Contesting the mark of criminality : resistance and ideology in gangsta rap, 1988-1997

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McCann, Bryan John

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This dissertation situates the emergence of gangsta rap from 1988-1997 within the historical trajectory of the American criminal justice system and the mass incarceration of African Americans. Specifically, it examines how the genre enacted the mark of criminality as a gesture of resistance in a period of sustained moral panic surrounding race and criminality in the United States. The mark of criminality refers to a regime of signifiers inscribed upon African American bodies that imagines black subjects as fundamental threats to social order. Drawing upon the theoretical resources of historical materialism and cultural studies, the project locates the mark of criminality within the social structures of capitalism, arguing that hegemonic fantasies of racialized criminality protect oppressive and exploitative social relations. The project concludes that while gangsta rap has many significant limitations associated with violence, misogyny, and commercialism, it nonetheless represents a salient expression of resistance that can inform broader interventions against the American prisons system. A number of questions guide this project. Chief among them are the following: In what ways does the criminal justice system operate as a site of rhetorical invention and hegemonic struggle? To what extent does gangsta rap enable and disable rhetorical and political agency? To what extent does it enable and disable interracial political practice? What are the implications of gangsta rap for a gendered politics of criminality? Three case studies demonstrate how specific gangsta rap artists inverted the mark of criminality toward the constitution of affirmative and resistant fantasies of black criminality. While the work of these artists, I argue, was significantly limited in its emancipatory potential, it nonetheless offered important insights into the contingency of race and crime in America. The project also considers how other rhetors responded to gangsta discourse, frequently toward the end of supporting hegemonic notions of race and criminality. The dissertation concludes that criminality functions as a vibrant site of rhetorical invention and resistance provided it is articulated to broader movements for social justice. While the often-problematic discourses of gangsta rap do not constitute politically progressive rhetorics in their own rights, they provide resources for the articulation of righteous indignation and utopian desires capable of challenging the prison-industrial complex.



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