New Book Explores Gangsta Rap and the Mark of Criminality

Bryan McCann book coverBATON ROUGE – In a new book, The Mark of Criminality: Rhetoric, Race and Gangsta Rap in the War-on-Crime Era, LSU Department of Communication Studies Assistant Professor 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.

“How crime is defined changes. The meaning of crime can shift to fit the interests of the people wielding its power,” McCann said.

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 U.S. 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. 

“Gangsta rap can be misogynistic, homophobic and racist, but it can also be empowering. The communities that are criminalized sometimes frame criminals as heroes,” he said.

McCann writes that by understanding gangsta rap as a potent, if deeply imperfect, enactment of the mark of criminality, society can better understand how crime is always a site of struggle over meaning. Furthermore, by underscoring the nimble rhetorical character of criminality, one can learn lessons that may inform efforts to challenge the nation’s mass incarceration policies.


About the author

Bryan J. McCann is an assistant professor of rhetoric and cultural studies in the Department of Communication Studies at LSU. 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 a TEDxLSU talk in 2014 on race and criminal justice.


Additional Links:

The Mark of Criminality: Rhetoric, Race and Gangsta Rap in the War-on-Crime Era, University of Alabama Press:,6607.aspx

Gangsta Rap and the ‘War on Crime,’ The Academic Minute:

The Mark of Criminality, TEDxLSU:


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