No Longer [a]Migos: Atlanta’s Crackdown on “Black Hollywood” and the Culture that Built the City

Stella Martin

Questions of censorship and freedom of expression are at the forefront of political and legal discourse today. Far right politicians are banning books from Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda to The New Jim Crow.[1] Meanwhile, folks on the left have organized pressure campaigns for publishers and bookstores to drop books by conservatives.[2] The issue is complicated, and often discussed in terms of politics and democracy. However, limitations on freedom of expression are dangerous not only to our constitutional rights, but also to creativity in the arts and entertainment.

One such threat to creativity is an issue that has been widely discussed in criminal and constitutional law contexts. The use of rap lyrics and music videos as admissible evidence in criminal law cases is a longstanding, racist practice.[3] Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis’ Rap on Trial:  Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, catalogues over 500 cases of rap lyrics used in trials.[4] Meanwhile, are The Chicks getting indicted for killing Earl? Is Johnny Cash going to jail for shooting a man in Reno? Are rock musicians being held accountable for the sexual assault of women that they proudly reference in their choruses and verses? For instance, Guns N Roses’ lyrics include:  “It’s So Easy” and “Turn around, bitch, I got a use for you/ Besides, you ain’t got nothing better to do/ And I’m bored.” It is clear that in other genres and in other forms of expression like video games and movies, violence is viewed as artistically inspired and an imaginative narrative told through a fictitious persona. Rap is held to another standard. It is unfairly interpreted as a literal description of reality with no artistic license or creativity.

Most recently, in Fulton County, GA, Young Thug, Gunna, and 26 other individuals associated with YSL Records were charged in a 56-count indictment including accusations ranging from drug possession to racketeering and murder.[5] The indictment frequently cites song lyrics and music videos as “overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy.”[6] Moreover, during Young Thug’s bond hearing, prosecutor Don Geary “read out dozens of Thug’s lyrics in an attempt to prove he’s a danger to his community.”[7] While there are many efforts underway to stop prosecutors from using lyrics as evidence of guilt, there is something particularly ominous about using lyrics in a bond hearing.[8] The purpose of a bond hearing is not to consider elements of guilt, but rather to assess whether someone is a flight risk or a threat to the community. To use creative expression to determine that someone poses a general threat is a clear attack on the culture and creation of rap music.

While the hearing drew significant attention and public outcry, Fulton County DA Fani Willis doubled down. On August 22nd, the state filed a 220-count indictment against 26 members of the alleged Drug Rich gang. She held a press conference shortly after filing the indictment in which she directed “legal advice” to alleged gang members, stating, “don’t confess to crimes on rap lyrics if you don’t want them to be used, or at least get out of my county.”[9]

The use of lyrics in criminal cases is not new, but it seems to be getting more and more blatant, especially in Atlanta.[10] Perhaps as part of a wider effort to crack down on “gangs” and drum up concerns about crime in order to facilitate conservative victories, or an effort to create “culture wars” and expedite gentrification.[11] In addition to the socioeconomic consequences and the deterioration of respect for rights, the use of lyrics and music videos as evidence in court cases is also an attack on culture. Atlanta is fondly known as “Black Hollywood.” The success of musicians, artists, and actors helped bring attention and economic growth to the city. The equation of “creative liberties and artistic personas” to confessions of guilt elicits fear of self-incrimination and chills artistic expression. How can the city of Atlanta continue to progress if the culture and artistry that built it are constantly under attack?


[1] Jonathan Friedman & Nadine Johnson, Banned in the USA:  The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools, PEN America (Sept. 19, 2022), [] []. 

[2] Jennifer Schuessler, At PEN America, a Complicated Centennial for Free Speech, N.T. Times (Sept. 13, 2022), [] [].

[3] Andre Gee, The YSL Indictment Exemplifies Atlanta’s Predatory Justice System, complex (June 8, 2022), [] [].

[4] pen america, Open Letter:  New York Literary Organizations Support ‘Rap on Trial’ Legislation (Jan. 19, 2022), [] [].

[5] Id.

[6] Supra note 3.

[7] Id.

[8] Tat Bellamy-Walker, Georgia DA Fani Willis Says Rap Lyrics Will Continue to be Used in Criminal Cases, NBC News (Sept. 1, 2022), [] [].

[9] Id.

[10] Supra note 4.

[11] Greg Bluestein, Georgia Governor’s Proposal Aim to Crack Down on Gang Violence, AJC (Jan. 10, 2022), [] []; Andre Gee, The YSL Indictment Exemplifies Atlanta’s Predatory Justice System, complex (June 8, 2022), [] [].