Young Thug, Atlanta rap star, is arrested on gang-related charges

FILE - Young Thug performs at the Lollapalooza Music Festival in Chicago on Aug. 1, 2021. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP, File)

ATLANTA -- Rap star Young Thug, one of the most influential artists to emerge from Atlanta's famously fertile hip-hop scene, was arrested Monday on suspicion of gang involvement and conspiracy to violate the Georgia criminal racketeering law. The rapper, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, was charged in a sweeping grand jury indictment that identified him and 27 other people as members of the same criminal street gang and charged some of them with violent crimes including murder and attempted armed robbery.

Williams has reshaped the rap world throughout his decade-plus career and inspired a host of emulators as three of his albums reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart and he collaborated with stars across the rap world and beyond. His arrest comes as District Attorney Fani Willis of Fulton County -- a Democrat best known for investigating whether former President Donald Trump and his allies committed election fraud in Georgia -- has vowed to crack down on street gangs in Atlanta, a city reeling from violent crime.

The arrest of Williams at a house in the well-heeled Buckhead neighborhood was confirmed Monday night by Jeff DiSantis, a spokesperson for Willis' office, who said that several other people named in the indictment were also arrested.

The indictment alleges that Williams is a founder of Young Slime Life, a criminal street gang that began in Atlanta in 2012 and is affiliated with the national Bloods gang. Williams' successful record label has been variously called YSL Records or Young Stoner Life Records; the label refers to its artists as part of the "Slime Family," and a compilation album called "Slime Language 2" hit No. 1 on the charts in April 2021.

All 28 people named in the indictment were charged with conspiracy to violate the state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, which is closely modeled on the federal law that has most famously been used against organized crime members. In 2014, Willis helped lead a controversial racketeering prosecution in which Atlanta public-school teachers were accused of cheating on standardized tests. She has also raised the possibility that Trump and some of his allies may have violated state RICO law in their alleged efforts to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Willis and other Georgia officials have raised alarms recently about gangs in the Atlanta region, where they have historically not been as prevalent, or as culturally rooted, as they are in places like greater Los Angeles. In a recent public meeting, Willis called gangs "the No. 1 threat against public safety" in Atlanta and claimed they were responsible for as much as 70% of the crime in Georgia.

The indictment comes at a time when other big-city lawmakers and law enforcement officials are worried about hip-hop artists and their ties to criminal activity as the nation struggles to contain a nationwide spike in violent crime. Those concerns, and the pushback from civil libertarians and hip-hop fans, echo the debates of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when explicitly violent lyrics in the emerging gangster rap genre stirred controversy.

"We go through cycles, moral panics, if it's the Tipper Gore era, in the '90s, or now," said Erik Nielson, a professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond who studies hip-hop culture. "It's a convenient scapegoat for authorities who are not getting the job done."

Monday's 88-page indictment, however, alleges that the gang was involved in a wide variety of illegal activities, including witness intimidation, murder, attempted murder, carjacking, robbery, theft and drug dealing. A number of people are named as victims of shootings or attempted shootings, including Dwayne Carter, the New Orleans hip-hop star who raps under the name Lil Wayne, and whose tour bus was shot at by a YSL member named Jimmy Winfrey in April 2015, according to the indictment.

Williams is named as having committed a number of illegal acts for which he is not charged, but which are described as "overt acts" in furtherance of the group's criminal conspiracy. Among those allegations are an instance of threatening to kill a man at a mall and possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute it. Williams is also alleged to have rented a silver Infiniti Q50 sedan that was used in the commission of the murder of a rival gang member, Donovan Thomas Jr., in January 2015.

Five men are charged with murder in connection with Thomas' death. One of them, Deamonte Kendrick, is identified as Yak Gotti, a rapper on the YSL label.

Contacted late Monday night, Drew Findling, a lawyer who has represented Williams in the past, declined to comment. On Tuesday morning, Brian Steel, an attorney for Williams, said that YSL was not a street gang.

"Mr. Williams came from an incredible horrible upbringing, and he has conducted himself throughout his life in a way that is just to marvel at," Steel said. "He's committed no crime whatsoever. The indictment is baseless to include him."

Also charged with one count of racketeering is Sergio Kitchens, the well-known rapper who performs as Gunna. The indictment alleges he committed felonies including receiving stolen property and drug possession with intent to distribute.

In previous court documents, prosecutors have described how another cluster of Bloods-affiliated gangs are engaged in a hostile rivalry with Young Slime Life. In April 2021, Willis charged a dozen people who were said to be members of gangs in that rival cluster, including Rayshawn Bennett, another famous rap artist whose stage name is YFN Lucci. Bennett was indicted on, among other things, a felony murder charge in connection with a drive-by shooting. Monday's indictment charges three people accused of being YSL members with attempted murder in an attack on Bennett, who was stabbed in jail in February.

"I am not impressed with the fact that you are a rapper -- that's not going to keep you from being indicted by default," Willis said at a news conference in April, in which she criticized a judge for granting bond to Christian Eppinger, who raps under the name Big Bhris, is reported to be a Young Slime Life member and is accused of shooting an Atlanta police officer six times in February. "If they committed acts of violence, and if we have enough evidence to substantiate that, you're going to see indictments," Willis said.

Eppinger is facing 15 new charges under Monday's indictment, including attempted murder.