The charges against YSL include murder, assault and other crimes related to racketeering. Specifically, the prosecution alleges that YSL protected and enhanced a criminal enterprise’s “reputation, power and territory” by posting messages, images and videos that showed “a willingness to engage in violence.”
The indictment alleges YSL’s involvement with the Bloods gang, in part through the use of “colours, clothing, tattoos and hand signals, and verbal and written identifiers.” In this case, Young Thug and Gunna’s artistic choices, such as song lyrics and social media posts, can be used as evidence in court.
This isn’t the first time that art has been a key element in a criminal case involving a Southern rapper at the height of his career. In the late 1990s, McKinley “Mac” Phipps was a young artist signed to Master P’s No Limit Records. The Phipps case showed that law enforcement agencies can misunderstand rap music and culture — and then use both to prosecute artists.
The No Limit Records story began in the Calliope public housing complex in New Orleans. Calliope, a New Deal product, was originally advertised as a safe choice for families. The city invested in the neighborhood by building a gym in 1949 and more units in 1954.
But in the 1980s, with the introduction of crack cocaine, residents faced the problems of addiction and violent crime. With the advent of the drug war, residents were faced with the increasing presence of law enforcement agencies. As residents began to take up rap music, interactions with crime, drugs, and the police shaped its sound and the scenery around it.
The work of three residents and brothers of Calliope – Silkk the Shocker (Vyshonn King Miller), C-Murder (Corey Miller) and Master P (Percy Miller) – was the focus of this scene. In 1995, after a few years in California, Master P started the New Orleans version of No Limit Records. The label’s eclectic sound combined the new West Coast rap style, influenced by artists like Snoop Dogg, with genres like bounce, a strain of new club music from Orleans.
As Master P established himself as a businessman, he and C-Murder never left Calliope behind. Among other charitable endeavors, the brothers provided school supplies and food for the residents. C-Murder also directed the documentary Straight From the Projects (2004), which told the story of the rise of No Limit against the backdrop of life in New Orleans’ 3rd Ward. The documentary features vendors promoting child life insurance and gun violence erupting at a second-line parade.
As C-Murder shows, violence was a part of life and had an outsized influence on the music of No Limit artists, such as the lyrics to songs like Phipps’ “Soldier Party” (1998) and “We Deadly” (1999). illustrate. Often claiming the identities of soldiers, No Limit artists compared their surroundings to war zones, drawing on both their life experiences and military elements.
Phipps joined No Limit in 1996 after competition from several labels. Known as “New Orleans Nas,” Phipps released his first record at age 13, debuting an unprecedented style that combined New York rap-influenced musical production with lyrics commenting on the New Orleans world around him.
Although he was not raised in Calliope, Phipps’ lyrics draw on violent memories similar to those of Master P and his brothers. He exhausted and made original contributions to No Limits brand that included references to self-reliance and military discipline.
Phipps’ writing and artistic personality made him a target for law enforcement. In 2001, he was convicted of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Barron Victor Jr. In court, prosecutors quoted lyrics from Phipp’s song “Murda, Murda, Kill, Kill” to sway the jury to reach a conviction, arguing that violent lyrics indicated violent acts.
Prosecutors also mentioned one of Phipp’s nicknames, “The Camouflage Assassin.” After joining No Limit, Phipps mentioned the name in songs and wore camouflage in photos. But prosecutors ignored how it fit No Limit’s brand. The label’s logo was a tank – a tribute to Master P’s grandfather, who was a veteran. In addition to referring to the military in her lyrics, No Limit rapper Mia X also wore camouflage in 1997 source magazine. In 1998, Master P even released an action figure of himself wearing his signature chain and camouflage.
But the state’s strategy of using rap music and fashion choices to win its case worked. The jury convicted Phipps with no direct evidence and despite not reaching a unanimous verdict – something the Supreme Court ruled illegal in 2020.
In 2021, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) granted Phipps clemency due to public pressure after video surfaced in 2016 showing another man confessing to the shooting. The state of Louisiana has yet to exonerate Phipps.
After his release, Phipps explained that while his songs and fashions could not technically be considered evidence, prosecutors nonetheless used his art to “paint a character.” [him]’ which prompted the jury to return a conviction.
Phipps’ case contains warnings about the charges against Young Thug and Gunna – specifically the reference to words, colors and even emojis in the charges. This suggests that prosecutors can once again use art and imagery to demonstrate intent. Law enforcement agencies may again try to present rappers’ lyrics as evidence of violent crimes rather than artistic renderings or social commentary on violence. As Gunna recently argued in a June 14 statement, “My art must not be for entertainment alone, I am not allowed that freedom as a black person in America.”