By Alejandro Hernandez
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution officially states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Among many of the rights that it protects for us, is our artistic expression. However, there is one art form that seems to be an exception to these protections: Hip-hop music.
In the last month, 28 members of the Atlanta-based hip-hop label Young Stoner Life (YSL), most notably Young Thug and Gunna, have been charged with 56 indictments of different RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) charges including armed robbery, aggravated assault, and murder. Leading these charges is Fani Willis, the Fulton County District Attorney who previously indicted rapper YFN Lucci along with 11 others with 105 RICO charges in 2021. Part of the evidence that the courts are using in both YFN and YSL’s cases are song lyrics and visuals from music videos.
Imagine yourself in Young Thug’s shoes for a moment. You’re born and raised in a difficult environment plagued by violence, police surveillance, and inaccessibility to wealth and resources. You do what it takes to survive in that environment while using your musical talent to become a successful career artist. You may draw on some of your lived experiences for inspiration, and after enough time, you become discovered by a label and change your life forever. In time, you invest your own money and resources into creating your own label so that you can help others that were once in your position, and you’re able to do so with great success, discovering future stars like Lil Baby, Gunna, and the late Lil Keed. Then, all that labor and effort comes crashing down with the very art you made to build your empire being used against you in the court of law. It’s fucked up, isn’t it?
While the YSL indictment is the most recent and most high profile of any similar, there has already been an ugly precedent set against rappers by the judicial system of the United States going as far back as the FBI surveilling NWA following the release of “Fuck Tha Police” in 1988. In an interview with Crime Report in 2019, authors of the book “Rap On Trial” Erik Nielsen and Andrea Dennis estimated as many as 500 cases in which rap lyrics were used as evidence, some of which successfully imprisoned artists going as far back as 1990.
As mentioned earlier YFN Lucci was indicted after prosecutors used his lyrics and social media posts as proof of his ties to Bloods. In an article written for Complex earlier this month, Andre Gee points out “In January 2021, the state of Maryland ruled that rap lyrics were permissible as evidence of guilt… The ruling set a dangerous precedent for prosecutors in other states to follow.” following the sentencing of a man who recited lyrics through a jail phone to a friend. This directly contradicts to alleged right to artistic expression that is supposed to be protected by the first amendment.
It’s no coincidence that this direct criminalization of hip-hop most directly affects young Black and Brown artists, as this is just another example of America’s long history of systemic racism. This creates a double standard with other artistic mediums. Think of how many popular films depict white men committing violence. Not only are the filmmakers absolved from any guilt toward committing a crime (and rightfully so) but those films are often glorified in our culture, which is it’s own separate conversation. Many classic rock and country songs also depict violent crimes, but you’ve never heard of a case in which Freddie Mercury was put on trial for murder after singing “Mama, I killed a man/Pulled my trigger now, now he’s dead.” However, hip-hop artists are often blamed for poisoning their community with the music they make that’s just a reflection of social inequities that already exist in the hood.
In Chicago, we witnessed Rahm Emmanuel close 50 schools in the South and West sides in 2013, yet he pinned the crime rates on drill artists, most notably Chief Keef who is effectively banned from the city due to outstanding warrants for his arrest. In New York today, history is repeating itself. In a separate article for Complex, Andre Gee writes about mayor Eric Adams’ expressed intentions to ban drill music completely from social media, claiming that the genre is contributing to the number of violent crimes.
Currently, the status quo of America stands that white men can draw inspiration from violence for artistic purposes, but when a Black person does it, it’s taken as a literal threat to society. The response of politicians is reactive, turning the musicians behind hip-hop into scapegoats for their city’s crimes instead of addressing the structural racism at the root of the issue. Our elected officials should be taking a proactive approach by funding Black and Brown communities through education, healthcare resources, and better employment opportunities, however, that would require them to relinquish their positioning within the existing power dynamics of class and race in this county.
The current YSL indictment should be treated with the utmost serious conviction. Young Thug recently urged fans to sign a Protect Black Art petition that calls for the limitation of using art as criminal evidence. Gunna just published an open letter in which he claims his innocence, vowing to fight against these charges that are an infringement of his rights. It’s important that we fight too. If this is what courts can do against high-profile artists, imagine the type of punishment they inflict on smaller independent artists with less funds and legal resources. White America simultaneously punishes and profits off the stories of Black artists every day, and will continue to do so until we all collectively decide to shake the table instead of seeking a seat at it.
Whether or not you’re an artist or even a fan of hip-hop at all, it’s important to organize with our communities and take a stand every day against the system that continually polices every aspect of the lives of Black and poor people. Hip-hop is the most consumed and influential art form that exists today after being born from working class Black and Caribbean immigrants who simply found a new way to express themselves freely with the limited resources they had in the first place. If we truly want to continue progressing the culture forward, we have to actively protect it. In order to ensure we never give up the fight to protect it though, we have to understand the historical and racial implications of its existence in the first place.