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The trial against rapper Young Thug has begun, with his lyrics being used as evidence

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The racketeering trial of rapper Young Thug started last week in Atlanta after months for jury selection. The prolific and influential musician has collaborated with artists ranging from Drake to Elton John. And just four years ago, his album "So Much Fun" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUMPED OUT THE WINDOW")

YOUNG THUG: (Rapping) Jumped out the window and I fled on the cops. [Expletive] had to run 'cause I had meds in my socks. Hit the rocky road, then I led them to the projects. Whole hood outdoors in the street. They trying to stop them.

RASCOE: The state of Georgia alleges Young Thug's lyrics depict real-life crimes. Prosecutors say YSL, the initials of Young Thug's record label, Young Stoner Life, also stood for Young Slime Life. That's a street gang they claim he led and used to direct crimes, from murder to drug dealing. Here's Fulton County prosecutor Adriane Love in her opening statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADRIANE LOVE: He tells you, we committing them crimes. Pop out and shoot. Roll one up for the gang. He's not using gang colloquially. The evidence will show he's telling you they are a gang.

RASCOE: Young Thug's attorney, Brian Steel, says those lyrics are art, not evidence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN STEEL: This is the environment that he grew up in. These are the people he knew. These are the stories he knew. These are the words that he rhymed. This isn't a ballad or a book. These are phrases in a song.

RASCOE: NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael is following the trial and has covered the intersection of hip-hop and policing for the podcast Louder Than A Riot. Hi, Rodney.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha. How you doing?

RASCOE: Rodney, for those unfamiliar with Jeffery Williams, known as Young Thug, what has made him so influential as a musician?

CARMICHAEL: Well, when you talk about trap music, especially in its current form, I mean, Young Thug - he's the king of it. You know, the melodic singsongy flows, the animated delivery and, really, these often indecipherable lyrics - these are all defining characteristics that he brought to a subgenre of rap that really went global over the last decade. And beyond that, he's also just a straight-up star. I mean, he's somebody who's always skirted controversy, even in his fashion sense, in ways that really just have always made him the center of attention.

RASCOE: So tell us more about the case prosecutors are making and how they're using Young Thug's lyrics.

CARMICHAEL: OK, so Young Thug is at the center of what's already turning out to be a really historic RICO case. And RICO laws, of course, are the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, originally established to target and take down organized crime outfits like the Mafia. But in recent years, prosecutors around the country have started using a lot of these laws to target really loosely organized street gangs and their youthful members.

Basically, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and her team of prosecutors, they maintain that Young Thug is the head of YSL, or Young Slime Life. And they claim that they'll be presenting all kinds of evidence, including jail phone calls and social media posts, that Young Thug's lyrics will also be presented by prosecutors who say that they detail many of the violent acts that he's had committed. And the judge in this case has already ruled that 17 lines of lyrics from Young Thug and other YSL artists can be used in trial.

RASCOE: I know it's still early, but what's likely to be Young Thug's defense?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, well, it's interesting 'cause the defense has really already started inside and outside the courtroom. Young Thug's lawyers have called it racist, partly because this use of his lyrics and any musician's lyrics is something that really only consistently happens to hip-hop artists, who, of course, are predominantly Black. And Young Thug's label, 300 Entertainment, has also been really vocal in the push to get state and federal laws on the books that will make it harder to criminalize lyrics in this way.

RASCOE: Pretrial and jury selection went on for almost a full year. And this whole time, Young Thug's been locked up.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah.

RASCOE: Now that the trial finally started, what were some things that stood out from the first week?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. This trial is already expected to go another six months to a year, and it started off in really dramatic fashion last week. In defense of his client's character, Young Thug's attorney insisted that the Thug in Young Thug is actually an acronym that stands for Truly Humbled Under God. There was also a lot of courtroom delay over prosecutors taking issue with a picture posted online that showed the faces of some of the members of the jury. And they're worried that it could expose them to jury tampering.

RASCOE: This could have a big ripple effect. What's been the reaction from the music industry in Atlanta and just more broadly?

CARMICHAEL: There is a lot at stake. I mean, depending on the outcome of this trial, it could change the art form, really, as we know it, especially if Young Thug is ultimately convicted and his lyrics are used to do it. And Atlanta being the hip-hop capital that it is, it might not be seen as such a welcoming city that it's been for the culture for so many decades now.

RASCOE: That's Rodney Carmichael with NPR Music. Thank you so much for joining us.

CARMICHAEL: Appreciate you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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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.
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