rap music on trial

Everything We Know About YSL’s RICO Case

Young Thug (legal name Jeffery Lamar Williams) and Gunna (legal name Sergio Giavanni Kitchens) Photo: Prince Williams/Filmmagic/Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for MRC

A month after Young Thug found himself embroiled in a sprawling RICO case, he made a plea from jail. “You know, this isn’t about just me or YSL,” he said in a prerecorded address screened at Hot 97’s Summer Jam in June 2022. “I always use my music as a form of artistic expression, and I see now that Black artists and rappers don’t have that freedom. Everybody please sign the Protect Black Art petition and keep praying for us. I love you all” he concluded. The Petition to Protect Black Art is a document co-written by 300 Entertainment co-founder and CEO Kevin Liles — who first signed Thug and helped get his label YSL off the ground as a subsidiary company — and Atlanta Records COO Julie Greenwald. The document asks both federal and state legislators to adopt bills that limit the use of rap lyrics as evidence in a court of law. The rapper’s plea arrived on the heels of a sprawling, 56-count RICO case against Thug, Gunna, and 26 members of his Young Stoner Life collective. After 567 days in jail for Young Thug, the trial against him finally began on November 27 with opening arguments. The trial will be livestreamed on YouTube via Law and Crime Network or 11Alive news, a local Atlanta channel.

The 88-page grand-jury indictment characterizes YSL, “Young Slime Life,” as a “criminal street gang” and alleges 182 instances of the collective’s participating in gang activity and criminal conspiracies, citing lyrics, social-media posts, and clothing or accessories with SLIME emblazoned on them as evidence. Atlanta’s Fulton County grand jury charged some individuals with violent crimes that include attempted armed robbery and murder. Not only has the case arrived under the specter of a 60 percent rise in violent crime in Atlanta, which Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis has promised to fight, but it has reverberated throughout the hip-hop community, where many have argued that this trial is but the latest instance of the criminal-justice system unfairly tying rappers to violent crime through their art.

A little over seven months after his arrest in May, Gunna walked free on December 14, 2022, after both he and Young Thug were denied bond multiple times. The rapper pleaded guilty to a charge of racketeering conspiracy in what is known as an Alford plea — a deal that allows him to plead guilty if it’s in his interest while maintaining his innocence. His five-year sentence was commuted to time served and 500 hours of community service as part of the deal. Days later, seven other defendants took plea deals and were released from jail just ahead of the New Year. As of November, many of the original defendants had their cases separated from the trial, four did not have legal representation, and two had not been arrested by early January. Right now, Young Thug is one of six defendants set to stand trial.

Though there was a possibility Young Thug could get out on bond, Judge Ural Glanville denied the rapper bond for the third time, citing the threat of witness intimidation, the threat of fleeing, and dangers to the community in a hearing on July 21. The judge agreed to reconsider Yak Gotti’s bond that same day; however, he was denied bond as well. In months prior, Thug may have caught another case: Fulton County prosecutors allege co-defendant Kahlieff Adams attempted to hand the “Hot” rapper a Percocet in open court on January 20. The Grammy Award–winning artist’s lawyer denies Young Thug’s involvement in the alleged drug deal. As January came to a close, a YSL Mondo, a label co-founder, publicized his past relationship with the current district attorney Willis, who served as his defense lawyer during a 2019 aggravated assault trial and helped keep him out of jail.

With the trial underway, and prosecutor Adriane Love quoting The Jungle Book in opening statements, we compiled everything you need to know about the case as it develops. Here’s all the updates — from the people involved to a summary of the charges and the cited lyrics.

What’s the current status of the trial?

The trial finally began on November 27 with opening arguments from the prosecution after nearly two years of administrative delays and courtroom dramas. One such headache was jury selection. The court has largely spent its time addressing the hardship excuses of the more than 2,000 potential jurors, some of whom said they couldn’t serve because the lengthy trial — expected to dip into next year — would negatively impact their jobs and families, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The court finished reviewing hardships in July, and a jury was selected by November 1. Meanwhile, Young Thug was denied bond for a third time on July 21, likely leaving him behind bars through the end of the trial unless the judge reconsiders his decision. Yak Gotti’s pretrial release was reconsidered that same day; however, he was denied bond as well. In April, attorneys for the rappers filed the new motion to get them out of jail on bond, citing grueling conditions.

