The Mark of Criminality illustrates the ways that the “war on crime” became conjoined—aesthetically, politically, and rhetorically—with the emergence of gangsta rap as a lucrative and deeply controversial subgenre of hip-hop.
In The Mark of Criminality: Rhetoric, Race, and Gangsta Rap in the War-on-Crime Era, Bryan J. McCann argues that gangsta rap should be viewed as more than a damaging reinforcement of an era’s worst racial stereotypes. Rather, he positions the works of key gangsta rap artists, as well as the controversies their work produced, squarely within the law-and-order politics and popular culture of the 1980s and 1990s to reveal a profoundly complex period in American history when the meanings of crime and criminality were incredibly unstable.
At the center of this era—when politicians sought to prove their “tough-on-crime” credentials—was the mark of criminality, a set of discourses that labeled members of predominantly poor, urban, and minority communities as threats to the social order. Through their use of the mark of criminality, public figures implemented extremely harsh penal polices that have helped make the United States the world’s leading jailer of its adult population.
At the same time when politicians like Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton and television shows such as COPS and America’s Most Wanted perpetuated images of gang and drug-filled ghettos, gangsta rap burst out of the hip-hop nation, emanating mainly from the predominantly black neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles. Groups like NWA and solo artists (including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac Shakur) became millionaires by marketing the very discourses political and cultural leaders used to justify their war on crime. For these artists, the mark of criminality was a source of power, credibility, and revenue. By understanding gangsta rap as a potent, if deeply imperfect, enactment of the mark of criminality, we can better understand how crime is always a site of struggle over meaning. Furthermore, by underscoring the nimble rhetorical character of criminality, we can learn lessons that may inform efforts to challenge our nation’s failed policies of mass incarceration.
“The rhetoric of gangsta rap that arose from hip-hop and rage at racism and harsh law and order policies is made meaningful by the author. McCann explicates this subgenre’s rhetoric, history during the 1980s and 1990s, deviations from traditions, and complexities of situations and attainments: words, ideas, fame, wealth, violence, death. In pointing out the lessons gangsta rap holds for both public policy making and rhetoric itself, McCann carefully presents evidence from the rappers, the NWA group to Tupac Shakur, the albums Straight Outta Compton and All Eyes on Me, the events, and global and inner-city issues. The power of rap rhetoric as to what it conveys and the actions it influences is made starkly clear. McCann observes that these black male voices up against white male police tactics invite a closer look. In a climate of abiding racism, sexism, and inequitable and excessive incarceration, as well as the continuing fall-out from the mark of criminality rhetoric and gangsta rap, this text is timely. Recommended.” —CHOICE
“The Mark of Criminality offers readers, especially ones not familiar with the conjuncture of gangsta rap and the militarization of policing tactics targeting black and brown bodies, a necessary history and some very intriguing cultural moments related to the era under scrutiny.” –Eric King Watts, author of Hearing the Hurt: Rhetoric, Aesthetics, and Politics of the New Negro Movement
“McCann brings attention to the ways criminal justice policy, economics, and race intersect in both problematic and rewarding ways. We need more work like this–work that argues for hip-hop’s central role in culture and discusses the ways in which hip-hop is more than music, more than fad, but rather is part of a complex, interlocking political space with possibilities for sustained critiques of our times.”
—Critical Studies in Media Communication
“The Mark of Criminality offers a compelling and recuperative reading of texts that might not otherwise draw serious attention and thereby compels a reconsideration of the discourses of crime and criminality. These conversations need to continue both within and outside academic spaces … This book will fit comfortably on the shelves of any scholar interested in the war-on-crime era, black performativity, music and aesthetics, and discourses centered on race, gender, and violence.”–Quarterly Journal of Speech About the Author
Bryan J. McCann is an assistant professor of rhetoric and cultural studies in the Department of Communication Studies at Louisiana State University. He has written for Rhetoric Society Quarterly and Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies. In addition to appearing on local newscasts and the national program Democracy Now!, McCann also presented aTEDxLSU talk in 2014 on race and criminal justice.