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  • Beyond Keeping It Real: OutKast, the Funk Connection, and Afrofuturism
  • Howard Rambsy II (bio)

The notion of “keeping it real” has long been a hallmark of hip-hop culture. Rappers in particular and hip-hop heads in general gain their worth in part based on their abilities to channel and exhibit recognizable aspects of the hood or distinct black communities. Keeping it real presumably counters falsehoods and allows people to forgo seemingly passive practices, such as lying, masking, signifying, and other cultural behaviors linked to African Americans, concealing their true selves and feelings in the face of powerful authoritative forces.1 For some, keeping it real means rejecting ostensible white or Eurocentric rules of decorum in favor of taking problack positions. And still for others, keeping it real simply means adhering to supposedly accepted forms of behavior based on the standards of “the black community,” a phrase that is often quite slippery. The tendency to keep it real or “keep it 100,” as Chicagoans associated with hip-hop say, does have practical and political significance, and there is some positive value with indicating that people should show some love to their home communities, especially communities that have been historically neglected. Nonetheless, given the important though underdiscussed and sometimes suppressed boundary-pushing artistic productions and imaginative work of black men, we might benefit by thinking more seriously about moving beyond keeping it real.

“Black creative life has too often been determined by this impulse to ‘keep it real,’” sociologist Alondra Nelson has explained. “In order to be taken seriously, [End Page 205] we have fostered and encouraged 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.” The problem, Nelson points out, is that “we created a cultural environment often hostile to speculation, experimentation, and abstraction.”2 For Nelson and many others associated with Afrofuturism—a framework for thinking about the intersections of race and technology—black diasporic cultural traditions contain speculative narratives, innovation, and engagements with science, machines, and technological devices that deserve more of our attention if we are to fully appreciate the nature of those traditions. Music, for centuries now, has been one of the most consistently innovative sites in black creative life; thus, not surprisingly, thinkers interested in Afrofuturism and African American culture in general have viewed black music as a vital source of knowledge. Although hip-hop has a prominent “keeping it real” streak, the field has also been regularly populated by presumably accomplished leaders in the field interested in pushing and reshaping boundaries.

At a key moment in the history of rap music, the group OutKast emerged and offered one possibility for thinking beyond the genre’s more dominant realist conventions. The moment was key, in retrospect, because the geographic terrain of hip-hop was expanding into the South. The duo of Big Boi and André 3000 (previously known as Dré) and the production company Organized Noize made it possible for OutKast to present conceptual ideas that departed from typical hip-hop narratives. A close look at OutKast’s work provides an opportunity to see how they advanced and expanded conventional notions of rap by infusing their compositions with past traditions of black music, namely, funk. In addition, the funkadelic, futuristic, and seemingly unfamiliar, weird, or eccentric persona projected by André 3000 creates the chance to transcend the more pronounced characterizations of gangstas and pimps so regularly assumed by black men rap artists. To say that Andre 3000 was perceived as “weird” means that audiences could have questioned whether or to what extent he was keeping it real. Despite hip-hop’s adherence to real street culture, André 3000’s status as an eccentric yet popular black artist reminds us that innovation, speculative fiction, and sci-fi personages are just as integral to the art form.

For years, rap music and black men have been recurring notable subjects in popular and scholarly discourses. A wide range of scholars and journalists have contributed to the expansive body of articles, media coverage, books, academic conferences, and college courses focusing on hip...