Jeffery Lamar Williams — the celebrated Atlanta trap recording artist better known as Young Thug — walked into Fulton County Jail in May to a standing ovation.
The arrest was an event. The jail, on Rice Street, shut down the intake of other arrestees to process him in. Atlanta’s city-contracted wrecker service diverted all its trucks to haul his many cars out of the rented property in Buckhead where police found him May 9. The entire city paused to take inventory on the massive gang arrest, with 27 other people — including a second superstar rapper, Sergio “Gunna” Kitchens.
Previous Fulton County prosecutors have been reluctant to invoke the law, concerned about the abuses of mass incarceration and its power to stigmatize Black defendants. But Atlanta today faces a rash of violence that distorts policies and murders good intentions.
While official claims about gang culpability for street violence ought to be taken with a grain of salt — such figures are often pulled out of thin air — Young Slime Life, the gang Williams is alleged to lead, left a trail of very real bodies, the victims of a seven-year gang feud.
Rising violent crime and the abuses attendant to gang prosecutions have received national attention amid the push for criminal justice reform following George Floyd’s murder. Local dynamics in Atlanta make discussions of such reforms — and of the abuses they target — especially fraught. On the one hand, a Black mayor and a Black prosecutor are charged with protecting poor Black people in Black neighborhoods, while white conservatives use Atlanta violence as a political punching bag. On the other hand, the machinery of rap music in Atlanta increasingly exploits real-world violence to promote the street “authenticity” of Atlanta trap, primarily to white audiences.
In the middle are austere jail cells, where Young Thug and many others now wait for their trials.
Violence is on the rise in Atlanta. The homicide rate is up by about one-third year-to-date and about 60 percent over pre-pandemic levels. The city is on pace for roughly 170 murders this year, compared with 99 in 2019.
The problem, as can be gleaned from police reports, appears to be terrifyingly basic: The cops increasingly describe killings as targeted. A small subset of shooters want to make sure their victims aren’t just bleeding but dead.
Sometimes that can look like the casually brutal murder of Anthony Frazier, a security guard at a seafood restaurant on Cleveland Avenue who took a bullet point-blank in the back of the head last month. Or it can be a plain hit, like the murder of Shymel Drinks, whose body was found beneath an overpass just south of downtown in March. Police described him as a member of a gang, allegedly killed by rivals in Young Slime Life as an act of reprisal.
This is what Atlanta’s gang war looks like. It has been raging in varying forms since 2015 and went into overdrive during the pandemic, reversing more than a decade of the city’s gains against violence.
“The murder rate in Atlanta is over the murder rate in Chicago!” bellowed Republican former Sen. David Perdue in a gubernatorial candidates’ debate in April. “What we have in Georgia is a runaway crime situation that the governor is burying his head about. … We have the highest murder rate in the country!”
Atlanta’s murder rate over the last 12 months is higher than Chicago’s: 36 per 100,000 people killed to Chicago’s 27 per 100,000. None of the rest of what Perdue said is true. Atlanta doesn’t crack the top 20 cities over 100,000 residents for murders. Georgia isn’t in the top 10 states for murder rates. Kemp still engaged in a bidding war for “tough-on-crime” credentials.
The rhetoric from white conservatives has had one of its intended effects: blunting reform efforts. Atlanta’s relatively progressive, Black political leadership has incrementally turned away from talk about reform and toward whatever can get the body count down, now.
The Young Slime Life, or YSL, indictment has 28 defendants, only a handful of whom can pay for a robust defense out of pocket. The wide net of the charges is designed to get people to fold and offer testimony to save their own skin.
Not everyone is convinced that it’s a good tactic.
“This sweeping indictment will come at a great expense to taxpayers and all Atlantans who would prefer violence intervention and thoughtful investment in solutions proven to be effective,” said Devin Franklin, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “The Fulton County District Attorney’s Office has invested tremendously in crafting a narrative of dangerousness in Atlanta without providing data to the public substantiating the contention that so-called repeat offenders are primarily to blame for harm in Atlanta.”
