In the Largest Gang Bust in NYC History, Will Hip-Hop Be Put On Trial Too?
Last year, a friend of mine was arrested for smoking a joint outside a recording studio in Williamsburg. Taken from his holding cell to an office, my friend was questioned by the precinct’s intelligence officer, who became interested to learn more about his affiliation with hip-hop. Apparently, the intelligence officer was particularly eager to demonstrate his knowledge of up-and-coming Brooklyn acts.
Perhaps he was a fan of hip-hop, but more likely it was because the NYPD has been monitoring rap videos for years.
On April 27th, federal prosecutors in the Bronx indicted 120 alleged gang members in what’s being called the largest gang bust in New York City history. Early that morning, 700 officers from the NYPD, in conjunction with Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, arrested 87 alleged members of gangs 2Fly YGz and Big Money Bosses.
The alleged gangs operate in the Eastchester section of the Bronx. New York Daily News reported that prosecutors are slapping them with counts of racketeering conspiracy, narcotics conspiracy, narcotics distribution, and firearms offenses. Murder charges are expected; investigators claim that the two gangs fired 1,800 shots over a nine year period, killing 39 people.
It also happens that 2Fly YGz, a subgroup of the larger Young Gunnaz gang, and Big Money Bosses have been dropping more than just bodies. Members of the crews have been releasing music for years, glorifying their lifestyles on tracks like “Aryan Nation” (as in “white Aryan nation bricks”) and “Guns Clapping.”
Is it possible that their music was used to gather evidence for the warrants? Could their videos later be used against them in court?
Years ago, back in the nascent days of social media and before the rise of Instagram strapshots, then police commissioner Ray Kelly enacted Operation Crew Cut, which has continued under Bratton and has the NYPD trolling Facebook and Twitter for alleged gang activity. Detectives define “gang conspiracy” loosely, so that even a house party can catch their attention. “Our gang division, our borough personnel look at party advertisements,” Kelly said in a 2011 press conference, before contradicting himself a year later when he said the department “only monitors social media for specific investigations.”
In 2014, the New York Times ran an article entitled “Seeking Clues to Gangs and Crime, Detectives Monitor Internet Rap Videos.” The story of Murda Malo is told, a Brownsville rapper whose video was used as “a keystone piece of evidence” in bringing gang conspiracy charges against Malo and members of the Addicted to Cash (A.T.C.) gang. Police lieutenant Peter Carretta claimed the videos proved that “those arrested were part of an established gang and associated with one another.” Malo, for his part, said, “I’m not in any gang. We have copyrights for our organization; we are a music group. O.T.S. Entertainment. A.T.C. Entertainment. This is a music group, you dig?”
And now, in the last two weeks, police have made major busts in which music appears to have been used as evidence in obtaining warrants. The week before the April 27th gang bust, the NYPD arrested a ring of alleged credit card scammers for running a fraud scheme that, the New York Post reports, ran up approximately $250,000 at Barneys alone. The group, who call themselves the Pop Out Boyz, have a track posted to their Soundcloud called “For a Scammer,” in which they flagrantly boasted about their criminality. “Watch the money do a backflip, early morning up at Saks Fifth, you see it you want it you have it … I just a hit a lick now I’m dabbin.”
As it happens, Pop Out Boyz’s Big Bz has a music video directed by the same production company, 51 Designz, Polo Rell’s “Guns Clapping.” Polo Rell is one of the 120 Bronx gang members indicted on April 27th.
So will Preet Bhahara, the U.S. attorney for New York’s illustrious Southern District, use videos in bringing charges against Polo Rell and other members of YGz and BMB?
It’s hard to say, because the indictments are unclear. Gothamist reported that no murder charges were initially filed (even though YGz is implicated in the 2012 fatal stabbing of a high school student and BMB also implicated in the 2009 accidental slaying by stray bullet of a 92-year-old widow), and it looks like Bhahara will focus on bringing RICO charges against alleged members of YGz and BMB.
However, Bhahara wouldn’t be the first to present the jury with lyrics as evidence of wrongdoing. In 2009, prosecutors used Lil Boosie’s bars as evidence in a murder charge against the Baton Rouge rapper for the death of Terry Boyd (Boosie was found not guilty). It’s happened across the United States–in San Diego, Baltimore, and New Jersey–though not every defendant is receiving the same verdict as Boosie. In San Diego in 2014, rapper Tiny Doo–who has no criminal record–was charged with gang conspiracy under an obscure local law that says gang members can be prosecuted for benefiting from crimes committed by other gang members.
In each of those cases, the state or local authorities handled the prosecution. I spoke with a former DoJ prosecutor, who said of hip-hop’s validity as evidence, “maybe [such evidence would hold] in state court, but that wouldn’t fly in federal court.”
Maybe it will come to light that Polo Rell’s “Guns Clapping” or Zico Nico’s “Aryan Nation” were used as evidence of YGz and BMB’s gang activity. If so, there needs to be more thorough dialogue about whether or not the use of lyrics as evidence is admissible in a court of law.
In late 2014, Cypher League writer Theo Salem-Mackall penned “How Hip-Hop Is Being Used To Apply Prejudice.” Set to work for the Justice Department upon graduating from Colgate University, Salem-Mackall argues that not only does the citing of rap lyrics in a court of law violate the First Amendment, but also “it means that while one group’s expression is treated within the bounds of artistic license, or as ‘representations of fictional situations,’ another’s is seen as admissions of meta-textual truth.”
The author goes on to list parallel circumstances in which a defendant’s art could have been used in a court of law, but isn’t. He points out that when Woody Allen was charged with claims of sexual assault on a minor, no one brought up Allen’s Manhattan, and that the film’s plot focuses on his relationship with a 17-year-old-girl. To Salem-Mackall, it evidences our system’s apparent racial bias when “one racial group is allowed to do things because it’s ‘just art’ by the state, while another cannot create music that displays possibly immoral activity, listen to this music, or even be associated with those who do listen to this music, without it reflecting intangible moral deficiencies within both themselves and their entire racial group.”
My point isn’t to argue the merits of rap’s use in a court of law—Salem-Mackall already does so excellently, and you should read his article for a further understanding of the subject. My intention is to raise awareness in the hip-hop community that the Feds are watching, and you need to be careful about what you say. As Bronx comedian The Kid Mero tweeted in response to the sweeping indictment on April 27th, “YOOO HOLD UR HEAD OUTCHEA IF UR BANGIN MY PALS NY PRICKS & DICKS COMING FOR U.” But please, my friends, don’t make their job any easier.