How Important is Authenticity for Hip Hop?
Hip Hop has long had a tenuous relationship with notions of authenticity. For better or worse, the dominant discourse surrounding Hip Hop has assumed that its artists are revealing something real about themselves, such that they are narrating a reality of violence, of the streets, of blackness. In actuality though, the storytelling present in Hip Hop is much more complicated. For every autobiographical track (we can be fairly certain that Binary Star’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” is in fact about One Man Army’s time in prison) there’s a fictional counterpart that may or may not be rooted in reality (we’re equally sure that Rick Ross did not know the real Pablo Noriega). So this brings to the forefront several key questions. First, do we really care whether something is authentic or do we merely want the artist to be adept enough at storytelling to be able to make us believe what he/she is saying is fact? Second, what is it about Hip Hop that makes us, as an audience, equate lyrics with truth (especially considering the way we talk about other fictional narrative art forms as genius for their creative expression)? Third and perhaps most importantly, does authenticity require truth?
Setting aside these questions of why authenticity is so crucial for Hip Hop, I am interested in looking at the various ways in which artists can be perceived as authentic without having to stick to an autobiographical script. In this sense, an artist can construct an identity that draws from their own lived experiences, but allows them the creative space to develop that character into something greater than reality. In Jay-Z’s book Decoded, he talks at length about how rappers develop characters rooted in themselves: “Rappers refer to themselves a lot. What the rapper is doing is creating a character that, if you’re lucky, you find out about more and more from song to song… the best rappers use their imaginations to take their own core stories and emotions and feed them to characters who can be even more dramatic or epic or provocative.” (Decoded 157).
If we think of Hip Hop as performative rather than autobiographical, as Jay-Z suggests we should, then there are ways that we can view artists as more authentic than others without knowing their true backgrounds. Since it’s impossible to know whether an artist actually did what their music claims (be it sell drugs, enact violence, or otherwise), it follows that it is more productive for an artist to cultivate a believable persona through which others can relate. This is why Hip Hop can be so powerful for its audience. The seemingly personal revelations that come through on the mic feel like direct access to the artist, like the listener is in the confessional booth as the emcee reveals his story.
One recent example of this type of artist-as-relatable character is Big K.R.I.T. On the track “Down & Out,” from his latest release, 4Eva N A Day, K.R.I.T. insightfully addresses his relationships with women and the worry that they are out to get him: “But either way, I strap up, wrap up/ Cuz I don’t want no capsules after/ A rock-a-bye that I deny/ cuz she stay on heads like tassles/ And that’s not to say ain’t no queens around my way/ I seen one the other day, but she had bruises on her face.” This vivid depiction deals with a whole variety of potential pitfalls of engaging in a relationship with a woman (morning after pills, unplanned pregnancies, and violence against women). Whether or not this describes K.R.I.T.’s actual fears or interactions with women is largely irrelevant. What makes this a productive track is the understanding with which he raps, knowing that for many, these are real concerns. We know that K.R.I.T. is making this track not for himself, but for us, because he explicitly tells us so (“This for the people, this for the have-nots/ I know what you going through”).
If it turned out that K.R.I.T. was happily in a relationship and had no worries about women, would this lessen the impact of the song? Maybe, but I would argue that it’s largely because we have developed this false understanding of Hip Hop as truth. If we approach Hip Hop in the same way that we do film, literature, and visual art, we can distance ourselves from the artist as saviors and focus more intently on the music itself. Why should it matter whether or not K.R.I.T. had these types of relationships if he is able to creatively and articulately illustrate widely held concerns about them?
While the lived experience has been and will continue to function as the basis for much of Hip Hop, we should strive to allow ourselves the flexibility as an audience to go on the journey with the artist as a fictional character. Movies like Scarface touch us because they tap into our collective understandings of what a cocaine kingpin might have looked and acted like in that time period. Even though we know Al Pacino is acting, we expect, because of his talent as an actor, that his character is telling the truth. In the same way, the best Hip Hop artists needn’t have lived every particular event they describe. Instead, we should recognize that they are talented storytellers who have the ability to seamlessly weave fact and fiction together to tell us something important about the world in which we live.