Why Young Thug's RICO charges reflect criminalization of hip-hop Ayesha Rascoe talks with Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael of NPR's Louder Than A Riot about the RICO charges against Young Thug and the wider intersection of criminal justice and hip-hop.

The charges against Young Thug build on a growing trend of criminalizing rap crews

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Last week, the Fulton County district attorney in Atlanta charged rappers Young Thug and Gunna with an indictment of more than 80 pages for allegedly participating in street gang activities and violating RICO law. That's short for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, a law that was originally designed to fight organized crime - think the Mafia. The indictment names Young Slime Life, Young Thug's rap collective, as a street gang, with the rapper as its founder. But these latest charges and the arrests fit within a larger web of how the criminal justice system is using RICO to prosecute hip-hop artists. NPR's Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael, who co-host the podcast Louder Than A Riot about the intersection of hip-hop and mass incarceration, join us now. Hi, guys.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha. Thanks for having us.


RASCOE: So, I mean, just to start off, can you talk to the audience who may not be as familiar with Young Thug? I mean, he is a huge rapper. Like, when this news came down, my sister called me up immediately and was like, they got Thug. They got Thug. I mean, she - and she loves hip-hop. And so, like, Young Thug is huge, right?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. I mean, he's inarguably one of the most influential artists in hip-hop and pop music today. And, you know, coming out of Atlanta, which is also where I'm from - he's easily one of the most innovative artists to come out of this city since Outkast. Elton John is one of his biggest fans. That's all you need to know.

RASCOE: So can you talk about the connections between, like, the criminal justice system and rappers? You know, rappers getting caught up in doing time is not uncommon, right?

CARMICHAEL: I mean, the truth is rappers, at least in this country, they're predominantly Black. So, you know, that means 9 times out of 10, they're coming from communities that are historically overpoliced, really. Just like walking while Black was likely to get you stopped and frisked in New York in the early 2000s, rapping while Black would definitely land you in the surveillance lineup of the NYPD's hip-hop dossier back then.

RASCOE: Well, it seems like something different is going on, like, beyond just - obviously, Black people in America are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. But these RICO laws - I mean, they were, you know, designed to target, like, organized crime - the mob, you know? People like John Gotti - like, these very institutionalized, like, organizations. But now we're seeing it apply to rap crews or what, you know, the police are calling gangs.

MADDEN: Exactly like you said. Now RICO is most commonly used as a tactic to sweep up entire street gangs. And the definition of a street gang gets real spongy when you look at it coming in Black communities. So when prosecutors apply RICO to rap, it's not just the rappers getting caught up in the system, but it's their whole crew and their whole entourage. So if you're a rapper and you associate with people engaging in criminal activity - maybe y'all grew up on the same block, maybe you used to run the same streets before you switched into entertainment, maybe you brought them with you out of the streets into entertainment - prosecutors can use all that and use RICO laws to brand y'all as an organized crime syndicate.

RASCOE: Rodney, I mean, I guess, like, when you're casting a big net like that, what does it mean to be a gang?

CARMICHAEL: No, that's a good question. And it's one that we really asked and puzzled over a lot in Season 1 of Louder Than A Riot. And in our reporting for that season, we talked to this gang expert and academic. Her name was Babe Howell. And she really broke down for us this difference between gangs in the more organized sense and really just neighborhood crews that are way more unorganized and typically driven by juveniles who, she says, studies show are really more likely to grow out of that youthful criminal phase unless they get caught up in the system. And the thing about RICO when it's applied to rap stars - you know, a lot of times, the rappers are not the ones accused of the most egregious crimes. But because of their celebrity and sometimes the belief that they're bankrolling the whole operation, they are often painted as the proverbial kingpins.

RASCOE: The other thing that kind of makes these hip-hop arrests unique is that a lot of times, the lyrics and the music videos that they make - like, their hit songs from Young Thug are being used as part of the indictment. And that's, like, a growing trend where hip-hop is being used - instead of just as art, is being used as, no, this is evidence that they are in a gang, that they're all together and that they're engaging in criminal activity.

MADDEN: I mean, this is a trend that's really loud right now in the public consciousness, but it's actually a practice of criminalizing hip-hop or just Black music in general that's a pattern that stretches way, way far back in America's history. But when it comes to rap lyrics being put on trial, just last year, the state of Maryland's highest appeal court ruled that the lyrics are admissible as evidence in criminal cases. And this decision stemmed from a murder case conviction where the defendant was sentenced to 50 years. And his lyrics, which he rapped over a jail payphone three weeks before the start of his trial, were taken by the judge as a criminal confession.

CARMICHAEL: Basically, we have a music industry that rewards artists for exploiting their connection to the streets. And then, on the other hand, we've got a justice system that's dead set on criminalizing those same connections. You know, whether they're real connections, whether they're dramatized, like we were saying before. So for young people who are4 seduced by the limelight and really oftentimes just looking for a way out of the streets, rapping about where you're from and the things that you or your people used to do in the streets - it has the possibility of earning you millions of dollars a year or years in prison. And if you're an icon like Young Thug, you know, maybe even both.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael, hosts of Louder Than A Riot. Thank you so much for joining us.

CARMICHAEL: Thanks for having us, Ayesha.

MADDEN: Thank you.

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