An ex-FBI Unit Chief discusses the use of Rap Lyrics in Court by Prosecutors

The YSL RICO case involving the mainstream rappers Young Thug & Gunna has engendered further legislative arguments about whether rap lyrics should constitute evidence of criminal intent or actions.

Kevin Liles, co-founder of 300 Entertainment, and Julie Greenwald, COO at Atlantic Records distributed a petition called Rap Music on Trial: A Petition for Black Art.

Liles and Greenwald wrote that part of their letter included the following: “As you may be aware, currently in Georgia multiple artists belonging to Young Stoner Life Records, including famous artists like Young Thug or Gunna, are facing more than 50 accusations, including RICO allegations which claim the record label was a criminal gang.” Prosecutors claim that the lyrics of the artists are ‘overt evidence for conspiracy’.

“Weaponizing creativity against artists is clearly wrong. We are most concerned about Young Thug, Gunna and YSL. This is not the only high-profile case. Black creativity and artistic expression are being criminalized in American courts. Prosecutors are using rap lyrics as confessions with increasing frequency, just like in this case.” Bobby Shmurda, a Brooklyn rapper, supports the petition on artistic grounds.

As the New York State Senate passed S.7527/A.8681 last month, the petition was filed. Before a jury can be seated, Governor Kathy Hochul will sign the bill into law. Prosecutors will need to prove that a song or lyric is definitive evidence of a crime. Rap lyrics were used in the past to prejudice a defendant’s character.

According to Attorney Joseph Willmore, a well-known family lawyer from Southern California, the following was said about the case: “People often are surprised at what is and not admissible in court. Many times, during divorces, one spouse will send angry messages to the other or act in a negative way. This can be used in court. They are often shocked.”

“I can’t count the number of times I have seen text messages used to reference characters. This is not a good way to express artistic ideas. It is a very archaic way to use art as a character label. Worse, it is rap music that is being targeted. Not heavy metal, rock or any other music that has – what some might consider -‘significantly dark language’. This could have racial implications. This could be yet another example where there is a huge gap in understanding cultures across socioeconomic boundaries.

Mark Rossini, former FBI Unit Chief, provided additional context and insight into the current situation regarding YSL and rap songs being interpreted as a reflection on crime or character.

Rossini has dealt with complex cases in both criminal and counterterrorism areas throughout his career. He has been involved in international terrorism issues involving the FARC, ETA and Hezbollah as well as Al-Qaeda. He was a representative of the FBI to the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center at CIA Headquarters. He also served as one of the founding executives for the National Counterterrorism Center.

He was also responsible to produce the President’s Terrorist Threat Report, (PTTR) and the Threat Matrix which highlighted emerging threats to terrorism.

Rossini released a complete statement regarding his thoughts on the matter:

“Artists have always challenged the observer to think. To be open to the unknown and known. To take the observer beyond their four walls and allow them to enter the world of the artist. It is not acceptable to suppress or oppress art. Artists seek to share their stories with us or show us the world around them. They have shared personal and political messages.

“We see Van Gogh showing us his sadness and pain as well as the beauty of the world. Studying many of the great Renaissance masterpieces by European artists reveals subtle but not so subtle political jabs. Our politicians are exposed by cartoonists. This is just a small sampling of the many.

“Art is more than sculptures, paintings, or cartoons. It’s music, poetry, and lyrics. Rap and Hip Hop convey the frustrations of youth. Particularly those from the African American and minority communities.

“We listen, and hopefully we can open our minds and understand the message. Rap, like all art, provides an outlet. This brings us to Fulton County, Georgia.

“Several rap artists were arrested in Fulton County and charged with a 58-count RICO offense. The prosecutors have used the lyrics of the rappers against them in an evidentiary way, which has received media attention. Other artists and music industry executives have raised the alarm about the possibility that all African American rappers could be lumped together as ‘thugs’ simply for being rap artists.

“I can understand their frustrations and fears, especially in these polarizing times. Every day, there are reports about Neo-Nazi or White Supremacist groups planning or carrying out violent acts against minorities. This reality is illustrated by the mass murders at Uvalde, Texas and Buffalo, New York. The Fulton County prosecutors have not indicted the individuals arrested for their lyrics. They were arrested for their violent or criminal acts.

The prosecutors want to prove to a potential juror that the rappers were either using their lyrics to confess, project a future crime act, or to send a message about a victim. The prosecutors have the challenge of using the rapper’s words to prove to a jury that the lyrics are directly related to the crime(s). I don’t believe rappers or other artists should be afraid to continue to express themselves and to send us, the listener a message.

“No one is ‘weaponizing black music’ as some industry executives claim. It is clear that an artist (Black or White) can express themselves and a prosecutor can show a jury the link between their lyrics and criminal acts. This activity can all be gathered together to prove that an individual or group is involved in a criminal enterprise, which is the core of a RICO case. Let the jury decide, as always.

Bond was denied to Young Thug and Gunna, the former twice. The trial date has been set for January 9, 2023.

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