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  • Comedies of Transgression in Gangsta Rap and Ancient Classical Poetry
  • Ralph M. Rosen (bio) and Donald R. Marks (bio)

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 threatening, 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.

Many critics have indeed noted that gangsta rap has, for example, links with African-American rituals of abuse, such as “the dozens” or “toasting,” and a very few have even suggested that this background might be relevant to a contemporary understanding of gangsta rap. But there has been no detailed study of the genre as an example of a poetic mode operating according to principles that are conceptually prior to an author’s lived reality. Ironically, the genre itself has probably been the biggest obstacle to any serious investigation of its poetic provenance. Like many forms of subjective poetry, after all, gangsta rap insists on the pretense that the “I” of its lyrics is the actual poet; and when this pretense is combined with transgressive content, it becomes even more [End Page 897] difficult for an audience to distinguish the markers of poetic discourse and to separate an author’s autobiographical reality from the fiction of the work.

We are faced, therefore, with a dilemma: gangsta rap itself resists hegemonic appropriation or any movement that might denature its pretense of urgency and contemporaneity or threaten to legitimize its transgressive impulses. 1 Yet at the same time, gangsta rappers so routinely call attention to their participation in a tradition, through formal devices, poetic tropes, and the construction of elaborate relationships with rival or antecedent poets, that there can be no question about their desire to confound their alleged autobiographical pretenses and to play to a sophisticated audience that understands the dynamics of poetic fictionality. For many critics of gangsta rap, however, it matters little whether the form is “traditional” or not: large audiences of vulnerable youth, it is often claimed, take the music at face value and proceed to adopt its socially disruptive attitudes. The high-profile exempla of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., self-styled gangsta rappers whose own lives came to mimic fatally the dangerous world of their poetic imaginations, have further focused attention on the genre as an acute social problem and made literary analysis seem inconsequential and effete. Yet many of the most crucial questions surrounding gangsta rap as a social phenomenon, such as the nature of its “influence” on an audience or the problem of artistic accountability, can only be adequately addressed with the fullest understanding of the genre as a verbal and musical art form governed, at least in part, by forces that transcend its immediate context of performance.

A few scholars have alluded to the larger cultural and literary traditions in which gangsta rap operates, but this usually does little to mollify those who are offended by its content. When Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in an editorial for the New...

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