What did we learn from opening statements?

In the trial’s second day, we heard a rebuttal from Young Thug’s attorney, Brian Steel, who argued the prosecution grossly mischaracterized his client and denied the allegations that the rapper’s persona and lyrics pointed to a gang conspiracy. Instead, Steel claimed, Young Thug was mobbing for God. While the word “thug” tends to describe a person involved in violent activity, Steel said Jeffrey Williams’s stage name comes from an acronym that foregrounds his religious convictions. “Truly humbled under God,” Steel told the jury. “That’s what Thug means.” YSL, Thug’s alleged gang described by the prosecution as “Young Slime Life,” really stands for a luxury clothing brand “because the tight-fitting pants they’re wearing say YSL,” Steel argued. “Yves Saint Laurent.”

The popular Young Thug and Gunna song “Pushin P” doesn’t refer to distributing substances, as one might imagine. “It means any circumstance you’re in, if you think positively about something, you can make it work,” Steel explained. “You’re pushing positivity. You’re pushing P.”

Who is involved?

The grand-jury indictment identifies Young Thug, Gunna, and 26 other associates as members of the “criminal street gang” YSL, or Young Slime Life. Thug, the heartbeat of Atlanta’s fertile rap scene, is allegedly the founder of this street gang, which formed in the city in 2012. The prosecution claims that YSL has “affiliation with the national Bloods gang, and some associates claim the Blood subset gangs Sex Money Murder or 30 Deep.” The rapper founded record label Young Stoner Life in 2016 as an imprint of 300 Entertainment. YSL Records calls its roster of artists the “Slime Family.” Gunna was named in the indictment along with rappers Lil Duke, Yak Gotti, and Thug’s brother Unfoonk.

Fani Willis is the district attorney overseeing the case. She is a Democrat known for investigating whether the former president Trump and his team engaged in election fraud in Georgia. “It does not matter what your notoriety is or what your fame is. If you come to Fulton County, Georgia, you commit crimes, and certainly if those crimes are in furtherance of a street gang, then you are going to become a target and a focus of this district attorney’s office, and we are going to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law,” Willis said in a press conference in May 2022. She said there’s reason to believe that gangs “are committing conservatively 75 to 80 percent of all the violent crime that we’re seeing within our community. So they have to be booted.”

Brian Steel, Young Thug’s lawyer, told the New York Times that YSL is not a criminal street gang. “Mr. Williams came from an incredibly horrible upbringing, and he has conducted himself throughout his life in a way that is just to marvel at,” Steel said. “He’s committed no crime whatsoever.”

Gunna’s guilty plea, for his part, serves as a public acknowledgement of his “association with YSL,” the rapper said in statement, though he emphasized that his association is purely musical. He staunchly maintains his innocence despite entering a plea deal. “While I have agreed to always be truthful, I want to make it perfectly clear that I have NOT made any statements, have NOT been interviewed, have NOT cooperated, have NOT agreed to testify or be a witness for or against any party in the case and have absolutely NO intention of being involved in the trial process in any way,” Gunna told WSB and other outlets in a statement.

Seven other defendants walked free in last December. Each pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge and said YSL was both a music collective and criminal street gang, per the conditions of their plea deals. YSL co-founder Walter Murphy entered a guilty plea on a single count of conspiracy to violate the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and was sentenced to ten years in prison. He negotiated one year of his sentence commuted to time served and nine years of probation, per the deal. Unfoonk, Lil Duke, Slimelife Shawty, Antonio Sledge, Trontavious “Tick” Stephens, and Antonio “Obama” Sumlin took similar deals with some pleading guilty to additional charges. Sledge and Stephens, for their part, must testify truthfully if called to trial. Derontae Bebee and Tenquarius Mender were originally offered plea deals but rejected them. However, Bebee accepted a plea deal in November 2023 and was sentenced to 15 years: five in prison and ten on probation. Unfoonk, despite originally taking a plea deal in December, was arrested again in May 2023 when police found a gun in his car and was sentenced to more than nine years in prison for violating his probation. A prosecutor asked Slimelife Shawty, whose government name is Wunnie Lee, if YSL members “have committed at least one of the following acts in the name of YSL: murder, aggravated assault, robbery, theft and/or illegal firearms possession,” to which he replied, “Yes, ma’am.”

