“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.