Prosecutors allege that Young Thug  leads a criminal street gang
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

Prosecutors in Atlanta said Monday that rapper Young Thug was the "proclaimed leader" of a gang that "moved like a pack" to commit crimes, as opening statements in a long-delayed racketeering trial got underway.

Controversy and hiccups have dogged the sprawling trial alleging criminal conspiracy since jury selection began in January, notably over the state's presentation of rap lyrics as evidence.

The US state of Georgia holds that Young Thug's record label, YSL, is a front for a crime ring, arguing that the defendants belong to a branch of the Bloods street gang identified as Young Slime Life, or YSL.

"The evidence will show that YSL checks all of the boxes for being a criminal street gang," said Fulton County prosecutor Adriane Love as she delivered the government's statement, which she began by quoting Rudyard Kipling's "Law of the Jungle."

After the government finishes, defense lawyers will deliver statements with a six-hour time limit, with one hour per defendant.

The defense insists YSL stands for Young Stoner Life Records, a hip-hop and rap label that Young Thug founded in 2016 and which, they say, amounts to a vague association of artists, not a gang.

Young Thug, the 32-year-old rapper born Jeffery Williams, was one of 28 alleged street gang members originally swept up in a May 2022 racketeering indictment.

Six currently are being tried under the original indictment and deny all accusations against them. Many of the other defendants took plea deals or will be tried separately.

The accusations included myriad underlying offenses that prosecutors say support an overarching conspiracy charge, including murder, assault, carjacking, drug dealing and theft.

Wearing a white button-up shirt with a black tie and oval spectacles, Young Thug sat quietly in the courtroom as Judge Ural Glanville detailed the charges against him and others for the jury.

The opening statements did not start without a hitch: one of the jurors had car trouble and could not make it to the courthouse on time, meaning proceedings began nearly two hours late.

Long lines of media and members of the public sought to gain entrance to the trial.

But much of the courtroom was reserved for family of the defendants, including the girlfriend of Young Thug, Mariah the Scientist.

Also in attendance was Kevin Liles -- the CEO of 300 Entertainment, under which Young Thug founded his label -- who told journalists that rap was being persecuted.

"If this were country music, rock music," he said, "we wouldn't be here."

Liles was among advocates who lambasted the state for citing lyrics as admission of criminal activity.

In a motions hearing earlier this month, Glanville gave prosecutors the green light to present 17 sets of lyrics as evidence, provided they could link their content to real-world crimes.

Defense attorneys had sought to exclude lyrics from evidence, saying the use of verses could unfairly influence the jury and that "rap is the only fictional art form treated this way."

The practice of examining verses has sparked debate in the past, with critics saying it's a violation of constitutionally protected expression that targets artists of colors.

Erik Nielson, a University of Richmond professor and specialist on the subject, told AFP earlier this year that prosecuting rap lyrics "resides in a much longer tradition of punishing Black expression."

Nielson could not comment directly on the YSL case as he will testify as an expert witness, but said that "this issue of rap on trial is just one manifestation of a system that is hell-bent on locking up young men of color."

The lengthy jury selection and Monday morning's delays are part of a much longer road to come: it's expected the the trial could last well into 2024.

The prosecution has filed a list of hundreds of potential witnesses. The defense's list includes expert and character witnesses including family members as well as fellow rappers T.I. and Killer Mike.

Monday's opening statements took place in the same Fulton County courthouse where former president Donald Trump is himself embroiled in a racketeering case over alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

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