What are the charges?

All 28 individuals named in the indictment were charged with conspiracy to violate the state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, by participating in a pattern of illegal activity to obtain money and property. The Georgia law closely resembles its federal counterpart and was created with the aim of ensnaring large criminal organizations like the mafia. According to the Times, this is not the first time Willis has sought RICO charges: In 2014, the attorney argued that Atlanta public-school teachers accused of cheating on standardized tests were part of a racketeering conspiracy. In her investigation into Trump, she insinuated that the former president and his associates may have violated the state RICO law in their alleged attempts to commit election fraud in 2020.

The prosecution alleges that the collective engaged in a wide range of criminal activity. The 56-count indictment claims that YSL members were involved in murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, theft, drug dealing, carjacking, and witness intimidation. Notably, the indictment portrays Thug as something of a mob boss; he is alleged to have committed multiple crimes that he is not being charged with. While Thug is not being charged for these “overt acts” — which include possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute and threatening to kill a man at a mall — they lend credence to the allegation that the collective was engaged in a criminal conspiracy. Other serious allegations include that Thug rented a car that was used in the commission of the murder of Donovan Thomas Jr., a rival gang leader, in January 2015. Five YSL members, including Yak Gotti, were charged with murder in connection to Thomas’s death.

In addition, three YSL members were charged with attempted murder in connection with an attack on rapper YFN Lucci, who was stabbed in jail in February of 2022. In April 2021, Fulton County charged YFN Lucci and 11 other suspects in a 75-page, 105-count racketeering indictment, according to WSB-TV. Lucci is currently in jail awaiting trial.

Thug was later charged with seven additional felonies after a reported police raid of his Buckhead home following his May 9, 2022 arrest. The new charges include possession of drugs with intent to distribute, possession of firearms, and three counts of being a person employed or associated with a criminal street gang to conduct or participate in criminal gang activity through the commission of a crime, per documents reviewed by Vulture.

Gunna is charged with one count of racketeering. According to the indictment, he allegedly received stolen property and was in possession of drugs — including methamphetamine, marijuana, and hydrocodone — with the intent to distribute. He was arrested on May 11, 2022.

The judge cited concerns about witness intimidation and the potential for additional criminal activity to deny both Thug and Gunna’s multiple bond requests. On July 6, 2022, the New York Times reported that Judge Ural Glanville of Fulton County Superior Court ordered that defense lawyers are not to share witnesses’ contact information with their clients. Prosecution alleged that Thug and his associates were threatening witnesses and “that they fear not only for their own lives but for their families’ lives should they testify.” Brian Steel, a lawyer for the defense, denied any witness tampering. “However, I cannot wait to receive the discovery,” he continued, “so that we can continue our march toward clearing an innocent man.”

Gunna was denied bond for the second time on July 7, 2022, per Billboard, with Judge Glanville refusing to reconsider his original May 23, 2022 decision to deny Gunna’s bond. Steve Sadow, Gunna’s co-lead counsel, said in a statement, “The prosecution again produced no evidence at all. Instead, it chose to rely on vague and nonspecific allegations and speculation through the statements of the prosecutor alone. Gunna deserves better from our justice system.”

District Attorney Willis filed a motion on August 15 asking the judge to order defense attorneys to avoid sharing discovery materials including “the names of all lay witnesses (and) cooperating YSL associates that will be called to testify in this case” with anyone outside of their legal teams. “Since the date of those filings, however, information from the state’s discovery material has appeared on public websites,” Willis wrote in her motion. “As a result, the state now has grave concerns about the safety of that named witness and other potential witnesses in this trial.”

Judge Glanville once again denied bond for Young Thug on August 18, 2022 after an hours-long hearing, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. The decision arrived after an associate planning to testify against the rapper entered protective custody after document leaks on blogs identified him as a witness. That same day, Fulton County prosecutor Don Geary asked the judge to further restrict the disclosure of certain evidence ahead of the trial, citing witness safety. “We found a lot of information concerning one of our witnesses on basically a celebrity news outlet,” Geary told the court.

