He’s Aight But He’s Not Real: Keisha Cole and the Deconstruction of Hip Hop Authenticity

Shot nine times. A record of served time. A couple of successful…or failed crack sales. Whatever the case, the more depressed the condition, or longer the incarceration, or illegal the act, the “realer” one is according to the norms and mores of hip hop culture. “Realness,” perhaps the ultimate currency needed to navigate the hip hop world, is also its most untenable quality.

Realness is a social construct within hip hop culture that hinges on the degree to which one has been or is presently involved in a disparaging situation and/or criminal activity. Realness is homologous to scholar, Cornel West’s definition of perceived black racial authenticity. According to West, blackness is determined by nothing but

“Centuries of racist degradation, exploitation, and oppression and the abuse of white supremacists and the struggle against that abuse.”

Likewise, Realness contains these elements, compounded with one other, however. Complete Realness, or Hip Hop Authenticity (HHA) is absent without its attachment to criminal activity (gang life, hustling, etc.), from which one earns their street credibility. HHA generates from these two conjoined sources. Though one can derive their HHA from either one, one further substantiates their HHA by possessing both.

Hip hop artists, the vanguards of the culture and thus its greatest purveyors, must solidify their HHA lest they embark on dismal careers. It must be underscored here that claims for HHA are most prevalent at the mainstream/commercial level of hip hop. Kiesha Cole is the latest artist to join the fray of so many of her predecessors as she tells us “The Way It Is.” Cole leads us on a field trip to Oakland, California, her “Realm of Realness,” or the place where or the experience under which one earns Realness. The “hood” (ghettos, projects, the streets) is presently the greatest Realm of Realness, for example (Slavery being the original and archetypal realm).

In the birthplace of the Black Panthers, we learn of her humble beginnings: her absentee mother, her travails as a foster kid, and her discovery of music to help her survive. And naturally, Cole eventually stakes her claim for HHA, insisting,

“Some people are a packaged album to be sold—I’m not that.”

Oh, but she is!

Cole, or any other hip hop artist for that matter, may not realize how well stuffed, boxed, wrapped, and packaged they actually are. HHA is a necessary form of social capital within hip hop culture. It is virtually an irrefutable tenet under hip hop dogma, one which if ever doubted, may imperil one’s place in the hip hop world (The Law of Consistency). If one’s HHA is proven to be unfounded, revealing one to be an imposter, the result is relegation to the position of pariah, or worse, complete exile (as seen with Ja Rule and some others). Thus, hip hop artists must not only asseverate their authenticity, but also guard it and defend it with life and limb, sometimes literally.

To illustrate, Cole shows us more than her Realm of Realness, for her authenticity is not completely substantial by that alone. Nay, she must also demonstrate an affinity with criminal activity. Hence, Cole, in an attempt to defend her name from slander, issues threats to her slanderer on live radio. Though she exclaims she will not execute the threats herself, she nonetheless makes it known that the threats may materialize at the hands of people close to her. A promotion of violence? Maybe—but not anymore than it really was a promotion of her HHA. Cole showed us just how “real” she was, and as a result, her appeal to her fans is almost guaranteed to bubble over.

Indeed, Cole’s fans, like many other fans of hip hop artists, will come to regard her as their HHA exemplar. Scholar, Harold Dean Trulear, writes that African-American music strives to tell a story that endeavors to make sense of the world in which African Americans live, and through that, African American artists communicate narratives that strike a chord with other African Americans. Thus, fans come to see themselves, or parts of themselves, or themes of their lives in the songs of a particular artist.

This connection with fans makes HHA a manifestation of soul—that quintessential element of African American music that renders it more than mere music, but rather a testament of human existence. Scholar, C. Eric Lincoln holds that “soul” is an African American ethnic concept predicated on

“retrieving kinship and empathy and understanding from the brutalizing denigration of sustained oppression and alienation.”

Through “soul,” Lincoln states, African Americans simply understand one another. Thus, a hip hop artist without “soul” is not a hip hop artist at all, for they cannot be “felt.” The artist is instead a mindless musician, devoid of compelling words, inspiring notes, or cathartic melodies. Being “felt” means being understood and appreciated on a visceral level, one which reaches the emotional and spiritual self of a listener. Being felt is critical in hip hop. If one is not felt, one is not real, and if one is not real, one’s HHA is nullified.

However, if we follow Trulear’s explanation of African American music as a seeking of sense in the world in which African Americans live, then at once, HHA becomes incongruent with this role. HHA does not help hip hop pursue a means by which to make a pejorative experience intelligible; it helps hip hop pursue a means by which to make such an experience a foundation on which one can assert a claim for HHA. Citizens of the hip hop world are ebullient with pride when it concerns affirming their Realms of Realness (Representin,’ What set you Claimin’). This is not to say that they should be ashamed of those realms, however. Nevertheless, this pride is of a vainglorious and truculent nature.

Rather than stemming from pride in a victory over the Realm of Realness, this species of pride celebrates the existence of the realm itself because its existence authenticates HHA. HHA wears degradation, exploitation, and oppression as badges of honor, and edifies criminal activity in and of itself (Gangsterism). HHA is a self-serving enterprise, and thus it refuses to make sense of the realms because doing so would undermine its character. As a result, HHA inadvertently works to maintain Realms of Realness so that HHA is perpetually pursued. Certainly, a “hood” free of crime, gang warfare, dilapidated buildings, and the like, is not a hood at all—it is in fact a healthy community, which is antithetical to the “hood.”

Yet despite their claims for HHA, Cole and others have the potential to shift the paradigm in which HHA is positioned. Indeed, she is among a few commercial hip hop artists who are gradually reworking the premise of HHA by restoring to mainstream/commercial hip hop the tradition of sense-seeking that is inherent in African American music. Cole and others are re-injecting the cries of the disinherited and the will to overcome that condition into hip hop.

To demonstrate, Cole has acknowledged that she is a role model to so many (something many hip hop artists do not admit), and therefore must use her music and her celebrity to empower her admirers. This is why she decided to issue threats on live radio: it was incumbent upon her to protect her reputation lest she mar her role model-ship. TI is another artist who insists on uplifting his fans and the communities in which they live, and using his music to compliment that effort. While other artists abdicate the responsibility, Cole and TI have accepted the onus of inspiring others and healing the Realms of Realness.

This fundamentally transforms HHA into a construct centered on victory over victimization, survival rather than suffering. This redefinition of HHA essentially rejects the part of HHA that accepts struggle as a means to acquire HHA, and imports a new part, drawn from the African American musical tradition, to create a sociotherapy of sorts, one that provides convalescence and strength to people trying to endure the Realms of Realness. Thus, HHA is deconstructed and built into a new authenticity—an Affirmative Hip Hop Authenticity (AHHA). Hip hop artists at this point would only be able to make assertions for AHHA if and only if they convey a hope and/or fight for the positive, enlivening, and restorative.

* This post is actually a part of a thesis in a scholarly paper, which is currently a work in progress.

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Published on August 18, 2006 at 11:18 am. 2 Comments.
Filed under black culture,entertainment.