Theses Doctoral

Get Crunk! The Performative Resistance of Atlanta Hip-Hop Party Music

Holt, Kevin C.

This dissertation offers an aesthetic and historical overview of crunk, a hip- hop subgenre that took form in Atlanta, Georgia during the late 1990s. Get Crunk! is an ethnography that draws heavily on methodologies from African-American studies, musicological analysis, and performance studies in order to discuss crunk as a performed response to the policing of black youth in public space in the 1990s. Crunk is a subgenre of hip-hop that emanated from party circuits in the American southeast during the 1990s, characterized by the prevalence of repeating chanted phrases, harmonically sparse beats, and moderate tempi. The music is often accompanied by images that convey psychic pain, i.e. contortions of the body and face, and a moshing dance style in which participants thrash against one another in spontaneously formed epicenters while chanting along with the music. Crunk’s ascension to prominence coincided with a moment in Atlanta’s history during which inhabitants worked diligently to redefine Atlanta for various political purposes. Some hoped to recast the city as a cosmopolitan tourist destination for the approaching new millennium, while others sought to recreate the city as a beacon of Southern gentility, an articulation of the city’s mythologized pre-Civil War existence; both of these positions impacted Atlanta’s growing hip-hop community, which had the twins goals of drawing in black youth tourism and creating and marketing an easily identifiable Southern style of hip-hop for mainstream consumption; the result was crunk.
This dissertation investigates the formation and function of crunk methods of composition, performance, and listening in Southern recreational spaces, the ways in which artists and audiences negotiate identities based on notions of race, gender, and region through crunk, and various manifestations of aesthetic evaluation and moral panic surrounding crunk. The argument here is that the dynamic rituals of listening and emergent performance among crunk audiences constitute a kind of catharsis and social commentary for its primarily black youth listenership; one that lies beyond the scope of lyrical analysis and, accordingly requires analysis that incorporates a conceptualization of listening as an embodied, participatory experience expressed through gesture.
The first chapter begins with a historical overview of race, segregation, and the allocation of public space in Atlanta, Georgia in order to establish the social topography upon which Atlanta hip-hop was built; it ends with a social and historical overview of yeeking, Atlanta’s first distinct hip-hop party dance style and marked precursor to crunk. The second chapter delves into essentialist constructions of Southern identity and hip-hop authenticity, from which Atlanta hip- hoppers constructed novel expressions of Southern hip-hop identity through a process akin to Dick Hebdige’s theory of bricolage. Chapter three discusses the history and sociopolitical significance of Freaknik, a large Atlanta spring break event that catered specifically to students of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. At its peak, Freaknik became the focus of a moral panic, which led to increased policing of black youth in public space and ultimately the dismantling of the event due in large part to harassment; it is this moment in Atlanta’s history which gives context to the performative abandon of crunk. The fourth chapter discusses the aesthetics of crunk music and imagery, focusing on the subgenre’s embrace of Southern gangsta archetypes, timbral dissonance in compositional methodology, and crunk’s corporeal and vocal catharses illustrated by performative violent embodiment (i.e. moshing) and the centrality of screams and chants. The fifth chapter focuses on gender performativity in Southern hip-hop party spaces. The chapter begins with a discussion of gender normativity in yeeking and how insincere non-normative performances of gender are incorporated as a means of reinforcing the gender normativity; this is framed by analyses of a yeek dance move called “the sissy” and the trap era dance, the nae nae. As is argued in the latter half of this chapter, women performers in crunk engaged in the same kind of bricolage outlined in chapter two in order to transform traditionally male-centric crunk music into something specifically and performatively woman centered. Ultimately, these discussions of gender indicate a kind of performative fluidity that echoes the kind of performance-based subversion that this dissertation argues crunk represented for black youth laying claim to public space in the years following the decline of Freaknik. The conclusion holds that, while the era of the crunk subgenre has passed, many of the underlying performative political subtexts persisted in subsequent subgenres of Southern hip-hop (e.g. snap, trap, etc.), which lays the foundation for discourse on methodologies of performative resistance in other hip-hop formats.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Fellezs, Kevin
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 16, 2018