Young Thug trial: What to know after opening statements


A previous version of this story and its headline incorrectly referred to the trial as federal. It is a state trial. The story has been corrected.

Young Thug’s long-awaited trial in Atlanta got underway with opening statements this week, kicking off what might become a lengthy proceeding over the hip-hop star’s alleged connection to criminal street gang activity.

Defense attorney Brian Steel, who is representing Young Thug (real name Jeffery Lamar Williams), made the case Tuesday that the rap star used stories from his upbringing and home life for his lyrics, and that their meaning is open to interpretation — not an admission of alleged criminal activity.

“These are stories he knew. These are the words that he rhymed,” Steel said. “These are phrases in a song, and whatever the listener takes from it, you will learn, is what the song means. This is all. This is freedom of speech in America.”

The trial’s opening statements arrived roughly 18 months after charges of gang-related activity were brought against Williams, with the government building its case in part on song lyrics such as “cooking white brick” and “I killed his man in front of his momma.” Williams was one of more than two dozen defendants charged with conspiracy to violate Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in May 2022, as well as participating in criminal street gang activity.

The rapper faces additional charges including three counts of violating Georgia’s controlled substances act, possession of a firearm while committing a felony and possession of a machine gun. He has pleaded not guilty to all eight counts. Six defendants, including Williams, are standing trial.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis has alleged that Williams was associated with a Bloods-affiliated criminal street gang called Young Slime Life (or YSL). The allegations suggest that the artist’s rap lyrics often use the acronym “YSL” — the initials of both the gang and Thug’s record label, Young Stoner Life Records. Prosecutors intend on using the rap lyrics in the trial. The other five defendants on trial include Marquavius Huey, Deamonte Kendrick (who goes by the rap name Yak Gotti), Quamarvious Nichols, Rodalius Ryan and Shannon Stillwell.

Willis used the same RICO law to indict former president Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants in connection with their alleged attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Steel spent nearly three hours Tuesday countering a list of “overt acts,” such as alleged drug possession, that the government included in the overall racketeering case but has not charged his client with. He also delved into Williams’s text and message exchanges with others by adding additional context to the conversations that, he claimed, the prosecution left out.

The defense attorney also read through Young Thug’s lyrics, pointing out how his words were open to interpretation and don’t prove any alleged crime by Williams. At one point, Steel said the song “Pushin P” (by Young Thug, Gunna and Future) is about “pushing positivity” — even though others might consider the song about promoting power or selling drugs.

The defense attorney said Young Thug was too busy filming music videos, performing concerts and earning money to lead or organize the YSL gang. Even the hip-hop star’s name of Young Thug doesn’t reference anything criminal, he said.

“If he could ever make it as a musical artist and help his family, himself and his many others out of this endless cycle of hopelessness, he would be ‘truly humbled under God’. That’s what ‘thug’ means,” Steel said.

The defense’s opening remarks came after the prosecution delivered its own remarks to the jury Monday, which led to objections, delays and calls for a mistrial.

Adriane Love, the chief deputy district attorney, made the opening statement on behalf of prosecutors Monday, saying that Williams and the other defendants partook in gang-related activity for years.

“YSL checks all the boxes for being a criminal street gang,” she said.

“Defendant Jeffery Williams was its proclaimed leader,” she said. “YSL, as the evidence will show, didn’t move individually. The members and associates of YSL moved like a pack, with defendant Jeffery Williams as its head,” Love said.

Her opening statement was interrupted as Williams’s defense team called for a mistrial, after Love’s presentation tied Williams’s attorney to a separate case, which Judge Glanville had previously ordered against. The defense said it had not seen several slides in her PowerPoint presentation, despite court orders to exchange materials that would be presented. After a lengthy back and forth, which included other objections from the defense to material in the presentation, the motion was denied by Judge Glanville.

Still, multiple attorneys representing the defendants called out alleged factual errors within Love’s opening statement presentation slides and called for them to be removed from the case.

The delays Monday morning follow multiple postponements in the trial, which has drawn national attention for raising the question about how rap lyrics could be used by prosecutors in legal disputes.

Several delays postponed the trial, including a lengthy jury selection as some potential jurors had to leave the case over its potentially lengthy schedule, according to the Associated Press. On Nov. 1, a jury of 12 people were selected for the trial after nearly 10 months.

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Williams was first arrested on May 9, 2022, and charged alongside 27 others, including rappers Gunna and Yak Gotti. Several of the defendants took plea deals, including Gunna, an Atlanta rapper whose real name is Sergio Kitchens and had a close association with Young Thug.

Prosecutors argue that Young Thug, Gunna and other rappers charged in the case hinted at criminal behavior through lyrics in their songs. The defense, as well as civil rights attorneys, have argued that lyrics are an example of freedom of expression and that targeting rap lyrics is also an attack on Black art.

The legal dispute paused a growing career for Young Thug, who has seen three of his albums hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. He has been in custody since being arrested in 2022. The rapper, who has collaborated with artists such as Drake, Travis Scott and Nicki Minaj, has been nominated for four Grammys, and won song of the year in 2019 for his songwriting work on Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” Attorneys for Williams and the Fulton County district attorney’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Ben Brasch contributed to this report, which has been updated.


A previous version of this article misspelled the given name of Young Thug. It is Jeffery Lamar Williams, not Jeffrey. The article has been corrected.

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