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‘Keeping it real’ has lost its true meaning

How a phrase tied to authenticity and resistance sometimes just dishes out entertainment

The mobile phone apps for Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are shown on a device. The hashtag #keepingitreal is popular on social media, but is has become divorced from its original meaning. (Richard Drew/AP)
6 min

Across the political spectrum, social media users are #keepingitreal by posting their personal truths. The phrase signals a belief in the power of individual experience to push back against constricting social norms. It conveys that, in an era of identity and party politics, we still value the authenticity of individual experience.

But the racial history of the phrase shows that its power has been generated by Black performers and then repeatedly co-opted by White ones. Despite its current popularity, “keeping it real” actually demonstrates that certain types of authenticity are consumed simply for entertainment, leaving the audience (and the world) unchanged.

Like many popular phrases that emerged from marginalized communities, it is difficult to pinpoint a date when “keeping it real” came into use. Communications scholar Baruti Kopano traces the phrase’s origins to a varied set of Black cultural forms in the mid-20th century, each of which performed a version of Blackness for audiences who were in the know. For instance, Black DJs of the 1940s and ’50s, refusing to sound White, broadcast a distinctive mix of straight talk and jokes over the nighttime airwaves. At the same time, 1940s bebop, with its emphasis on improvisation and scat, was a form of musical expression that defined the Black experience.

In both instances, keeping it real meant performing an individual’s experience of being Black in the United States. As such, it became a form of resistance. Insisting on a different reality, one that wasn’t recognized by the dominant culture, empowered Black people to “forge a parallel system of meaning,” according to cultural critic Mich Nyawalo. Expressing that system of meaning established distinct values and norms and, with those, a sense of agency.

The phrase’s roots in racialized resistance, however, were erased when it was adopted by the mostly-White film world of the 1970s and ’80s. Director Stuart Rosenberg voiced the relatively new standards of film realism when he said of actor Jack Lemmon in 1981, “He can keep it real, as opposed to theatrical.” Keeping it real in this context indicated a performance done so well that audiences could forget it was a performance.

This version of keeping it real wasn’t about testifying to personal experience; it was about inventing it. In 1984, for instance, a Newsweek review of the film “Tender Mercies” praised actor Robert Duvall’s commitment to keeping it real through his “scrupulous, egoless authenticity.” To act so realistically, this review suggested, required abandoning personal experience and culture to become someone else. Authenticity became a measure of a performance well done rather than a marker of cultural identity.

By the time keeping it real became a key phrase for rap music in the 1990s, it had blended both meanings. What had been concepts with seemingly opposite definitions — on the one hand, being true to yourself, on the other, forgetting the self — merged in the way hip-hop artists presented themselves.

Within this new Black art form, artists succeeded at keeping it real when they convinced their audiences that they presented a credible version of reality — a reality often characterized by gang and police violence, drugs and casual misogyny. As evidenced by the genre’s popularity with White suburban teens, listeners didn’t need to have firsthand experience of any of these things, or even of life in a city, to feel the power of keeping it real.

That form of keeping it real opened the door to performers who didn’t have firsthand experience but could fake it. Speaking out against those artists, rapper MC Ren released the single “Keep It Real” in 1995. Ren had come to fame as a member of N.W.A., the group known for what they called “reality rap,” no-holds-barred accounts of gun violence and police brutality in their majority-Black Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton. “Our raps are documentary,” N.W.A. member Ice Cube claimed in a 1989 interview.

The word “keep” in the song’s title suggests Ren’s own sense of responsibility to represent his community honestly rather than give in to any industry pressure to glamorize Black violence and poverty to sell records. And, consistent with that tradition, “Keep it Real” pairs stories of growing up and living in Compton with criticisms of the “fools” who filmed music videos in his hometown to capitalize on its credibility, and then “disappeared.”

In representing what a day as a Black man in Compton was really like, Ren positioned himself as the authentic rapper who could speak with authority about the “towed down” state of his neighborhood, as well as describing his community, the games of dominoes and the barbecues that brought people together. But it also acknowledged that his reality had already become a pose — and a lucrative one at that, increasingly removed from the Black experience.

In the present day, “keeping it real” has retained its flavor of resistance, but without any connection to cultural authenticity, it has been drained of any real power for change. Recently, TV personality Kaitlyn Bristowe posted a picture on Instagram that garnered attention for its honesty. Rather than a filtered, stylized image, it featured a sweat-suited (but still stylized) Bristowe looking flatly out at the viewer. The caption describes the depression and panic she experiences with her period. Using an expletive, Bristowe explained that she “loved to” mix this sort of raw content “to keep it real.”

Bristowe’s post has the aura of resistance to Instagram perfection while, at the same time, her self-described “unfiltered moment” is an essential part of her successful Instagram brand — not a departure from it. While her other posts at that time were in the range of 40,000-70,000 likes, this one garnered 138,000 likes. Derided by some as “vulnerability porn,” realness is an attractive and potentially profitable pose, as users demand the performance of authenticity.

Ultimately, keeping it real may still have the potential for resistance through sharing authentic personal experience. But as its history suggests, that potential is easily co-opted by performers motivated by the profit that realness can generate without recognizing its roots in cultural authenticity. That doesn’t mean public figures should shy away from realness — just that audiences should recognize that it may just be entertainment, leaving us unchanged by our brush with another’s experience.