A Carnival of One’s Own: Contemporary Rap and the Commercial Appropriation of the Neoliberal Carnivalesque
Haverford College. Department of Sociology
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I argue that the performance of deviant black masculinity – as articulated through images of bodily violence, criminal activity and exaggerated sexuality – represents a carnivalesque space, in which neoliberal life goals of individual`, competition and material success, are glorified and, ultimately, reified. By studying patterns of imagery in the lyrics of popular artists during the 1990s and 2000s, we see a clear correlation between rap’s increasing popularity and artists’ emphasis on political respectability, with the latter following closely on the heels of the former. We may understand this shift through an examination of three categories of rapper: the gangsta, who operates antagonistically to conservative social values while adhering to neoliberal ideologies; the entrepreneur, who successfully navigates the change from criminal to capitalism; and the integrationist, the product of rap’s new place in American society. The changing image of deviant masculinity in rap over the last two decades reflects shifts in media and political responses to the genre, so that it may fruitfully speak to rather than against imagined mainstream values: where rap music originally had to be deviant, its assimilation into popular cultural and media forms has led to the articulation of relatively conservative values by contemporary rap artists.