“This above all: To thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
In Polonius’ words, we hear our mothers telling us that “You should always be yourself” and “If the kids at school don’t like you for who you are, then they’re not really your friends.” The overall message, of course, is be authentically you. Authenticity is the magic spark that supposedly serves as currency to a world where you are beloved more than any mask you could possibly craft for yourself.
And yet … regardless of our mother’s best intentions and Shakespeare’s eloquence, our society has a fickle relationship with the concept of authenticity. We claim to value it overall, but the majority of our institutions condition us to conform to an accepted norm. In that space of conformity, we also see a respect for authenticity regarding artists, who are generally allowed to be somewhat non-conformist compared to those who pursue other professions. But even for those occasions, some authentic artists are not welcome.
For example, I’ve never understood why the authenticity of artists* like Prince, Björk and Missy Elliott are considered acceptable, even praiseworthy, but the authenticity of artists like Tracy Chapman, Sinéad O’Connor and Tom Waits are somewhat, if not completely, unappreciated by the majority. Are those artists considered less authentic? Or is their authenticity too much, too real, too frightening?
As someone who’s a connoisseur of creative minds, and someone who has been told more times than she’d care to count, “Sometimes I just don’t get you,” I can’t help but wonder, whom decides what’s authentic? And more importantly, whose authenticity is acceptable?
One of my favorite aspects about the music/cultural festival Afropunk is that true authenticity seems to be the norm. And although the majority of images you see shared on social media and news outlets always seem to focus on those with more flamboyant exteriors, most of the festival attendees are dressed casually with unremarkable hairstyles and unremarkable demeanors.
And yet, I imagine for those who did “go big or go home” for the AP festival, they likely do not dress that way at work or in their everyday lives. Which speaks to their understanding that authenticity has its limits among the rest of society. They too, like the rest of us, play it safe and only go so far in expressing themselves a certain way when outside of a safe space.
Whether it be for their own physical safety, financial safety or simply peace of mind, most people bifurcate their authenticity from their role as a productive member of society, while at the same time insisting that everyone else just “keep it 100.” This in turn leads millions, if not billions, of us to live lives of utter confusion, stumbling around ready to remove our masks, but afraid to be told our authentic selves are not welcome.
Is it possible that one of the primary reasons some flock to the world of arts and entertainment is because they yearn to step just a little bit closer to being allowed to express their authentic selves in a sphere where it’s given more room to flourish?
Of course, I pose this question for selfish reasons as I stand at a crossroads where I find myself struggling to keep one foot in “polite society” with the traditional, acceptable version of my professional writer-self and the other foot in the world of the “glorious outcasts” with a less-conforming, conscious creative version of me. But I also pose this question because it deserves attention.
We speak casually of authenticity as if it’s a given. We ask actors to “keep it real” in interviews. Gentrifiers move to neighborhoods to take advantage of the area’s “character.” We love a person’s “energy” or “aura” when they seem genuine, but bristle when they come across as “fake” or “a poser.”
Yet, since childhood, we’ve mocked, bullied, shunned or ignored those who did not follow the crowd or seek to be one of the gang. We treated authentic creativity as acceptable if only it appeared in a fit body adorned with a pretty face. But even then, only in small doses. Those doses needed to be approved of by the majority first, of course. We wouldn’t dare give a thumbs up when most are giving a thumbs down.
So who holds the reigns to authenticity? Who is the designated authority that says Tracy Chapman’s authenticity is unwelcome, but Missy Elliott’s is inspiring? And for those of us who adore them both, are we outcasts or normies? And if the answer is no one holds the reigns, then why are the rest of us playing along?