Departmental Papers (Classical Studies)

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Journal Article

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First paragraph: The history of literature and art offers no shortage of works created to offend or shock an audience, but few have been as incendiary as gangsta rap. Apologists cannot deny the problematic content of this form of rap—the misogynistic posturing, themes of intense violence, freewheeling and gratuitous obscenity—and some detractors hold that even the attempt to analyze the genre bestows undeserved legitimacy on its practitioners. The transgressive and counter-hegemonic stance of gangsta rap has become so hreatening, in fact, that its origins as a complex poetic form with deep roots in a variety of literary and ritual traditions have, for the most part, been neglected or obscured. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any poetic form in the contemporary West in which politics, race and ideology have dictated so completely the terms of "acceptable" criticism. This is all the more remarkable for gangsta rap, insofar as so much foundational scholarship, some even decades old, already exists within fields such as folklore, psychology and anthropology which can articulate the nexus of literary and cultural forces that gave rise to it. As such approaches make clear, far from being an unprecedented art form that can only reflect the social pathologies idiosyncratic to American ghetto life, gangsta rap operates within a well-documented poetic tradition within African-American culture that ritualizes invective, satire, obscenity, and other verbal phenomena with transgressive aims.


Postprint version. Published in New Literary History, Volume 30, Issue 4, October 1999, pages 897-928.
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Date Posted: 21 September 2006

This document has been peer reviewed.