Can rappers be imprisoned for lyrics and image? History shows they can.

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On May 9, police arrested the Atlanta rapper young thug (Jeffery Lamar Williams) and raided his home. Quoting journalist Michael Seiden, Complex News reported that Thug was “charged with conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and participation in criminal street gang activity.” On May 11, the rapper Gunna (Sergio Giavanni Kitchens) surrendered. The rappers are two of 28 people named in an indictment against record label Young Slime Life or Young Stoner Life (YSL), which authorities are calling a gang. Rapper YSL Lil Keed (Raqhid Jevon Render), 24, died May 13 in Los Angeles. The cause of his death is unknown.

The charges against YSL include murder, assault and other racketeering offences. Specifically, the indictment alleges that YSL protected and enhanced the “reputation, power and territory” of a criminal enterprise by posting messages, images and videos that displayed “a willingness to engage to violence”.

The indictment accuses YSL of involvement with the Bloods gang, in part through the use of “colors, clothing, tattoos and hand signs, as well as verbal and written identifiers”. In this case, Young Thug and Gunna’s artistic choices, such as lyrics and social media posts, can be used as evidence in court.

This isn’t the first time that art has been a key element in a criminal case involving a Southern rapper at the peak of his career. In the late 1990s, McKinley “Mac” Phipps was a young artist signed to Master P’s No Limit Records. Phipps’ case revealed that law enforcement can misunderstand rap music and culture and then misuse it to prosecute artists.

The No Limit Records story began in Calliope public housing complex in New Orleans. A New Deal product, Calliope was first promoted as a safe choice for families. The city invested in the neighborhood, building a gymnasium in 1949 and additional units in 1954.

But in the 1980s, with the introduction of crack cocaine, residents were faced with the problems of addiction and violent crime. As the war on drugs escalated, residents faced a growing law enforcement presence. When the residents began recording rap music, interactions with crime, drugs, and the police shaped their sound and the scene around it.

The work of three Calliope residents and brothers – Silkk the Shocker (Vyshonn King Miller), C-Murder (Corey Miller) and Master P (Percy Miller) – was central to this scene. After a few years in California, Master P launched the New Orleans iteration of No Limit Records in 1995. The label’s eclectic sound combines the new style of West Coast rap, influenced by artists like Snoop Dogg, with genres like bounce , a variety of New Orleans club music.

While Master P established himself as a businessman, he and C-Murder never left Calliope behind. Among other charitable activities, the brothers provided residents with school supplies and food. C-Murder also directed the documentary “Directly from the projects(2004), which told the story of No Limit’s rise in the context of life in the 3rd Ward of New Orleans. The documentary shows vendors advertising children’s life insurance and gun violence erupting in a second line parade.

As C-Murder shows, violence was a part of life and had an outsized influence on the music of No Limit artists, exemplified by the lyrics of songs like Phipps’ “Soldier Party” (1998) and “We Deadly” ( 1999). No Limit artists often claimed the identity of soldiers and likened their surroundings to war zones, drawing on both their life experiences and military elements.

Phipps joined No Limit in 1996 after competition from several labels. Known as the “New Orleans NasPhipps released his first record at age 13, debuting in an unprecedented style that combined musical production influenced by New York rap with lyrics commenting on the world around him in New Orleans.

Although he did not grow up in Calliope, Phipps’ lyrics draw on similar violent memories of Master P and his brothers. He drew inspiration from and made original contributions to the No Limit brand, which featured references to self-reliance and military discipline.

Phipps’ lyrics and artistic personality made him a target of law enforcement. In 2001, he was convicted of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Barron Victor Jr.. In court, the prosecution cited lyrics from Phipps’ song “Murda, Murda, Kill, Kill” to persuade the jury to convict, arguing that the violent lyrics indicated violent actions.

The prosecution also mentioned one of Phipps’ nicknames, “The Camouflage Assassin”. After joining No Limit, Phipps referenced the name in songs and wore camouflage in photos. Yet prosecutors ignored how it fit into the No Limit brand. The label logo was a tank – a tribute to Master P’s grandfather, who was a veteran. In addition to alluding to the military in her lyrics, No Limit rapper Mia X also wore camouflage in 1997 to Source Magazine. In 1998, Master P even released an action figure of himself, wearing his trademark chain and camo.

But the state’s strategy of using rap music and fashion choices to win his case has been successful. The jury convicted Phipps without direct evidence and despite his inability to reach a unanimous verdict – which the Supreme Court did illegal in 2020.

In 2021, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) granted clemency to Phipps following public pressure after a video surfaced in 2016 showing another man confessing to the shooting. The state of Louisiana has not yet exonerated Phipps.

After his release, Phipps explained that while his songs and fashion couldn’t technically be legally considered evidence, the prosecution nonetheless exploited his artistry to “paint a character of [him]” who urged the jury to convict.

Phipps’ case contains warnings about the indictments against Young Thug and Gunna – particularly the references to words, colors and even emoji in the charges. This indicates that prosecutors can again use art and imagery to demonstrate intent. Law enforcement may again seek to present rappers’ lyrics as evidence of violent acts, rather than artistic depictions or social commentary on violence. As Gunna argued recently in a June 14 statement, “My art is not allowed to be entertainment in its own right, I have no right to that freedom as a black man in America.”

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