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Keeping It Real or Selling Out?

pbernal's picture

Jessica Bernal

ESEM- Play in The City


As I was growing up, every achievement I'd receive whether it was in school or with anything really, my mother never failed to say, Nunca te olvides de donde vienes ni quien eres, Never forget where you’re from or who you are. After a while, you get tired of hearing it and I never really understood why she would always get so serious and make deep eye contact as she’d say it. To be honest, I didn’t care, I thought it was just one of her silly dichos.

Anywhere you live, whether we’d like to acknowledge it or not, defines us as individuals. It either speaks for your race or your socioeconomic status in society. In NW, Zadie Smith splits the book into three major parts, Visitation, Guest, and, Host, each section focusing on a different main character, Leah, Felix, and Natalie (Keisha). Each one of them has a story of their own to share. But Natalie and Felix both have one particular thing in common, they’re both trying to get out of either their social, or economic status stagnation in life. They feel trapped and unsatisfied with themselves. Through the lens of a minority myself and other examples like rappers, NW’s Natalie, Felix, and Zadie Smith herself we determine whether race and socioeconomic status ultimately determine you’re success and setting in life or whether you really can escape stagnation.

When my mother constantly reminded me to never forget where I came from, I came to realize that it wasn’t because she wanted to always keep me grounded to my initial setting. Ultimately, she wanted me to grow as a person and in life; she wanted me to use my social economic experience as motivation to remind myself never to look back and want better for myself. I left the public schools and the poor education system offered locally to me and reached for better, someway somehow, I made it out. I didn’t let my ethnicity or working class socioeconomic status get in the way.

Zadie Smith comments, “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?” Jay-Z began his career by rapping about the people and places in his life; he embraced his social setting and rather than conforming he rapped about it and found a way for himself out. His roots and race made were the platform for his success. To this day, his lyrics consist of the hustle and poverty, and some critics claim rather than keeping it real, Jay- Z is selling out for living a luxurious extravagant life.

Zadie Smith defends, rapper and friend, Jay-Z, “ ‘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.” She comments that to ‘keeping it real’ by people’s standards is an absurd way of seeing things. If one were to settle for the poverty, drugs, and hustle to survive each day, then one would remain stagnant and never better oneself of grow as a person and ultimately your race and society’s economic label will forever represent you.

In NW, Natalie and Felix are both colored people residing in Northwest London. Each came from a similar life background. But unlike Felix, Natalie went to school, worked hard all throughout her life to make something out of herself other than her race determining her ultimate place in society. Economically and socially, Natalie ‘sold out’. As Michel says, “It’s like: ‘Dress for the job you want not the one you have.’” (Smith, NW)

Felix didn’t turn out as successful as Natalie, he didn’t finish school and neither did he have a high paying job to take out of his economic setting. Like Jay-Z in the beginning of his career, he ‘hustled’ day by day with a blunt here and there with his old man and neighbors. Felix was ‘keeping it real’, but whether he was personally satisfied was a whole other story. He ultimately wanted out, he was willing to ‘sell out’ but his opportunity was taken away with his life. 

 Am I keeping it real or did I sell out? I did both. I haven’t forgotten where I’m from or who I am, as Jay-Z and Zadie Smith also prove to have done, and like the characters in NW, we didn’t allow our race or socioeconomic status define our success or determine our emotional satisfaction in life. 

Works Constructed

Smith, Zadie. NW. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2012. Print.

"I'm Nobody, Who Are You? On Zadie Smith's 'NW' | The Nation." I'm Nobody, Who Are You? On Zadie Smith's 'NW' | The Nation. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2013. <>.

Neary, Lynn. "Same Streets, Different Lives In 'NW' London." NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2013. <>.

"Can You Name The U.S. Socio-Economic Levels?." Washington Times Communities. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2013. <>.