate act’ in the RICO count, because we believe that’s exactly what it is. "

But big artist names, including rappers like JAY-Z, are pushing for legislation even in New York against this. It’s why attorney’s Rufus and Arora believe RICO or gang laws need to be more narrowly defined, limiting what content is considered admissible in court.

“The fact that you’re talking about violence or this or that, it doesn’t prove anything.” Arora told CBS46, “it just brings in bad character evidence.”

CBS46 reached out to the Fulton DA’s office for additional comment, but we have not yet heard back.

Both Young Thug and Gunna are expected to seek bond in later court appearances.