Trial of ‘Young Thug,’ Rap Star Prosecuted by Fani Willis, Begins With Defense Claiming He’s a ‘Studio Gangster,’ Not a Real-Life Killer 

As she is doing with her prosecution of President Trump, Ms. Willis is seeking to convict the rapper using Georgia’s anti-racketeering laws. A judge has also ruled she can use Young Thug’s violence-tinged lyrics against him.

Courtroom feed via YouTube
Jeffery Williams, the rapper known as 'Young Thug' is on trial for gang-related crimes at Atlanta. Courtroom feed via YouTube

Prosecutors are trying to portray prominent rapper Jeffery Williams, better known as Young Thug, as the ringleader of a community-crushing gang. His defense attorneys, however, are trying to tell the tale of a God-fearing young man who rose from abject poverty to build a rap empire. But which narrative speaks the truth? A Georgia jury may take close to a year to decide.

Young Thug has been awaiting trial behind bars for more than 560 days. After multiple delays, he’s finally taking center stage as prosecutors claim the rapper oversaw and ordered crimes via his gang Young Slime Life – a subset of the Bloods. The alleged crimes noted in the case including murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, witness intimidation and drug dealing span from 2015 to 2022, but Young Thug has denied any wrongdoing. He is in the dock with five others who’ve been charged alongside Young Thug – a huge decline from the 27 others he originally stood beside thanks to a number of guilty pleas and severed cases.

The novel prosecution, which seeks to use Mr. William’s violence-tinged rap lyrics to build a racketeering case against him, is being overseen by Fani Willis, who’s gained global fame for another novel racketeering prosecution she’s pursuing, that against former President Trump. In both cases, the racketeering statutes give Ms. Willis an advantage as she can win by proving guilt through association, rather than needing a proverbial smoking gun.

As Mr. Williams’ trial began, Adriane Love, the chief deputy district attorney for Fulton County, said YSL “moved like a pack” to establish control in the Atlanta area. 

Young Thug, one of the country’s most popular rappers, performs onstage during the iHeartRadio Album Release Party with Lil Baby at the iHeartRadio Theater on March 02, 2020 in Burbank, California.Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

“They knew who their leader was, and they knew the repercussions of not obeying their leader,” Ms. Love said. 

But the defense will try to convince the jury that the only YSL connected to Mr. Williams is Young Stoner Life Records – the rapper’s Atlanta-based record label that supports artists like Gunna, Lil Keed and more – not the Young Slime Life gang. Mr. Williams founded the YSL label in 2012 with two other men -– both of whom have pleaded guilty in the case. And though he does embrace a gangster image in the studio, that’s all there is to it, the defense argues – he’s simply a “studio gangster” just trying to create art and produce a product that sells. 

Moreover, Mr. Williams’ lawyers say he’s always been a magnanimous member of his community who’s now being taken advantage of by “these liars, these snitches, these rats” testifying against him. Morals aside, Mr. Wiliams has no time or need for crime, according to his lawyers. He’s got all the money he could ever want, a busy schedule, and no motivation to lead a gang.

“He is not sitting there telling people to kill people,” Mr. Williams’ primary lawyer, Brian Steel, said. “He doesn’t need their money. Jeffrey’s worth tens of millions of dollars.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks in the Fulton County Government Center during a news conference, Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, in Atlanta. Donald Trump and several allies have been indicted in Georgia over efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state.
The Fulton County district attorney, Fani Willis, on August 14, 2023 at Atlanta. AP/John Bazemore

“Jeffery doesn’t even know most of the people in this indictment.”

We’re only a week in to what’s sure to be a long road ahead, but the intrigue surrounding this case has already been boiling over. And one of the main reasons for that has to do with the prosecutors’ plan to use Young Thug and other YSL artists’ lyrics against them despite legal opposition from the defense and efforts by activists to “Protect Black Art.”

Last month, a judge ruled against Mr. Williams, ordaining that Ms. Willis can introduce some of Young Thug’s lyrics in court “provisionally,” on a lyric by lyric basis.

Ms. Willis and her staff have been adamant that Mr. Williams’ lyrics, which glorify various criminal acts, directly reflect on his real-life crimes. “We didn’t chase the lyrics to solve the murder, we chased the murder and found the lyrics,” Ms. Love said during her opening statement.

Jeffery Williams, known as Young Thug, has been in jail for more than 500 days prior to his trial, which could last more than a year. Courtroom feed via YouTube

The defense has responded by working hard to illustrate what they say Mr. Williams and, by extension, his music truly stand for. For example, Young Thug’s lawyer recently clarified that the latter part of his client’s stage name stands for “Truly Humbled Under God” – a sentiment that’s also been echoed by his sister, Dora Williams, since her brother’s arrest.

“Thug meant and means to Jeffery something very personal,” Mr. Steel said in his opening statement. “It was his pact if he could ever make it as a musical artist and help his family, himself and … others out of this endless cycle of hopelessness, he would be Truly Humbled Under God. That’s what Thug means.”

In another instance, Mr. Steel also pointed to the lyrics of the 2022 viral hit featuring Young Thug called “pushin P” by Gunna and Future. While it’s no secret the phrase “pushin P” generally means promoting something good, it previously had more of an ambiguous meaning that was, at one time, thrown around by celebrity Instagram users and trend-savvy marketers alike. Now, however, Mr. Steel is saying the phrase has a more specific meaning.

“It’s called “pushin P” and it’s positivity,” he explained. “It means any circumstance you are in, if you think positively about something, you can make it through. 

Hip-hop artist Young Thug attends a release party for his new album “PUNK” at Delilah on October 12, 2021 in West Hollywood, California. Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

“You are pushing positivity, you are pushing P.”

In his own words, Gunna has previously explained that “being Loyal is definitely P.” But critics have been quick to question if Gunna – a formerly arrested member of YSL in this case – truly embodies his own definition of “P” after his release from prison in December 2022. He was able to return to normal life by way of an Alfred plea – a tactic where someone can plead guilty while still maintaining their innocence so as to potentially help the prosecution’s case. Still, Gunna has managed to express his continued support for Young Thug in his work and performances since his release.

An entirely separate reason this case is gaining quite a bit of traction has to do with its unlikely connection to none other than former President Trump. Ms. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney who indicted Mr. Williams, is the same woman who is prosecuting Mr. Trump for conspiring – along with his allies –  to overturn his 2020 presidential election loss in Georgia. 

In both cases, the charges were brought against the accused under RICO, Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute. Originally created to target organized crime groups such as the mafia, RICO, according to Ms. Willis, “allows a prosecutor’s office or law enforcement to tell the whole story.” She has previously used the RICO statute to go after Atlanta public school teachers she accused of conspiring to cheat on standardized tests by changing students’ answers. The eight month long trial, in 2014-2015, was the longest in Georgia history and won multiple convictions, although most of the guilty served little or no prison time, leading some observers to ask if the case was worth so much time and expense in a crime ridden area such as Atlanta’s notorious Fulton County. Now observers of the Young Thug trial, with its myriad delays and other parallels to the epic “teacher trial,” might be wondering if the Trump case is heading down a similar, slow path. Indeed, the Trump case with its multiple defendants is expected to drag on well past the 2024 elections.

“[The Young Thug case] offers glimpses of how State of Georgia v. Donald John Trump et al. may unfold: with a plodding pace, an avalanche of pretrial defense motions, extraordinary security measures, pressure on lower-level defendants to plead guilty, and a fracturing into separate trials, to name a few,” The New York Times wrote in August.

Proceedings for the Young Thug racketeering trial will resume on Monday, December 4.


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