Why Young Thug’s RICO charges mirror the criminalization of hip-hop: NPR
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Last week, the Fulton County prosecutor in Atlanta charged rappers Young Thug and Gunna with an 80-plus-page indictment for allegedly participating in street gang activity and violating RICO law – c t stands for “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization” – a law that was originally designed to fight organized crime like the mafia.
The indictment names “Young Slime Life”, Young Thug’s rap collective, as a street gang, and the rapper as its founder. But these latest charges and arrests are part of a larger web of how the criminal justice system uses RICO to prosecute hip-hop artists. NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe spoke with the NPR Music Podcast louder than a riot co-hosts Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael on how the definition of “gang” is applied to rap crews.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio version above.
Ayesha Rascoe, weekend edition: Can you talk about the links between criminal justice and rappers? Rappers getting caught up in the passing of time isn’t uncommon, is it?
Rodney Carmichael: The truth is, rappers — at least in this country — are overwhelmingly black. This means that nine times out of 10 they come from communities that are historically over-policed. Much like walking while Black was likely to get you stopped and frisked in New York City in the early 2000s, rapping while Black would definitely put you on the NYPD’s hip-hop docket watch list at the time.
Clearly, black people in America are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. But these RICO laws were designed to target organized crime – the mob, people like John Gotti, these very institutionalized organizations. But now we see it applied to rap teams or what the police call gangs.
Sydney Madden: RICO is most often used as a tactic to wipe out entire street gangs, and the definition of a street gang gets really squishy when you look at it in black communities. When prosecutors apply RICO to rap, it’s not just the rappers who get caught up in the system, it’s their entire crew and everyone around them. Everyone is enlisted and classified as a gang member.
Basically, it allows prosecutors to hold anyone and everyone in an entire group accountable for the worst things someone in their circle has done. So if you’re a rapper and you associate with people who engage in criminal activity – maybe you all grew up in the same neighborhood, maybe you ran the same streets before you started in entertainment, maybe you brought them with you off the streets in entertainment – prosecutors can use all of that and use RICO laws to label you an organized crime syndicate.
When you cast a big net like that, the complication for me seems to be this idea of – I grew up with these people. They are my friends, they are my brothers. So, yeah, we’re hanging out. But it seems a bit different from the crowd, where there was a very strict hierarchy and structure. I guess what I’m asking is what does it mean to be a gang?
Carmichael: It’s a good question. It’s the one we really asked for and intrigued in the first season of louder than a riot. In our reporting for this season, we spoke to this gang expert and academic, Babe Howell, and she really explained for us this difference between gangs in the most organized sense and neighborhood teams which are much less organized and generally run by minors. by young people who grew up together and who, she says, according to studies, are really more likely to come out of this juvenile criminal phase, unless they get caught up in the system. RICO, when applied to rap stars, often the rappers aren’t the ones accused of the most egregious crimes. But due to their fame, and sometimes the belief that they are funding the whole operation, they are often portrayed as the proverbial kingpins.
The other thing that makes these hip-hop arrests unique is that often the lyrics and music videos they make are used as part of the indictment. It’s a growing trend where hip-hop is used; instead of being just art, [it’s] used as, no, it’s proof that they’re part of a gang, that they’re all together, and that they’re engaging in criminal activity.
Mad : It’s a trend that’s really strong right now in the public consciousness. But it’s actually a practice of criminalizing hip-hop, or just black music in general, it’s a pattern that goes way back in American history. As for the rap lyrics on trial, last year Maryland’s highest court of appeals ruled that the lyrics were admissible as evidence in criminal cases. This decision stems from a murder conviction where the accused was sentenced to 50 years. His words, which he rapped over a prison payphone three weeks before his trial began, were taken by the judge as a criminal confession.
Meanwhile, in New York, a bill is introduced to limit the use of rap lyrics in criminal cases as evidence. But this bill is still being debated in the New York Senate. In 2019, the Supreme Court refused to hear “words on a trial”, despite many high-profile artists like Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill and Killer Mike all insisting on it. Rulings like these continue to set legal precedents, and because it happens almost exclusively in hip-hop, it’s nearly impossible to see it through a lens other than racial.
When it comes to rap lyrics, they’re taken at face value. But just because you’re rapping about selling drugs doesn’t mean you’ve been selling drugs. Sometimes people just face it, or they tell stories they see about other people, right?
Carmichael: This talks about another thing that we talked about a lot in the first season [of LOTR] which is the fact that the artistic merits of hip-hop are not judged in the same way as they are for other genres. It is not considered creativity or even genius, but rather a simple autobiography. Like, “How can people make this stuff up, especially black kids? They just have to rap what they know.” It strikes at the most damaging ways in which black art and black music are judged in this country.
In the first season of louder than a riotyou chronic the rise of the rapper Bobby Shmurda then his indictment and arrest, just as he was growing up. He was caught in a case where the prosecution said he was part of a gang and possibly the kingpin. Can you talk about some of the similarities to what happened to Bobby Shmurda and what seems to be happening to Young Thug and Gunna right now?
Carmichael: This is the dichotomy in which we currently live. Basically, we have a music industry that rewards artists who exploit their connection to the streets. Then, on the other hand, we have a justice system determined to criminalize those same relationships – whether they are real relationships or whether they are dramatized. For young people who have been seduced by the limelight and very often looking for a way out of the streets, rapping about where you’re from and the things you or your people used to doing it on the streets has the potential to net you millions of dollars a year – or years in prison. If you’re an icon like Young Thug, maybe even both.