The 11Alive exclusive ‘Jeffery’ series unravels the high-profile grand jury indictment of Atlanta rapper Jeffery Williams, better known as Young Thug. We explore the impact of the controversial indictment, which alleges that his prominent record label, YSL, is allegedly connected to street gang activity, according to Fulton County prosecutors.
As this notorious case nears a trial date, 11Alive’s ‘Jeffery’ series gives an exclusive lens into what this case means – legally, artistically and culturally. And where do the lines blur between art and reality?
The rest of this series will premiere soon exclusively on 11Alive+, available on Roku and Amazon Fire TV. Text "plus" to 404-885-7600 to download 11Alive+. For more info, visit: https://www.11alive.com/watch.
Full interview: Kevin Liles
As part of the four-part Young Thug documentary series, "Jeffery," 11Alive's Neima Abdulahi sat down exclusively with Kevin Liles, CEO of 300 ENT. Liles co-founded Young Stoner Life Records with Young Thug -- whose legal name is Jeffery Williams.
Liles earlier this year gave testimony in a bond hearing for Williams, some of the most-watched court proceedings that have occurred ahead of the trial itself.
His words were equally illuminating to the production of the "Jeffery" series - and, which that in mind, we are sharing his interview in full.
Kevin Liles interview transcript
- NEIMA: Talk to me about the Protect Black Art movement. Where did this initiative start and what purpose do you hope that it serves?
KEVIN: Well, you know, when you speak about Protect Black Art, you're talking about really protecting art at its truest form: protecting freedom of speech. Everyone knows that I'm involved with Young Stoner Life. I'm partners with Young Thug, partners with Gunna and the other 28 people that are currently being held under RICO charge. And I felt like this was 1984, and I was dealing with issues around freedom of speech back then in rap music. I felt like it was 1987, and I was dealing with issues, whether it was "too much vulgar" or whether it was "this is not good for kids." And I feel like in the 2000s and the late 90s dealing with police brutality and we're seeing "F the police." I mean you go down the list of things.
KEVIN: This is four decades, and now, I'll just put a name to it. It's Protect Black Art. Protect our rights. Protect our freedom of speech. Protect creative expression. And I'm not just talking about rap music. I'm talking about in all music. I'm talking about in all arts and forms of entertainment. But funny enough, the only one that's getting prosecuted for freedom of speech and self-expression in entertainment is hip-hop. I think it's unfair, and I think it's racist and motivated by a systemic racist judicial system that constantly goes to take us... not only take us off the street, take us out the street, and sometimes take us out period.
- NEIMA: Why do you think oftentimes the hip-hop community feels like public enemy number one when it comes to how it's presented in courtrooms
KEVIN: I think because we did it without the judicial system. Our culture was created because they wouldn't let us in. Our music was made because they said, well, you guys, if you can't do this, you don't have the money to learn how to play the piano and the instruments and the flutes and the things like this, so we create our own boom bat. We use trash cans, cut corners. We used anything we could do. We had our orchestra out on the street corner. Put a little trash can around, and someone on a playground or at a park, our symphony was in a park.
KEVIN: So I think these things came out of necessity for us to participate. And, you know what kind of people we are? We're creative people. We're hardworking people. And more importantly, we're people that have dealt with so many of the things that went against us that we're built for this, too. I think there's a lot to say about what the culture has done, a lot to say that we created billionaires and multimillionaires and some people go to school their whole life and end up working for somebody else.
- NEIMA: In the courtroom, when I was listening to your testimony, you seemed really exhausted that for 40 years, you've been defending the culture. What thoughts were going through your mind? You know, in those line of questions of really addressing the contribution that hip-hop does make to the culture and how it's oftentimes perceived illegally.
KEVIN: You know what bothered me the most? Imma sound like a father. I know that Jeffrey has six kids. Within the last six months before this, one of his daughter's mothers was murdered. I know what he's done for his community. I know what the symbol of Young Stoner Life and the record company and not only him but Gunna and Keed coming out, what it meant that those were your "I can be more like them than be like somebody I don't know." And so these were the beacon of light. And so I said, you know, as much as the business is there with us, a father can't take care of his children. A mother can't love her son. A brother can't stand next to his sister in times of need. And yet alone, I'm not talking about whether guilty or not. I am talking just for bond, you know?
KEVIN: But you can get a bunch of people together and go attack the capital and you get out on bond. I believe with success comes responsibility. It's my responsibility while I'm breathing to protect Black art and protect all creators around the world.
- NEIMA: And in that, you were able to say, "I'm willing to put everything on the line for this bond." What statement did you want to make with that?
KEVIN: I think Thug is more of a friend and a son than he is a business partner, and the Jeffrey I know... the Jeffrey I know would take care of my kids. The Jeffrey I know would make sure that my family is taken care of if they're in the same area. The Jeffrey I know will make sure that his nieces and nephews and your nieces and nephews had the opportunity to go to school. The Jeffrey I know would fund a local football team and a young entrepreneur trying to take kids off the street. The Jeffrey I know would build the business and create multimillionaires.
