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The charges against Young Thug build on a growing trend of criminalizing rap crews

Last week, the Fulton County District Attorney in Atlanta charged rappers Young Thug and Gunna with an indictment of more than 80 pages for allegedly participating in street gang activities and violating RICO law — that's short for "Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization" — a law that was originally designed to fight organized crime like the mafia.

The indictment names "Young Slime Life," Young Thug's rap collective, as a street gang, and the rapper as its founder. But these latest charges and arrest fit within a larger web of how the criminal justice system is using RICO to prosecute hip-hop artists. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe spoke with NPR Music podcast Louder Than A Riot co-hosts Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael about how the definition of "gang" is being applied to rap crews.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio version above.

Ayesha Rascoe, Weekend Edition: Can you talk about the connections between the criminal justice system and rappers? Rappers getting caught up in doing time is not uncommon, right?

Rodney Carmichael: The truth is rappers — at least in this country — are predominantly Black. That means nine times out of 10, they're coming from communities that are historically over policed. Just like walking while Black was likely to get you stopped and frisked in New York in the early 2000s, rapping while Black would definitely land you in the surveillance lineup of the NYPD's hip-hop dossier back then.

Obviously Black people in America are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. But these RICO laws were designed to target organized crime — the mob, people like John Gotti, these very institutionalized organizations. But now we're seeing it applied to rap crews or what the police are calling gangs.

Sidney Madden: RICO is most commonly used as a tactic to sweep up entire street gangs, and the definition of a street gang gets real spongy when you look at it in Black communities. When prosecutors apply RICO to rap, it's not just the rappers getting caught up in the system, but it's their whole crew and their whole entourage. Everyone is being roped in and classified as a gang member.

Basically, it allows prosecutors to hold anyone and everyone in an entire group responsible for the worst things someone in their circle has done. So if you're a rapper and you associate with people engaging in criminal activity — maybe y'all grew up on the same block, maybe you used to run the same streets before you switched into entertainment, maybe you brought them with you out of the streets into entertainment — prosecutors can use all that and use RICO laws to brand y'all as an organized crime syndicate.

When you're casting a big net like that, the complication to me would seem to be this idea of — I grew up with these people. These are my friends, these are my brothers. So, yeah, we hang out. But that seems a bit different than the mob, where there was a very strict hierarchy and structure. I guess what I'm asking is, what does it mean to be a gang?

Carmichael: That's a good question. It's one that we really asked and puzzled over a lot in season one of Louder Than A Riot. In our reporting for that season, we talked to this gang expert and academic, Babe Howell, and she really broke down for us this difference between gangs in the more organized sense and just neighborhood crews that are way more unorganized and typically driven by juveniles — by young folk who grew up around each other and who, she says, studies show are really more likely to grow out of that youthful criminal phase, unless they get caught up in the system. RICO, when it's applied to rap stars, a lot of times the rappers are not the ones accused of the most egregious crimes. But because of their celebrity, and sometimes the belief that they're bankrolling the whole operation, they are often painted as the proverbial kingpins.

The other thing that makes these hip-hop arrests unique is that a lot of times, the lyrics and the music videos that they make are used as part of the indictment. That's a growing trend where hip-hop is being used; instead of just as art, [it's] being used as, no, this is evidence that they are in a gang, that they're all together and that they're engaging in criminal activity.

Madden: This is a trend that's really loud right now in the public consciousness. But it's actually a practice of criminalizing hip-hop, or just Black music in general, that's a pattern that stretches way, way far back in America's history. When it comes to rap lyrics being put on trial, just last year the state of Maryland's highest appeal court ruled that the lyrics are admissible as evidence in criminal cases. This decision stemmed from a murder case conviction where the defendant was sentenced to 50 years. His lyrics, which he rapped over a jail payphone three weeks before the start of his trial, were taken by the judge as a criminal confession.

Meanwhile, in New York, there's a bill being introduced to actually limit the use of rap lyrics being used in criminal cases as evidence. But this bill is still being debated in the New York Senate. In 2019, the Supreme Court refused to hear a "lyrics on trial case," despite a lot of big name artists like Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill and Killer Mike all pushing for it. Decisions like these continue to set legal precedents, and because it happens almost exclusively in hip-hop it's almost impossible to see it through a lens other than a racial one.

When it comes to rap lyrics, they are taken literally. But just because you rap about selling drugs doesn't mean you actually sold drugs. Sometimes people are just fronting, or they're telling stories that they see about other people, right?

Carmichael: It speaks to another thing we talked about a lot in the first season [of LOTR] which is the fact that the artistic merits of hip-hop are not judged in the same way that they are for other genres. It's not seen as creativity or even genius as much as it's seen as just autobiography. Like, "How can people be making this stuff up, particularly Black kids? They gotta be just rapping what they know." It strikes at the more prejudicial ways that Black art and Black music are judged in this country.

In season one of Louder Than A Riot, you chronicled the rise of rapper Bobby Shmurda and then his indictment and arrest, right as he was getting big. He was caught up in a case where the prosecution said that he was a part of a gang and that maybe he was the kingpin. Can you talk about some of the similarities to what happened to Bobby Shmurda and what seems to be happening to Young Thug and Gunna right now?

Carmichael: This is the dichotomy that we're living in right now. Basically, we have a music industry that rewards artists for exploiting their connection to the streets. Then, on the other hand, we got a justice system that's dead set on criminalizing those same connections — whether they're real connections, whether they're dramatized. For young people who were seduced by the limelight and really oftentimes just looking for a way out of the streets, rapping about where you're from and the things that you or your people used to do in the streets has the possibility of earning you millions of dollars a year — or years in prison. If you're an icon like Young Thug, maybe even both.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.
Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.