Kristen Novay, an attorney for Gunna, asked prosecutors to share evidence that witnesses were being threatened. “We want to know what specific threats there are,” Novay said. “There have been many allegations that there are threats to witnesses, and to date, we have received no discovery, not a single shred of evidence from a witness who was actually threatened.”

Gunna, once thought to remain in jail until his trial next year, was released on December 14, 2022 after pleading guilty per the terms of an Alford plea deal. Yet Gunna maintains his innocence. As a term of the deal, the rapper must take the stand if summoned to court and called to testify, though he has the option of pleading the fifth. At the same time, seven additional defendants had entered plea deals and were released. Four of the defendants did not have legal representation at the time of the trial, with two others not having been arrested by then. Currently, there are six defendants standing trial.

What does Lil Wayne have to do with the case?

Peewee Roscoe, real name Jimmy Carlton Winfrey, was charged with aggravated assault in connection with a shooting involving Lil Wayne’s tour bus in 2015. In the original indictment, Young Thug and Birdman were listed as co-conspirators, but they were never charged. The YSL indictment names Roscoe, who was previously sentenced to ten years in prison for the shooting incident and was released in 2020.

How are song lyrics being used as evidence?

Rap lyrics are being used as evidence against those charged in the YSL case. Though experts have argued that it can be a violation of free speech, the use of rap lyrics to incriminate hip-hop artists isn’t new. Boosie, Bobby Shmurda, Drakeo the Ruler, and 6ix9ine’s lyrics have all been deployed in court as evidence against them. Boosie and Drakeo the Ruler were acquitted, though the others were not. In January 2021, Maryland ruled that rap lyrics could constitute evidence of guilt. Earlier this year, however, Jay-Z and other prominent artists took a stand by publicly supporting Senate Bill S7527, a proposed New York law known as “Rap Music on Trial.” The bill would limit the use of lyrics in criminal trials. Prosecutors in the YSL case have cited multiple songs as evidence of gang affiliation and racketeering activity.

How is the music industry reacting?

Overall, the hip-hop industry has come out in droves to support Young Thug and Gunna. Drake’s song “Sticky,” off his new record Honestly, Nevermind, references the case with the lyrics “Hey yo Eric, bring them girls to the stage, ’cause/Somebody’s getting paid and/Free Big Slime out the cage.” The Toronto chart-topper used the phrase “Free YSL” as a brief title card in the music video for the track “Falling Back.” In an interview with ABC News, Killer Mike said, “Hip hop is not respected as an art because Black people in this country are not recognized as full human beings. If we allow the courts to prosecute these men based on characters they created and stories of pretend that they tell in rhyme then next, they’ll be at your door.”

What’s 300 Entertainment’s involvement?

The distributor behind Young Stoner Life Records has lent their support to Gunna and Thug in a myriad of ways. Following Thug’s bail hearing, the 300 Entertainment co-founder (now 300 Elektra Entertainment, following a recent merger) and Atlantic Records circulated the Petition to Protect Black Art, asking both federal and state legislators to adopt bills that limit the admissibility of rap lyrics as evidence in a court of law. 300 even arranged an audio recording of Thug in which he urges people to sign the petition and shared it with a crowd at Hot 97’s Summer Jam earlier this month. The company distributed Gunna’s open letter to fans and the public. “I used my art form, my gift from God, to change my circumstances … For now, I don’t have freedom. But I am innocent,” he wrote.

Did Gunna confess?

Gunna did not confess to his alleged crimes. He entered an Alford plea, which gives the 29-year-old rapper the right to maintain his innocence while admitting that he could be potentially found guilty if tried. Per the terms of the deal, Gunna pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy and was released after his sentence was commuted to time served. Although he did not technically confess, some in the hip-hop community are not happy that he took the deal. Footage of the plea hearing shows the Georgia native acknowledging his association with YSL and affirming that the collective partially functions as a gang. Lil Durk may have implied that Gunna was “telling” on YSL in a recent snippet, while Lil Baby, Meek Mill, and Polo G unfollowed him on Instagram. “Niggas acting like they switching to a side But it’s only one side . #YsltheLabel #FreeThug&Yak GUNNA BACC!!!!!,” wrote Gunna in an Instagram caption responding to the “snitch” allegations.

