Black creative life has too often been determined by this impulse to "keep it real." In order to be taken seriously, we have fostered and encounraged a long tradition of social realism in our cultural production. And we feared that to stop keeping things real was to lose the ability to recognize and protest the very real inequities in the social world. But we created a cultural environment often hostile to speculation, experimentation, and abstraction.
A large number of my students are from Chicago, where instead of saying "keep it real," folks tend to say "keep it 100." You'll hear Jay-Z give a nod to the phrase/idea on his song "D.O.A." when he says "Ye told me to kill yall to keep it 100." The Ye he refers to is Kanye West, who hails from Chicago.
We spent some time in class talking about the significance of keeping it real or 100 and its consequences. We then turned our attention to how keeping it real can constrain artists' abilities to produce original and groundbreaking works.
Good thing, for example, that Langston Hughes took flights of imagination across vast geographic space and time to envision a black person speaking of rivers. It's also important that Octavia Butler was not especially concerned with keeping it real in any conventional sense in order to produce all those important speculative fiction novels. We'd hardly have the pleasure of checking out those magical elements of Toni Morrison's books if she was confined to keeping it 100.
A couple of folks did push back on some critiques of keeping it real. One of the young brothers mentioned that keeping it 100 was about being honest about things. Fair enough. There is something to be said about the value of telling the truth and the problem with falsehoods. Still, we all acknowledged that AF is giving us a somewhat rare opportunity to really give thought to the benefits of moving beyond the real.