Skip to main content

From Art to Evidence: The Admissibility of Rap Lyrics in Criminal Trials

Posted by on Wednesday, December 13, 2023 in Blog Posts.

By Sophie Zelony

Jeffery Lamar Williams, more famously known as Grammy-award winning, Billboard-chart-topping, Atlanta-born rapper,  “Young Thug,” is back in the spotlight, and his rap music has taken center-stage in Fulton County Superior Court as he faces criminal charges for conspiring to violate Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (“RICO”) Act, alongside 27 other defendants. To establish a conspiracy, prosecutors must introduce evidence linking the members of the conspiracy to each other and to the alleged acts. In this case, Prosecutors argue that “YSL,” the acronym for his label, “Young Stoner Records,” also stands for “Young Slime Life,” an Atlanta street gang affiliated with the national Bloods gang.[1] They rely heavily on his rap lyrics as “admissions” of criminal activity committed by members of purported Atlanta street gang, “Young Slime Life.” [2] Judge Ural Glanville has thus far allowed prosecutors to admit 17 Young Thug lyrics as evidence during trial, causing decades-old debates to resurface about whether rap lyrics are too prejudicial to be admissible in the courtroom and the extent of First Amendment protections afforded to artists.

If rap lyrics are denied First Amendment protections, then rappers may fear that because rap as an art form typically glamorizes violence, sex, and drugs, then lyrics may have a prejudicial effect on a jury in a criminal trial. In pretrial proceedings, Young Thug’s attorney argued that rap lyrics were inadmissible as evidence because rap is afforded protections of creative expression just as other art is under the First Amendment, and artists like Young Thug should be free to share repugnant ideas in works of creative expression without fear of criminalization.[3] Judge Glanville rejected this argument, stating “the First Amendment is not on trial.” In response to Young Thug’s indictment, more than 100 artists, industry leaders, and legal experts joined forces by signing an open letter urging federal and state legislation to affirmatively grant First Amendment protections to rap lyrics, because “rappers are storytellers…But more than any other art form, rap lyrics are essentially being used as confessions in an attempt to criminalize Black creativity and artistry.”[4]

Rep. Jamaal Bowman and Rep. Hank Johnson introduced the Restoring Artistic Protection Act (RAP) to U.S. Congress, which, if passed, would protect artists’ First Amendment rights by limiting the admissibility of their lyrics as evidence in criminal and civil proceedings.[5] The Act adds a presumption to the Federal Rules of Evidence that would limit the admissibility of evidence of an artist’s creative or artistic expression against that artist in court.[6] Because of the nature of the art form, rap music admitted as evidence may be highly prejudicial to a jury. Hip-hop scholar Erik Nielson has acknowledged the significance of this prejudice, telling HuffPost that rap is “made-up stories told from the perspective of a made-up character,” and is “really poor evidence,” though it “h[as] a lasting impact on jurors.”[7] One example of the prejudicial effect that rap lyrics can have on a jury occurred in 2001 when a jury convicted young rapper McKinley “Mac” Phipps of manslaughter. The case lacked direct evidence tying Mac to the crime, yet prosecution used rap lyrics from Mac’s song, “Murda, Murda, Kill, Kill” to show violent lyrics indicated violent actions.[8] In 2021, Louisiana Governor granted Mac clemency.[9]

Rap lyrics being admitted as evidence in criminal proceedings has been a controversial legal practice for decades, and Young Thug’s current national attention during his trial brings this pivotal issue to the forefront of the legal arena. The outcome of his trial may have important ramifications in both the rap and legal community, and this marks a pivotal trial for artists everywhere.

Sophie Zelony is a 2L at Vanderbilt Law School from Atlanta, GA. Before attending law school, Sophie attended Vanderbilt University and received a B.A. in both Communication Studies and Law, History, & Society.

[1] Elliot Williams, Opinion: The danger in putting rap lyrics on trial, CNN Opinion (last updated Dec. 7, 2023, at 11:48 AM),

[2] Megan Butler, Judge rules rap lyrics can be used as evidence in hip-hop artist Young Thug’s racketeering trial, Courthouse News Service (Nov. 9, 2023),

[3] Bill Donahue, Judge Rules Young Thug’s Lyrics Can Be Used In YSL RICO Case: ‘The First Amendment Is Not On Trial’, Billboard (Nov. 9, 2023),

[4] Art on Trial: Protect Black Art (Nov. 1, 2022),

[5] Congressmen Johnson, Bowman Re-Introduce Bill To Protect Artists’ 1st Amendment Rights, Congressman Hank Johnson (April 28, 2023),

[6] Id.

[7] David Lohr, Prosecutor Used Hip-Hop As A Weapon To Convict Mac Phipps, HuffPost (last updated Dec. 6, 2017),

[8] Ashley Steenson, Can rappers be jailed for lyrics and image? History shows they can, Washington Post (July 18, 2022, at 6:00 AM),

[9] Id.

Tags: , , , , , ,