Atlanta, a hip-hop mecca, falters when Young Thug is arrested

For today’s generation of hip-hop fans, Young Thug is as influential and visionary as OutKast was for previous rapping eras. His often imitated style – melancholic and machine optimized, but melodic and flamboyant – places him right next to Future as a defining act of contemporary Southern rap. His reach goes further, though: acts like Lil Uzi Vert, Juice Wrld and Lil Nas X have absorbed his radical aesthetic and swaggering subversions, taking them to pop radio and the Grammy stage.

This is partly why the sweeping gang and racketeering indictment against Atlanta rap star, born Jeffery Lamar Williams, and 27 others associated with his Young Slime Life troupe (including fellow star Gunnaborn Sergio Giavanni Kitchens, and Young Thug’s brother Quantavious Grier, rapper Unfoonk) were such a shock to his hometown and to the world of music.

The 56-count indictment announced Monday alleges that Young Thug is a central figure in Young Slime Life, or YSL, which Georgia prosecutors say is a gang that committed or conspired to commit a long list of crimes including murder. , aggravated assault with a deadly weapons, armed robbery, car theft, theft and drug dealing.

It’s a twist Young Thug may have foreseen in his music – “The Feds came and kidnapped me, I don’t know, there’s no point in asking” he rapped on 2021’s “Take It to Trial,” which prosecutors quoted. in the indictment – but now, it could mean a 20-year prison sentence.

Williams’ attorney Brian Steel told the Times that Williams “was not involved in any criminal street gang activity” and described the allegations as “baseless.” Prosecutors say in the indictment that Young Thug’s YSL crew engaged in criminal activities to “protect and enhance the firm’s reputation, power and territory,” “thereby demonstrating loyalty to the firm and willingness to commit. violence on his behalf “.

“My number one goal is to target gangs,” Fulton County Dist. Av Fani Willis said at a press conference Tuesday. “And there is a reason for that. They are conservatively committing 75 to 80% of all the violent crimes we are seeing in our community. “

There has never been another artist so established, popular and culturally important who has been accused of leading such a vast criminal conspiracy, with his art used as evidence against him. It is particularly noteworthy that it happened in Atlanta, the only city in America where hip-hop is a key part of his global brand.

“Young Thug is on par with OutKast in terms of what it meant to the culture down here,” said Rodney Carmichael, NPR Music’s Atlanta-based hip-hop critic and co-host of the podcast. “Stronger than a riot”, Which examines the complex relationship between hip-hop and the justice system.

“This is a cat that, ten years ago, people laughed at his weirdness as an artist even while he was playing, and now he’s become an artist who is more responsible for the sound of hip-hop right now than almost anyone else,” She said.

Young Thug, 30, is more than just a beloved regional designer – he’s also a commercial behemoth. He has topped the Billboard 200 album chart three times, most recently with 2021’s “Punk”, a typically fanciful LP with cameos from megastars like Drake, Doja Cat and Post Malone. He has appeared in six Hot 100 Top 10 hits, including three No. 1s. In 2019 he won a Grammy Song of the Year, for his contribution to Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”.

She’s also a fashion icon, appearing on the cover of GQ in 2016, in part due to her enthusiasm for gender-bending apparel like women’s dresses and elaborate pedicures (“You’ll never see bigger guns tucked into smaller pants. “noted the magazine.)

Young Thug said his music, while rooted in the street culture he grew up in, wasn’t always a documentary of his life.

“I’m great at talking about shit in existence”, he said in an interview. “I had to learn not to say s— like ‘If I go to jail …’ I had to stay aloof from those things, like gangbanging. Sometimes I forget it, and it’s going to be in my old music and I say “What the fuck?”

A man with sunglasses and a mask

Young Thug participates in an NFL game between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on November 18, 2021.

(Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Even before its commercial triumphs, for more than a decade Young Thug turned the sound of Atlanta hip-hop upside down, a place where extreme poverty, black wealth and civic power, artistic freedom and gang subcultures mix in ways that they create revolutionary music.

“Atlanta has developed a relationship with the hip-hop community and its stars that you don’t see in other cities,” Carmichael said. “The last mayor [Keisha Bottoms] he had Killer Mike and TI as part of his campaign. But the relationship between the music that has marked the city around the world has been both controversial and collegial “.

