The phrase “The struggle is real” is mostly used as a reaction to frustrating situations and/or posts on the internet.
Also, can be used as an ironic statement/reaction very similarly to the term “first world problems”.
The origin and first use of the term is unknown as there is no official written record of it on the internet.
However, the term was most likely used well before the time of the internet, out of its present context as in 2011 the hip-hop group has released an album which had the track named “The struggle is real” on it, popularizing the use.
Like wildfire, the term took over the internet after around 2013, given that the internet loves edgy and sarcastic stuff.
First, mostly seen on message boards like the website called 4chan and reddit and in the comment sections of YouTube videos.
As it become more and more popular, the term has been used to create memes sometimes only relying on text or added as a caption to pictures of frustrating situations like the topic “life in college”, which best describes the use.