Some critics hold that the targets in this case are Black people who have risen from poverty, that perhaps the charges are a prosecutorial overreach in the face of political pressure to act. These critics would argue that RICO cases should be reserved for people with institutional power, like transnational criminal cartels, mafia crews, and corporate malefactors.
Should Black criminal enterprises be immune to drawing a RICO charge? The idea is fundamentally insulting.
There might be something to it, but to make that argument one must overlook the role of the music industry in Atlanta — an institution, one might say — and its intertwined relationship with the gang violence. Should Black criminal enterprises be immune to drawing a RICO charge? The idea is fundamentally insulting. Poor Black people’s lives lost in street warfare deserve the protection of the law.
When looking at the problem of street violence and its connection to Atlanta’s music industry as a question of racism, consider the corporate parentage of Young Thug’s label. Len Blavatnik is the owner of Warner Music Group, which owns the 300 Entertainment label that distributes the music of Young Thug on his YSL label. Blavatnik is a British-American billionaire born in the former Soviet Union, in what is now Ukraine, who made his fortune in the Russian fossil fuel and natural resource industries and who co-owns Sual Partners, the second-largest stakeholder in the Russian aluminum company Rusal. (Rusal’s former owner, Oleg Deripaska, came under U.S. sanctions and divested his shares in 2018 in a restructuring agreement overseen by the U.S. Treasury.) He donated $1 million to former President Donald Trump’s slush fund/inaugural committee.
If Atlanta’s musical infrastructure is cancerous because of the way street gangs are using their connection to music studios and recording executives to recruit new members into acts of violence, a RICO prosecution is an attack on structural power.
Young Thug’s rise to stardom ran in parallel with a gang war between feuding sets of Bloods. The conflict erupted in 2015, following the assassination of Bloods gang leader Donovan “Peanut” Thomas. Prosecutors allege that Williams — Young Thug — rented the car used by five gang members, including rising rap star Yak Gotti, to conduct the drive-by shooting that killed Thomas.
According to the indictment, Williams spoke with Kyle Oree, the leader of the cultlike gang Sex Money Murda, shortly after Thomas’s death. Prosecutors appear to have captured a call to Oree in jail, in which the hit is purportedly discussed. A few days after talking to Oree, Young Thug went on social media to argue that people who “get right into the courtroom and tell the God’s honest truth don’t get it, y’all n****s need to get fucking killed, bro, from me and YSL.”
Bringing charges against a group like the Young Slime Life gang proved challenging. Prosecutors had to disentangle YSL the music label, which is an imprint of Warner Music, from YSL the street gang, an outgrowth of South Atlanta organized crime around Cleveland Avenue, the latest iteration of previous gangs like Raised on Cleveland and 30 Deep.
Thomas’s murder divided Atlanta into two warring camps: YSL and YFN, another Blood gang in Atlanta loyal to Thomas. YFN is fronted by another popular rapper, Rayshawn Bennett, known as YFN Lucci.
The conflict only accelerated during the pandemic, though violence appears to have slowed down since the May 9 indictment and arrests.
Lucci is in Fulton County Jail — somewhere carefully isolated from Young Thug — awaiting trial on gang charges and a felony murder charge from a botched 2021 drive-by shooting on YSL gang members. Lucci allegedly drove the car. When their targets killed the triggerman in return fire, Lucci ditched the body in the middle of the street and sped away, the YFN gang indictment said.
The cases are sure to leverage Georgia’s unique gang law. Normally, prosecutors can’t use rap lyrics or Instagram photos of men holding guns while throwing up gang signs as evidence of a crime in an armed robbery case or an assault, because alone these things have nothing to do with those crimes. A judge would consider it improperly prejudicial.
But in a gang terrorism case under Georgia law, the prosecution has to prove that other crimes were committed as part of gang activity. So all evidence of gang activity becomes admissible, and that evidence can be used in the trials of all the other alleged gang members charged under the same statute. The Georgia law can be devastating for the defense: Juries see mountains of evidence from a wide array of crimes, along with testimony about gang signs and initiations.