KEVIN: So the Jeffrey they're talking about, I just don't know that Jeffrey. And all I could do is say I'm willing to risk everything on the Jeffrey that I know.
- NEIMA: It's interesting to see the tale of two Jeffreys: one that's being told from prosecutors and one that's being told from the community and also the hip-hop community. Why do you think there's a discrepancy between that?
KEVIN: I think there's two sides to everything. At the end of the day, because we come from humble beginnings, because we come from places that people might not understand. Some of us don't have the Harvard degree and the opportunity to go to different things. We have a different come-up and there's a different understanding of what helping a neighborhood is about. There's a different understanding of not just leaving the people but being amongst the people and having them see your success as you grow and being able to touch you and then doing things inside the community. A lot of these people run away from it, but we, the very few who stay in it, try to keep a constant reminder that there is hope, there is opportunity.
KEVIN: They keep bringing up these lyrics and not one lyric is associated with a particular crime that they talk about. But, they say that it influences and this is what you said this in the record. And I try to remind people, well, Johnny Cash said, "I killed a man in Reno to watch him die." You know, "I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot deputies." This ain't the first time. But it's rap music. Because it's rap music, and it was born and bred out of someplace that a lot of people don't understand, we are constantly attacked because we're telling our truths. We're telling our stories.
- NEIMA: What does that say about the state of the culture?
KEVIN: I don't think there's anything about the state of culture. What does this say about the state of our judicial system? I think it says what are we doing now - so, we figured out this is not a fad. We've figured out that we can create billionaires, multibillionaires and businesses and be the number one music in the world. You beat us up, locked us up, treated us wrong, sent us to the education system for us to be employees, and we told you, "Hey, maybe that's not the way we're going to be." Now, we're mayors and governors and journalists and a president. Now, we takin' over businesses and you go, "Oh, what the hell is going on?" and come up with something. Okay, you know what? We're going to take a RICO charge at a state level on a group of guys that are showing and loving a community.
KEVIN: Gunna put a grocery store and clothing inside of an old high school. These kids, I was teaching them about the responsibility. Our country constantly reminds us every day how you are Black - you have a permanent tattoo. Therefore, you will be treated differently in this country. And I'm not going to....as long as I'm alive we're going to keep protecting Black art and making sure when you are saying racist things, when you are doing racist things, America, I will call you out on it.
- NEIMA: So who's really on trial? What is really on trial? Are you saying it's bigger than just Gunna? It's bigger than just the 28 co-defendants?
KEVIN: If you go around the world, this is not about YSL. This is not about Gunna or Thug. This is about freedom of speech. This is about protecting the very things that have come from blood, sweat and tears. Other people have went on to build the foundation so we can have a business and do great business. And this is not... I can isolate it because I lived 40 years of it. We thought we saw the worst of it with Rodney King, but now we know we didn't. We thought we saw the worst of it when they were putting a fire on CDs and stuff back in the day. But now they're locking us up because of the very lyrics that 90% of the world loves today.
- NEIMA: Considering the direction that New York is taking, the proposal that Hank Johnson made and the direction that Fani Willis is taking, versus what's happening in California, why isn't there a general consensus on what to do on a nationwide level?
KEVIN: Same reason there isn’t a general consensus on gun laws. Same reason there's not a general consensus on storming the Capitol. Same reason there is not a general consensus that murder is murder, whether it is a cop putting a knee on the back of someone's neck. This is the country we live in. You know what I mean? It’s not justice for all. It's justice that's the make-it-make-sense for those of us who are not "us."
- NEIMA: The discussion and the conversation about where the lines blur between a lived reality and artistic expression has been a debate that's been going on for so long. What's your take on that? On where the lines blur with artistic expression and lived experiences?
KEVIN: They don't blur to those who want to then argue justice. You know, they only blur for those of us who need to... think about in Gunna's situation, he's not been indicted on anything other than affiliation. (Editor's note: Gunna accepted a plea deal on Dec. 14 under which he maintains his innocence but accepts a guilty outcome on his charge, a plea known as an Alford plea). Because I hang out with these guys. And so, you think about what this means. What it's constantly saying to me is that it's now time to push the envelope. I believe we should be tough on crime in any city that’s struggling. But I do believe we should hold the 138 gangs that are really out there doing what's wrong and not putting innocent people and not give them a fair trial. You're actually saying to them, you know what, you’re guilty before you even on trial.
KEVIN: We still have a systemic racist problem here in America. And I think that Protect Black Art is a movement to help get through this side of it, but we have more things to deal with. I just want people to continue to sign on to the petition, appreciate everybody who has done it. And remember, one day you will be questioned. One day, you will be questioned and you will want to be... to have the opportunity to be proven innocent and you won't be proven guilty just because of something you said on a record. So, I just think there's so much work to do, and I appreciate you even bringing light to it.
- NEIMA: Thank you so much for expressing that. Kevin, this is an amazing opportunity to interview you and to see this nationwide topic from your lens has definitely been an honor.
KEVIN: Well, I appreciate it. Thank you for everything.