The My-Stery: The Unreality of “Keeping It Real”

We should be “…moving past keep it real…let’s keep it surreal.” Musician Vernon Reid said this in his presentation of Artificial Afrika and it stirred some thoughts on “keeping it real.”

I see it as reality that is presented to us and the reality we create or perpetuate can always be called into question. Reality changes, multiple realities exist and we go outside of our given realities. What we perceive as reality is one sense a set of social performances constructed for and negotiated with a particular audience. Much of the reality we view everyday is not real, but the illusion or mask is often more entertaining and more powerful.

And the people who audiences expect or hope to “keep it real” and truthful seem to be the ones most faking it. Finding out a while ago that rapper Rick Ross was formerly a prison guard and took his name from the real drug dealer “Freeway” Rick Ross, was kind of surprising, but he is not the only rapper, or artist, who has a fabricated image. Nicki Minaj recently confessed that she is not bisexual, but told people she was in order to get attention. Terrell’s response to her on tumblr reveals the silencing effects of shaping an image based on marginal communities which one is not a part. This is also seen in the wearers (including college students) of racist Halloween costumes, which sparked the “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” campaign. Speaking of campaigns, I am also reminded of the presidential campaign, in which there is Mitt Romney, who is always changing his face, and President Barack Obama, who may be a bit more truthful, but also has to put on a certain persona to be acceptable to the general public.

Looking at these, I could not help but think of American blackface minstrelsy; a form of entertainment built on the exaggeration of black bodies that erases and replaces the actual human beings while also subtly selling themselves as the real deal. This form and the modern forms mentioned above create a space of exclusion for people who live those lives and are not a costume for an audience (Terrell: “why can everyone make money off of being gay except for gays”). As a result, they are sometimes forced to play into superficial expectations to make a profit as seen in later minstrelsy and even in the commercialization of art forms like hip-hop. The realities of marginalized lives become “unreal” to audiences who are exposed to the other images.

That is the destructive side, but how can discuss the formation of “reality” constructively. Well, in understanding and teaching that “reality” is a construction, and acknowledging other possibles ones and the ability to change existing ones. We do love to fantasize. The truth is that even if a person is truthful, there is always an element of performance and pretend. For example, musical performers could be performing as themselves onstage, but they are still doing a performance; thus it is a kind of hyper-aware performance. Think for instance of artists who are considered “conscious,” do you think that they are like that all the time? When artists change their name for a stage name, are they still themselves (Onika Tanya Maraj is Nicki Minaj and William Leonard Roberts II is Rick Ross)? The idea that “keeping it real” is being an “authentic self” is faulty, given that we shapeshift ourselves based on the people we meet and experiences we have. There may be a core self, but we are constructed individuals, piecing different parts together.

In realizing that, I do not have to uncritically emulate anyone because they are never completely “keeping it real.” They are actors; everyone is in one way or another. We should not let it about accepting whatever reality is presented to us. For me,”keeping it real” is creating a reality that is best for me and those around me, whatever reality that may be. Maybe it should be “I make my own reality.”

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