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New American Songbook

Keeping It RIGHT

blackouthiphop.com / Google Images / Creative Commons

I read an article criticizing the movie Whiplash that argued its violence is over-the-top and unrealistic— the movie positions violence as part of the relationship between student and teacher. The criticism was that the relationship was so rare as to be unrealistic.

But by getting stuck on the question, “is this factual?” we miss the better question, “is this true?” Is the intensity of the student/teacher relationship authentic, disregarding the facts?

Hip hop has been internally engaged with defining what is authentic since its beginning. The standard of "keeping it real" is the hallmark appeal to authenticity, referring to a strict adherence to the values of hip hop, the street, or one’s self. On the surface, keeping it real in a narrative form such as rap would seem to require that my subject matter correspond exactly to my individual actions—if I rap about doing something, I had better have done it.

But like all artistic forms, this correspondence isn’t exact, and what is meant by "keeping it real" is better understood as a relationship between authenticity and authority. You can tell an authentic story without having actually lived each individual plot point, if you’ve earned the authority to tell a story. In this sense, keeping it real is not a strict confessional action, but an injunction to tell the right kind of story, one that demonstrates a respect and skill for the process of the form, as well as the life of its subjects.

This is the message conveyed by Plug One of De La Soul when he raps, “you tried keeping it real, but you should try keeping it right”. Keeping it right gives you the authority to tell an authentic story, regardless of mere facts.