ATLANTA — Day after day, the young men came before a judge, handcuffed, clad in county jumpsuits and answering to their government names rather than their rap monikers: Slimelife Shawty, Unfoonk, Lil Duke and even the chart-topper Gunna, who is nominated for two Grammy Awards at next month’s ceremony in Los Angeles.
Each pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge, some to other crimes. And each agreed, in open court, that the famed Atlanta rap crew they were associated with — YSL, headed by the enigmatic star Jeffery Williams, or Young Thug — was not only a renowned hip-hop collective, but also a criminal street gang.
At the hearing for Slimelife Shawty, born Wunnie Lee, a prosecutor prompted him to acknowledge that his associates “have committed at least one of the following acts in the name of YSL: murder, aggravated assault, robbery, theft and/or illegal firearms possession.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Mr. Lee, 24, said.
The case has pitted law enforcement officials who say they are determined to stamp out a violent gang problem against those who see it as yet another moral panic inspired by rap, in a city with one of the most vibrant scenes in the nation. And it has once again raised questions about whether lyrics should only be taken as artistic expressions meant to portray a harsh reality, or as evidence of crimes.
The guilty pleas by the four Atlanta rappers and four other men associated with YSL, all of whom are now free on probation after seven months in jail, may have bolstered prosecutors’ blockbuster case against 14 other alleged members of the group, who are accused of conspiracy to commit racketeering, gang statute violations and more. Jury selection began last week, and the judge estimates that the trial could last six to nine months.
Most remarkable among the remaining defendants is Mr. Williams, 31, whose iconoclastic mystique and psychedelic flow have landed him on pop hits, the “Saturday Night Live” stage and in Vogue. With a maximum 120-year sentence hanging over his head, the man who fans worldwide have come to love as Young Thug — but whom prosecutors describe as a cutthroat gang leader — is now facing the prospect of growing old in prison.
The indictment charges Mr. Williams with participation in criminal street gang activity and of furthering the interest of a criminal conspiracy through a number of illegal acts; it does not charge him individually with most of those acts, which include accusations that he rented the car used in the murder of a rival gang leader and provided safe harbor for those responsible after the killing.
Mr. Williams has denied everything. “Jeffery is a kind, intelligent, hard-working, moral and thoughtful person,” his lawyer, Brian Steel, said in a statement, arguing that the rapper had been wrongly targeted by law enforcement because of his fictional persona. “Despite the unthinkable oppressive, impoverished and cruel conditions of his upbringing, he has been able to cultivate his creative genius to lawfully and ethically attain phenomenal worldwide success.”
The case has deeply shaken the pop culture universe, especially in Atlanta, Mr. Williams’s hometown, which can stake a claim as the hip-hop capital of the world. Fans, fellow artists, record executives and influential figures including Stacey Abrams, who was the Democratic nominee for governor last year, have sounded notes of concern, even outrage.
Some have accused the prosecutor, Fani T. Willis — the aggressive district attorney for Fulton County, a Black Democrat who is best known for pursuing the criminal investigation into postelection meddling in Georgia by former President Donald J. Trump — of applying a “gang stereotype” to Atlanta’s rap community, and putting Black art on trial.
The case has prompted an outcry, given how artists from the poorest parts of Atlanta have shaped global popular music. Young Thug’s nickname and YSL’s slang term of choice — slime — has gone international, its “wipe your nose” hand gesture a popular N.F.L. celebration.
But the recent admissions in court point to a parallel reality: In Atlanta, law enforcement officials say, it has become increasingly difficult to discern the difference between some rap crews and street gangs, and to disentangle where exactly the credibility-obsessed art form overlaps with criminality.
Ms. Willis contends that Atlanta is suffering from a plague of gang violence, estimating — with a hazy explanation for the figures — that up to 80 percent of violent crimes in the area are committed by gang members. She says that an eight-year war between YSL and a rival gang known as YFN, headed by another major-label rap artist, has accounted for more than 50 incidents.
But in a city with a well-established path from the hardest streets to a world of fame, fortune and major awards shows — often via songs that chronicle, and some argue glorify, an outlaw life of drugs and guns — the nature of gang culture is also mutating, according to the authorities, with social media and music increasingly important to establishing dominance and influence.
So while many young Black men in Atlanta see an escape in turning their dire circumstances in neglected communities into hard-edged rap music, investigators say some of it serves to establish clout, inspire fear, recruit members and fund illegal activity.
