The Legal Beat: Gunna Takes Plea Deal In YSL Case – Plus Megan Thee Stallion, Metallica & More
Also this week: Marc Anthony's livestream fiasco turns into a legal battle, Machine Gun Kelly picks a fight with Fox over "Diablo" trademarks and more.
This is The Legal Beat, a weekly newsletter about music law from Billboard Pro, offering you a one-stop cheat sheet of big new cases, important rulings, and all the fun stuff in between. This week: Gunna takes a plea deal to escape the sprawling case against Atlanta rap crew YSL, the Tory Lanez/Megan Thee Stallion trial continues with blockbuster testimony, Metallica loses a battle with its insurance company, and much more.
THE BIG STORY: Gunna Pleads Guilty, But Says He Won’t Flip
With a trial looming in less than a month, the rapper Gunna bowed out this week from the closely-watched criminal case against members of the Atlanta rap crew YSL, reaching a deal with prosecutors that will allow him to end his “personal ordeal” while seemingly still not cooperating against Young Thug or the other defendants.
The chart-topping, Grammy-nominated rapper (real name Sergio Kitchens) took a so-called Alford plea — a maneuver that allows a defendant to enter a formal admission of guilt while still maintaining their innocence. After pleading guilty to the single charge he was facing, he was sentenced to five years in prison but immediately released because he was credited with one year of time served, while the rest of the sentence was suspended.
Gunna’s plea deal will allow him to exit a sweeping criminal case filed in May by Fulton County prosecutors, who claimed YSL was not really a record label called “Young Stoner Life,” but a violent Atlanta street gang called “Young Slime Life.” Listing dozens of individual allegations (including murder, carjacking, armed robbery, drug dealing and illegal firearm possession), the case accused Young Thug (real name Jeffery Williams) and 27 others of violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a state version of the more famous federal RICO statute that’s been used to target the mafia. Such laws make it easier for prosecutors to sweep up many members of an alleged criminal conspiracy based on smaller “predicate acts” that aren’t directly related.
A plea deal for Gunna made sense. The rapper was facing only a single charge and was named in only nine of the 191 predicates that make up the YSL RICO case — and most of those were either problematic references to his music or linked to an earlier case in which he eventually pled guilty to having illegally tinted windows. By way of comparison, Young Thug is facing several other separate criminal charges over guns and drugs and is named in substantially more of the RICO predicates.
But such a deal was always going to raise heated debate about the touchy subject of snitching — about whether Gunna had won his freedom by promising to cooperate with prosecutors against Young Thug and the other defendants. In his own statement announcing the deal, the rapper strongly denied any such arrangement.
“While I have agreed to always be truthful, I want to make it perfectly clear that I have NOT made any statements, have NOT been interviewed, have NOT cooperated, have NOT agreed to testify or be a witness for or against any party in the case and have absolutely NO intention of being involved in the trial process in any way,” Gunna wrote.
The situation is a little more complicated. In footage of the plea hearing, Gunna acknowledged that YSL was both “a music label and a gang,” and that he had “personal knowledge that members or associates of YSL have committed crimes in furtherance of the gang.” He also acknowledged that if called by any party in the case, he would be required to testify “truthfully.” But he also reserved his Fifth Amendment right to avoid incriminating himself and, in texts released on social media this week, Gunna’s lawyer made clear that if subpoenaed, the rapper would indeed “take the 5th and not testify.”
The trial against Young Thug and the rest of the defendants is set to kick off Jan. 9, so stay tuned.
Other top stories this week…
TORY LANEZ TRIAL CONTINUES – The criminal trial over whether Tory Lanez shot Megan Thee Stallion in the foot ran all week long, featuring blockbuster testimony in which Megan herself recounted the alleged shooting and said, “I wish he had just shot and killed me.” Later in the week, the rapper’s former friend and assistant Kelsey Harris — expected to be a star witness for the prosecution — largely failed to re-affirm previous statements pinning the blame on Lanez. But then on Friday (Dec. 16), prosecutors played recordings of those earlier statements, in which Harris said Lanez had shot the Grammy-winning rapper and then tried to buy both women’s silence with million-dollar bribes. The trial continues and, though a verdict was expected this week, it’s unclear if the case is moving fast enough to get there.
LIVESTREAM FIASCO – Nearly two years after Marc Anthony was forced to cancel his highly-anticipated Una Noche livestream concert at the last minute, event promoter Loud and Live Entertainment filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Maestro, the streaming platform that hosted the show. Loud and Live says Maestro assured them its technology could “automatically scale” to accommodate over 100,000 ticketholders, but had suffered a “complete collapse” when users tried to log on, causing “significant economic losses.”
METALLICA LOSES INSURANCE BATTLE – A California judge ruled that Metallica’s insurance company (a unit of Lloyd’s of London) doesn’t need to pay for six South American concerts that were canceled when COVID-19 struck, thanks to an exclusion in the policy for “communicable diseases.” The case is one of many that have been filed by music venues, bars and other businesses seeking insurance coverage for harm caused by COVID-19 — and one of many that have been decided in favor of insurance companies.
DEVIL IN THE DETAILS FOR MGK – Citing the name of Machine Gun Kelly’s 2019 album Hotel Diablo, lawyers for the superstar last week quietly launched a legal battle to block the television network Fox from securing a trademark registration on the term “Diablo” — the name of an anthropomorphic dog character on Fox’s animated sitcom HouseBroken. Kelly’s attorneys, who are currently seeking to trademark a wide range of terms linked to the star, argued that Fox’s “Diablo” was “confusingly similar in overall commercial impression” to “Hotel Diablo” and must be refused.
ULTRA V. ULTRA – Nearly a year after Ultra Records founder Patrick Moxey sold his 50% share of the lauded dance imprint to Sony Music, the major label sued him for trademark infringement over his continued use of the “Ultra” name. When Moxey parted ways with the imprint, which he founded in 1995, he held on to another company called Ultra International Music Publishing, but the new lawsuit from Sony claims he has no legal rights to use the “Ultra” name following the sale: “He has sought to perpetuate the falsehood that he remains involved with Ultra Records by wrongfully continuing to use Ultra Records’ ULTRA trademark.”