A source close to the “Drip Too Hard” rapper confirmed that Gunna will not testify against YSL co-defendants. Because his Alford plea only applies to his individual case, the statements made during his plea hearing cannot be used against those sitting trial. If asked to take the stand, Gunna can plead the fifth if he so chooses.

In his 2023 album A Gift and a Curse, Gunna addresses the trial in songs like “bread & butter,” “idk nomore,” and “back at it,” reflecting on his feelings in the encounters with prosecutors, isolation from his old collaborators, and how he “fell for it” during interrogations.

Was Fani Willis a lawyer for YSL Mondo?

Before Willis was elected to the Fulton County district attorney office, the tough-on-crime prosecutor once served as YSL Mondo’s defense attorney. According to the YSL co-founder, previously at odds with Young Thug over a disagreement on Instagram (they’ve since mended their relationship) “This is not her character, this is not who she is,” he told Rolling Stone in a January 25 report. “I done had auntie-to-nephew, mother-to-son type of talks with her,” he continued. “I know this not her character. This is what made me start looking at [the YSL case] like I know it’s bigger than just her. It’s politics behind this shit. It’s other people that’s behind her pulling strings.” Willis appeared to confirm that she represented Mondo, according to Rolling Stone.

Known for her broad use of RICO charges to prosecute allegedly gang-affiliated individuals to the fullest extent of the law, the district attorney’s tune was a little different when she ran her private practice, Mondo remembered. Willis represented him in 2019 during an aggravated assault case, where she got his assault charge dropped to a lesser one and had the rapper sentenced to a “program” instead of prison. At the time, he felt she was a “great attorney” and said they had a “cool relationship.” In Willis’s final advice to him, she hinted at her ambition to run for office. “She was like, ‘don’t mess my name up now,’” he recalled her saying. “‘You know I’m about to get ready to run for this head DA. You fuck around and do something else, I’m going to sock it to your ass.’” When asked about that conversation, Willis said the comments “sound like me, but I do not recall the conversation verbatim.” Mondo claimed that he didn’t keep up with her following his trial and was surprised to see her on TV announcing the YSL indictments last spring.

What else is there to know about the trial?

A jury has finally been selected after almost one year. Over 2,000 people have been summoned to possibly serve on the jury; however, because of the length of the trial, it’s been difficult to find jurors to serve. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the trial may be the longest in Georgia’s history.

In an emergency motion filed in May 2022, Thug’s lawyer, Brian Steel, blasted his “inhumane” jail conditions and filed a request for bond, which has since been denied. In the filing, he wrote that Thug has been detained in what amounts to “solitary confinement/total isolation” in a “windowless cement compartment with only a bed and toilet and an overhead light which remains on 24 hours per day, preventing any sleep, rest or meditation.” Steel claims that the rapper has no access to media, including TV or the internet, nor any freedom to “exercise, shower or have human contact.” Gunna spoke out against poor jail conditions in an Instagram post, sharing an open letter to his 4.4 million followers. “22 & 2, just a bed & a shower, no windows just walls,” he wrote in the caption. “Can’t see or talk to anyone.”

What’s clear is that Fulton County continues to conflate gang activity with rap music and has not signaled a change in policy. “The optics look like gang stuff,” Lance Williams, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, told The New Yorker. “It looks ugly. But the reality is that most of it is just music. If there’s violence, it’s interpersonal — not organized.” He was troubled by the use of the RICO law, which, in his words, is a “thing created for the Mafia now being used to indict young Black males who are flirting with the culture and the music, but who are not involved with any criminal enterprise.” He continued, “Once they hit you with this RICO thing, you’re finished. It’s a wrap.”

When asked about the proposed Georgia state bill to limit the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal proceedings, Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis said she doesn’t think the legislation would be successful. “I think if you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I’m going to use it,” Willis told reporters at an August 2022 press conference before quoting lyrics about alleged criminal activity that are cited in the indictment. “Now I’m using those lyrics that they’re admitting to doing that. I’m going to continue to do that; people can continue to be angry about that,” Willis said. “I have some legal advice: Don’t confess to crimes on rap lyrics if you don’t want them used, or at least get out of my county.” While Willis has vowed to continue to use lyrics as evidence, legislators on both the state and federal levels have introduced bills to limit their use.

This post has been updated throughout with additional information and reporting.

Everything We Know About YSL’s RICO Case