“We believe that Mr. Williams doesn’t sing about random theoretical acts — he sings about gang acts he’s a part of,” Don Geary, then a lawyer for the district attorney’s office, said in court last year.
Authenticity, an always slippery but foundational concept in hip-hop, has taken on even greater significance in the internet age. In places like Atlanta, it is a crucial selling point for the unflinching style of hip-hop known as trap music, which builds on earlier iterations of gangster rap and centers on the drug trade.
And on social media, fans follow not just the music, but the lives of rappers and their associates, keeping scorecards of beefs and scores settled, even rooting them on.
“It feels like they’re playing Grand Theft Auto in real life, and people are commenting on a video of them playing Grand Theft Auto,” said Gerald A. Griggs, president of Georgia’s conference of the N.A.A.C.P.
Blurring the lines between gangs and music
Atlanta was not traditionally a stronghold of the major national gangs that took root in prisons and cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. But as a rapidly gentrifying city with some of the highest income inequality in the nation — and in a state with some of the laxest gun laws — gang culture has changed.
Most common now, experts say, are what are known as “hybrid gangs”: looser constellations mixing members from various national sets, local crews and neighborhood cliques. These groups may have connections to the Bloods, Crips or Gangster Disciples, but often without their rules and hierarchies.
While some traditional gangs, like the Mafia, are strict, top-down enterprises earning money through illicit business, the chief mission of today’s groups may be simply bolstering the brand.
“That lack of structure makes it dangerous and unpredictable,” said Cara Convery, a former deputy district attorney for Fulton County who now runs a statewide unit targeting gangs. Money and territory remain important, she added, but “respect is still the primary currency of all of these gangs — it’s everything.”
In places like Atlanta, law enforcement officials contend, it has become commonplace to align primarily with homegrown stars, who can offer aspirants prestige and money.
“The new color lines,” said Marissa Viverito, a gang investigator in Ms. Willis’s office, “are the rappers.”
The authorities say they are not targeting famous individuals or rap, a varied art form, writ large. Instead, they say, prosecutors hope to hold those at the top of the criminal food chain accountable, even when they overlap with a beloved, city-defining cultural product.
Recent high-profile crimes said to be gang-related include the July 2020 killing of an 8-year-old girl; home break-ins targeting celebrities that have been tied to a recently indicted group called Drug Rich; and the December shooting deaths of two boys, ages 12 and 15, near the popular Atlantic Station mall.
Ms. Willis is a seasoned prosecutor who took office in January 2021, amid a spike in homicides and growing unease about violent crime. Her work investigating Mr. Trump, which could result in indictments this year, has earned plaudits from liberals. But her focus on gangs has also made her a de facto ally of conservative leaders who have raised alarms about a statewide problem.
Ms. Willis has expanded her anti-gang team and promised to make vigorous use of the state’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act and its Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act, or RICO. She charged Mr. Williams, or Young Thug, under both laws, and has done the same for his rival Rayshawn Bennett, the rapper known as YFN Lucci, and his associates.
Her beefed-up focus on gangs stands in contrast to other prosecutors, like George Gascón, the Los Angeles County district attorney, who in 2021 reduced, renamed and reorganized his office’s famous Hardcore Gang unit, moving away from a “purely prosecutorial model.”
Ms. Willis has faced criticism for her hard-line approach to gangs, especially her office’s use of rap lyrics in indictments, which critics say raises First Amendment concerns.
“People can continue to be angry about it,” Ms. Willis said at a news conference announcing the racketeering indictment against Drug Rich, which also included lyrics. “I have some legal advice: Don’t confess to crime on rap lyrics if you do not want them used. Or at least get out of my county.”
Lawyers for Mr. Williams have called the practice unconstitutional, arguing it is “racist and discriminatory because the jury will be so poisoned and prejudiced.”
Ms. Abrams, the prominent Democrat, said at a campaign appearance with the rapper 21 Savage last year that while “bad actors should be held accountable,” she did not believe that lyrics should be used as the basis for criminal charges. “The reality is we cannot thwart the entertainment industry in pursuit of justice,” she said.
But the authorities argue that songs are no different than a text message or a confession, if the content can be tied to real-life events. (Prosecutors, for example, say that after YSL members fired on the home of YFN Lucci’s mother, Young Thug rapped, “I shot at his mommy, now he no longer mention me.”)