Police and civic leaders began 2022 with calls for Atlantans to engage in nonviolent conflict resolution, because the city’s murders appeared to be driven by inexplicable spontaneous rage and not, say, the more statistically predictable drug deal gone bad or robbery attempt.
“I mean, folks are going to the finality of any argument, like the end of the argument is to end you, to end your life,” said Andre Dickens, Atlanta’s newly elected mayor, at a “Clippers and Cops” barbershop forum in January. “We’re finding that the person that’s dead also had a gun. So the person that shot was thinking, ‘I’ve got to shoot you before you shoot me,’ because so many people have guns right now.” He added, “A lot of times I’m seeing these things happening because people just don’t know how to settle a dispute — without going to a gun.”
Historically, Atlanta voters have picked their mayors based on issues of housing, transportation, and city service problems. A poll ahead of the Atlanta mayor’s race last year, though, showed that 48 percent of people considered crime to be the most important problem in the city, with about 61 percent of respondents saying they live within a mile of an area where they’d be afraid to walk alone at night.
On the campaign trail, Dickens took a balanced approach to fighting Atlanta’s growing crime problem. “While arrests for violent criminals are of course necessary, we simply cannot arrest our way out of a crime wave,” he said in his crime policy platform. “We need a comprehensive approach. Diversion and police alternatives are an integral part of managing Atlanta’s criminal justice system.”
The city is pursuing an expansion of its pre-arrest diversion initiative, ramping up its new Office of Violence Reduction, and planning to create a hospital-based violence intervention program at Grady Memorial. The early days of Dickens’s term, however, have largely focused on enforcement.
After three months in office, Dickens announced the creation of a repeat offenders unit in the police department to identify people most likely to commit an act of violence and get them off the street. The unit will direct citizen reviewers to follow the cases of recidivists, documenting the trials and reporting on the outcomes.
The worries about creating a stigma had been overcome by the politics of the crime surge.
Rap is still art, and artistic freedom is a hallmark of the First Amendment, said Devin Rafus, a criminal defense attorney at Arora Law. “Young men use lyrics and rap as a way to express their feelings, or how the community is growing up, or what they see on the street, and how to sort of break free from it,” he said. “To use that against someone in the future, and try and say, ‘Hey, you must be bad, or you must have committed this crime,’ because you talked about either committing a crime that’s similar or something totally different that’s bad as well. It’s just very prejudicial to a jury and to the defendant when they hear that information.”
“The statutes are stacked against us,” Rafus said. “I don’t think that just because someone writes a song, that that necessarily makes it true either then or in the future.”
“The statutes are stacked against us.”
That argument, though, has so far fallen flat in court. Deamonte “Yak Gotti” Kendrick’s lawyer made the connection between the case and the music plain in his ultimately unsuccessful argument for bond.
“They’re sending a message to every young kid today in the city who hopes to grow up and become a successful musician that whenever you go on YouTube and the internet and create as your art form, you’re going to have that used against you later,” Jay Abt, Kendrick’s lawyer, said. “And that is a shame on them. That is one of the greatest things that has blessed our city and our community and our state in the last two decades.”
The defense insists that this prosecution means to put rap on trial, and the aspirations of poor Black people who see music as the only way out of poverty along with it. They are arguing that Willis would prefer not to face the same fate as Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, cast out amid a perceived failure to be tough on crime.
The larger question is whether gang prosecutions tied to the music industry ultimately begin looking for targets in the music industry’s corporate penthouses. There are rich people at the top of this pyramid who are white, not from Atlanta, and profiting from Black misery, arguably being cultivated by these artists, in the name of selling records.
At some point, we must ask if the major labels are deliberately looking to promote artists who are themselves promoting violent street gangs because, in a fractured media landscape, “authentic” trap musicians are more reliably profitable.
Correction: June 27, 2022
This story previously referred to Len Blavatnik as a Russian oligarch. A billionaire enriched by the Russian fossil fuel and natural resource industries, Blavatnik was born in the former Soviet Union, now Ukraine, and holds dual citizenship in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Update: July 13, 2022
This story has been updated to provide additional details on Blavatnik’s relationship to Rusal, the company from which sanctioned oligarch Oleg Deripaska divested in 2018.