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Jury selection begins in Young Thug gang conspiracy trial

Georgia prosecutors allege that chart-topper Young Thug, seen here at a New York fashion show in December 2018, leads a criminal street gang. ©AFP

New York (AFP) - Jury selection got underway Monday in Atlanta in the sweeping US gang conspiracy trial of influential rapper Young Thug and several others, criminal proceedings that have rocked the music world in the southern city and beyond.

It however could be weeks before any arguments are heard, with the choice of jurors anticipated to be lengthy as the Georgia state court tries to find a crop of impartial people able to sit for a trial expected to last much of 2023.

Prosecutors say Young Thug's record label is a front for a crime ring, and have held up song lyrics as evidence of the accusation, a strategy that has raised eyebrows and drawn rebuke.

The hip-hop star born Jeffery Williams, who has pleaded not guilty, was one of more than two dozen people charged last spring by a grand jury, which said those named belong to a branch of the Bloods street gang identified as Young Slime Life, or YSL.

The indictment shook the rap world in Atlanta, where Young Thug is considered among the industry's most impactful figures who has been elemental to forging contemporary rap's sound.

Prosecutors hit all the defendants with conspiring to violate the state's criminal racketeering law, which is modeled on the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, widely known as RICO.

In its early days, that statute was used to go after the mob, but it was more recently cited to take down the disgraced R&B singer R. Kelly over a litany of sex crimes.

Winning a RICO trial necessitates proving predicate offenses that support the conspiracy charge, which in this case include murder, assault, carjacking, drug dealing and theft.

Defense lawyers insist YSL -- Young Stoner Life Records, a hip-hop and trap label that Young Thug founded in 2016 -- is simply a music label and vague association of artists, not a gang.

Controversially, prosecutors are holding up rap lyrics from musicians including Young Thug and Gunna -- who was also charged but agreed to a plea deal -- and even a bar from a posthumous Juice WRLD single.

"I think if you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I'm going to use it," said Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, which includes Atlanta.

'Rap on Trial'

The case is far from the first time rap lyrics have been cited in courtrooms, a practice that has sparked controversy numerous times.

Erik Nielson, a University of Richmond professor and specialist on rap music as evidence in criminal trials, will likely testify as an expert witness on behalf of the defense.

His 2019 book with Andrea L. Dennis, "Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America," holds that courts routinely take slice-of-life lyrics out of context to criminalize and imprison both professional rappers and aspiring artists who are primarily Black and brown.

Out of the 28 people originally named in the indictment, 14 are anticipated to stand trial, a process that could last six to nine months.

Six of the original defendants will be tried separately, and eight -- including Gunna and Young Thug's brother, Quantavious Grier -- have agreed to plea deals.

Court documents show the state could potentially call well over 300 witnesses, including prominent rap world figures like Lil Wayne.

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