Darting on the lean fog and violence unleashed by southern comrades Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane (who signed Thug to his 1017 label in 2013), Young Thug ditched OutKast’s fearless musicality in a new wave of dark and choppy trap music. . The first singles like “high“and mixtapes like” Barter 6 “and his anthology” Slime Season “have announced a new inspired wacky -” ATLien “, in the local lingo – on the scene. He signed to 300 Entertainment and landed a # 1 hit guest film. in “Havana” by Camila Cabello.

Thug’s 2019 studio debut “So Much Fun” went to No. 1, and guest appearances on Travis Scott and Drake’s chart-topping singles “Franchise” and “Way 2 Sexy” made him the go-to artist for experiencing a hit rap song with otherworldly energy.

But more than most hip-hop artists, Young Thug has prioritized bringing newcomers through the Atlanta scene with them. Carmichael noted the irony that his YSL team, which have nurtured so much talent at the top of the charts in the South, is now framed as a criminal conspiracy.

“Young Thug’s artistic influence on artists over the decade is impossible to count and goes far beyond Atlanta,” he said. “He put Gunna, he put Lil Baby. It is known that he paid Lil Baby thousands a day after he got out of prison to come to the studio and stay out of criminal activities, because Baby had a future, and now Baby is one of the greatest hip-hop artists.

Prosecutors, however, argue that Young Thug’s lyrics, like those of 2018’s “Anybody” – “I’ve never killed anyone, but I have something to do with that body … I told them to shoot a hundred shots … ready for it was like I was Russia … I get all kinds of cash. I am a general “- I agree with the physical evidence and testimonies that the young Thug participated in the activity of a gang and violated the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statute of Georgia.

Using Thug’s lyrics to portray him as a career criminal is a frequent tactic for prosecutors, said Dina LaPolt, a music industry lawyer and member of the Black Music Action Coalition advocacy group. She cited cases like George Forrester, whose rap in a prison phone call was introduced as evidence that helped him convict him of second degree murder and a gunshot charge that led to a 50-year prison sentence. .

“It would be as if Leo DiCaprio were accused of financial crimes and presented ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ as evidence,” LaPolt said. “Rap was born out of a reaction to urban decay and, for rap artists, it’s really important for your credibility to rap about stuff that comes from the streets. Using it as evidence against them is very damaging. “

LaPolt has pitted country music songs that riff on similar themes of violence that are obviously seen as the narrative of a distinct musical tradition and culture. But in cases involving rappers like the late Drakeo the Ruler of Los Angeles (who was acquitted of murder and released on a plea deal) and Bobby Shmurda of New York (convicted of conspiracy to murder, guns and charges of reckless danger ), the trade itself was dismissed as essentially an admission of guilt. While Young Thug’s involvement in any actual criminal activity will be decided in court, LaPolt fears that RICO laws are particularly dangerous when applied to a music scene and that typical rap culture tropes could be registered as confessions in court.

“Most of the judges are older white men,” LaPolt said. “They don’t understand the culture, they are completely disconnected. Prosecutors want to insert texts that correspond to what they are accused of because for them it is a confession “.

A male rapper in bright pink on stage

Young Thug performs at Lollapalooza on August 1, 2021 at Chicago’s Grant Park.

(Amy Harris / Invision / Associated Press)

Within days of being indicted, Young Thug’s hip-hop legacy has already been reformulated in light of the charges against him.

“YSL has a huge footprint on the culture in Atlanta and the accusation is sure to have a chilling effect,” Carmichael said. “People talk about what makes Atlanta different, a kind of black mecca, with blacks in power. Rappers feel like they can come to Atlanta and not face the same police target they face in other cities. So many rappers have come here to get away from that in their own cities. This could be the thing that takes the biggest blow. “

Wednesday morning, Gunna, a few days after her appearance at the Met Gala, with a No. 1 album and a “Saturday Night Live” concert. behind him this year – was arrested at Fulton County Jail on charges of conspiring to violate RICO law. After police raided Buckhead’s home in Young Thug, prosecutors added seven more felonies to his list of charges.

“Now they will feel a target on their back,” Carmichael continued. “There is no doubt that it will have an effect on the culture.”

Times staff writer Jenny Jarvie contributed to this report.