“But can’t a rapper insist, like other artists, on a fictional reality, in which he is somehow still on the corner, despite occupying the penthouse suite?… Can’t he still rep his block?” So Zadie Smith wondered of Jay-Z on an afternoon not long ago. The two were lunching for a profile by Smith published in The New York Times Magazine in September, a few weeks before the opening of the Barclays Center, the new entertainment and sports mecca in downtown Brooklyn for which Jay has served as the homegrown poster boy.
The premise of the novelist’s questions was the criticism that the rapper-mogul might be “too distant now from what once made him real”—the poverty, the drugs, the hustle, the street, all the themes he’s kept riffing on well past his first million and 100 million. It’s a charge familiar to Jay-Z’s fans, and Smith’s response in the article to her own line of questioning will be equally familiar to hers: “Who cares if they’re keeping it real?” she retorted on behalf of Jay-Z and his recent collaborator, Kanye West. The question neatly summarizes the climax of the second section of “Speaking in Tongues,” her wonderful 2008 essay on Barack Obama, in which she demolished the accusation that any success blacks achieve in wider Anglo society amounts to a betrayal of their roots.
To me, the instruction “keep it real” is a sort of prison cell, two feet by five. The fact is, it’s too narrow. I just can’t live comfortably in there. “Keep it real” replaced the blessed and solid genetic fact of Blackness with a flimsy imperative. It made Blackness a quality each individual black person was constantly in danger of losing.
“How absurd that all seems now,” Smith concluded, and the fact, put so simply, seemed indisputable.
“Speaking in Tongues” appears in the collection Changing My Mind (2009). The title is a disclaimer for whatever contradictions and inconsistencies might arise between the autobiographical reflections, reportage, film criticism and book reviews gathered in its pages, but it’s a credo as well, both literary and personal. Smith may be contemporary English fiction’s most ardent champion of the right to change one’s mind and, above all, one’s self, an idea that’s been at the center of her work since the publication of her first novel, White Teeth, in 2000, when she was 24. There is a moment in that book when the young Londoner Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mubtasim Iqbal is discovered by his Bangladeshi parents to be going by the name Mark Smith at school. Uproar ensues, but still the question hovers: Well, why not? Magid, longing to be part of a different, more middle-class, more British family, unintentionally grasps what his parents, clutching their old-world ways, don’t: that he can be—and on some level already is—a Smith who covets holidays in France as well as an Iqbal who never gets farther than “day-trips to Blackpool to visit aunties.” He’s only 9, and could already plot a small map from the blocks he has to rep.
White Teeth is a comic novel brimming with a rare fondness for the foibles of the human condition, and where a different writer might have insisted on casting Magid’s split state as a grim symbol of alienation—generational, racial, postcolonial, that Triple Crown of modern angst—Smith observes it with a wink. She sees humor in all this identity confusion, and hope, too. “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,” Walt Whitman warns readers liable to be baffled by his giddy mutations in Song of Myself, then alchemizes the threat of his strangeness into a communal blessing: “But I shall be good health to you nevertheless.” Along with the rest of White Teeth’s motley crew, Magid Iqbal hails from Willesden, the multicultural London neighborhood where Smith herself grew up, the daughter of a white father and a Jamaican mother many years his junior. But Magid would be an ideal resident of “Dream City,” the Whitmanesque utopia she conjures in “Speaking in Tongues,” where “the unified singular self is an illusion…. It’s the kind of town where the wise man says ‘I’ cautiously, because I feels like too straight and singular a phoneme to represent the true multiplicity of his experience.” Dream City is a place, in other words, where a rapper could choose to travel from his old corner to the penthouse suite and back with no more effort than it takes to step into the elevator, and Smith ended her Times Magazine profile by suggesting just how close to reality this vision might come. After Jay compared his early years in Brooklyn’s notorious Marcy Houses, now the stuff of myth, to the unfathomably different circumstances that his baby daughter has been born into, Smith condensed the distance into four syllables: “It’s a new day.”