“It’s a dangerous line,” said Ms. Convery, the gang prosecutor. “Art and expression and exaggeration surround all of this stuff.” However, she added: “If you are making music about the crime that you committed, I think it’s evidence. It would be crazy to leave that on the table.”
Some critics are concerned that the justice system’s focus on young Black men seems to come at the expense of other issues, including Georgia’s white nationalist groups, and worry that Ms. Willis’s aggressive use of RICO statutes, which give prosecutors wide leeway, could wrap up innocent people.
“When you blur the line between a criminal street gang and a music label, that could bring a lot of people into the net that don’t have anything to do with furthering criminal acts,” said Mr. Griggs, of the N.A.A.C.P.
In a video interview from jail before his guilty plea, Mr. Lee, better known as Slimelife Shawty, said he had been wrongly ensnared by the scope of the case.
Unlike other YSL defendants, some of whom were charged with murder, drug dealing and assault, he was accused of a single count: racketeering, or furthering YSL’s criminal enterprise by making music videos, posting online and rapping vague but threatening lyrics.
At his Dec. 16 plea hearing, however, Mr. Lee confirmed that he had sent a message containing rat and brain emojis to a witness in a YSL-affiliated suspect’s murder case. Prosecutors interpreted this as a threat of violent retaliation.
Mr. Lee was one of many young people who grew up along Cleveland Avenue, a desolate South Atlanta corridor, and were inspired by Mr. Williams and his transformation into the global star Young Thug.
Rapping the often-violent content audiences wanted to hear, Mr. Lee said from jail, became “our main go-to to get out of this place.”
A rap innovator on trial
According to court documents, YSL was founded along Cleveland Avenue in late 2012 by Mr. Williams and two other men, both of whom have pleaded guilty in the case.
But while the rapper’s defense team argues that he was repping Young Stoner Life, a fledgling record label and lifestyle brand, prosecutors say it was first Young Slime Life, an upstart criminal organization with ties to the national Blood offshoot Sex Money Murder.
The battle with crosstown rivals YFN was sparked in 2015 with the murder of Donovan Thomas, known as Nut, a behind-the-scenes connector instrumental in the rap careers of YFN Lucci and Rich Homie Quan, a once-frequent collaborator of Young Thug.
In the aftermath of the killing, the authorities say, many in the city picked sides as retaliatory shootings spilled across Atlanta.
Prosecutors say Mr. Williams rented the car used during the fatal shooting of Mr. Thomas and then urged those involved to “lay low,” giving them cash and traveling with them to Miami, according to the guilty plea last month of a YSL founder charged in the case, Antonio Sledge.
As law enforcement opened its investigation into the murder, Mr. Williams’s profile as a whimsical, genre-shifting musician — with attention-grabbing fashion sense that includes, in defiance of macho gangster stereotypes, wearing dresses — only grew.
Last January, not long before the indictment, 300 Entertainment, the label that had signed Young Thug and his YSL imprint, sold to Warner Music for a reported $400 million.
At a bail hearing last year, Kevin Liles, the chief executive of 300, was brought to tears on the stand describing Mr. Williams and “how good this guy is,” pointing to the rapper’s generosity and mentorship. He said in a statement on Wednesday: “Young Stoner Life Records is and always has been exclusively a recorded music partnership with Jeffery Williams. Nothing I’ve seen has changed my point of view.”
But the authorities say Mr. Williams’s good deeds were a cover for his dark side. The case seeks to tie him to a spate of other violent crimes, including a 2015 tour bus shooting that targeted Lil Wayne, a one-time idol turned rival.
Whether or not Young Thug is found to be YSL’s mastermind, there may be lasting consequences for members who publicly identified it as a gang. Artists who came up under him, like Mr. Lee and Gunna, born Sergio Kitchens, now face accusations of being snitches — a potentially fatal label for rappers who trade in toughness and loyalty.
Mr. Kitchens, who like the others had agreed to testify as part of his plea deal, released a statement saying he would claim his Fifth Amendment privilege if called. And on Instagram, Mr. Lee said his plea did not tell the authorities anything they did not already know.
“I admitted Young Slime Life was a gang ’cause it ain’t illegal for no group to be a gang,” he said, adding that he did not know anything about specific crimes. “Look it up.”
As Slimelife Shawty, he teased, he would soon be rapping about all of it.