Jeff Chang was born and raised in Honolulu. He first discovered hip-hop listening to his AM radio and became enamored of the culture, writing graffiti under the name SLIM and organizing the first graffiti arts show in Honolulu through his high school. His studies brought him to California, where he earned degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and at Los Angeles and was both a political activist and DJ. He later moved to New York and worked as a hip-hop music critic and journalist.
His first book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, was published in 2005 and won the American Book Award and the Asian American Literary Award. He went on to edit the collection Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop (2007) and write two more books, Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America (2014), and, most recently, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (2016). Chang cofounded CultureStr/ke and ColorLines and has written for the Guardian, Slate, The Nation, the New York Times, The Believer, Foreign Policy, N+1, Mother Jones, and Salon, among others. He is now the Executive Director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University.
Chang spoke to me on Martin Luther King Jr. Day from his home in Berkeley.
The Rumpus: How did you fall in love with hip-hop?
Jeff Chang: Just like everybody else. I was twelve years old when “Rapper’s Delight” came out. Hip-hop came along at the moment I was becoming a teenager, and I grew up like millions of kids around the world for whom hip-hop became not just the soundtrack but the aspirational culture of our lives. Growing up in Hawai’i, you’d think there would have been more images of kids of color, but there weren’t, and seeing them with their own walk and talk and slang, their own music, their own visual art, their own dance, all of that was mind blowing. Hip-hop spoke to me. It became an identity. I would stay up watching cable TV all night to see the video for “This Is Radio Clash” for a few seconds of kids rapping in Times Square.
Rumpus: In almost every way you were far from the birthplace of hip-hop.
Chang: New York City was the Far East to me.
Rumpus: But you created your own space for it.
Chang: It was a big fad that everybody thought would pass, but of course it gave us so much more than a season’s worth of books and toys. People found their voice through it. I was one of tens of thousands of kids on the islands who were doing this in the eighties. New York became an aspirational model. Can we ever be as cool as these kids? Probably not. But we were going to try.
Rumpus: Did you idolize New York?
Chang: Yes, but when I came up to Berkeley, I fell right into the local scene. It was an amazing moment for hip-hop in the Bay Area in the mid-eighties. The rap scene was pumping. New York was always out there, but New Yorkers didn’t listen to West Coast stuff as religiously as we listened to New York stuff, so at some point you form allegiances.
Rumpus: You were with Tupac.
Chang: It was the scene I came up in as a DJ. Ten years later I moved to New York and worked for Russell Simmons. At that moment everything finally fit into place. This slang is just how people talk. The swagger people have is just the way young folks walk in New York. There were so many things that immediately made sense. I got to meet all the pioneers, and that’s when Can’t Stop Won’t Stop finally started to come together.
Rumpus: When you were working in hip-hop journalism, was politics involved?
Chang: I was deeply engaged in activism. I had come to Berkeley during the height of the anti-apartheid movement. Out of that came anti-racist politics and activism that still hasn’t been documented that well. That’s partly what I was trying to do with Who We Be, to recapture some of those stories. As the years went on, and I began to teach, students would ask, “Why are things like this?” And I’d say, let me tell you.
Rumpus: What a good, basic question.
Chang: The debates now, the Trump-era culture wars, these are old debates. The language being used is often thirty-plus years old, and the ideas don’t make sense anymore because they came out of a particular context. But they continue to shape the way people look at issues of race, gender, queerness. A lot of those debates were forged in the fires of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s.
Rumpus: You spoke in your book about loops. You said, “One need not be a pessimist to see the bad loop of history we are caught within—crisis, reaction, backlash, complacency, crisis.” Where do you think we are now in that loop?
Chang: We’re in backlash. The opposition to Trump was mobilizing minutes after he won the presidency, and of course it’s going to reach a new stage next week [at the inauguration]. What I worry about is, what happens—and this is a question so many of us were asking ourselves in the mid-2000s—what happens if we actually win? Will people retreat to a state of complacency? Over the last few years we’ve seen the rise of social justice movements that put issues of economic injustice, racial inequality, and environmental justice right in the middle of our discourse. I’m heartened by the idea that we might be able to come together against a common foe, but I’m worried we might not learn the lessons of the past and retreat to our corners afterward. That’s what keeps me up at night.
Rumpus: How do we keep from becoming complacent?
Chang: These post-mortem pieces about the failure of the Democrats to secure victory because of identity politics, they’re shortsighted. They’re missing the actual solutions people are bringing to the table. They’re bringing back this old idea of culture wars people used against each other in the despair of the 1990s when people thought the Democratic party was at its least powerful. Well, the Democratic party is not going to get reenergized unless it looks to social justice movements to lead, and it’s certainly not going to move forward by trying to pit one group against another in the way Trump has.
I think the main thing is to recognize these issues are all interconnected. Here we are on Martin Luther King Day, and it feels so appropriate to re-approach the talks he gave in the last year of his life. He spoke about how issues of poverty and economic exploitation, issues of racism, issues of war, were all interrelated. The war machine was based on racism and continued to feed economic inequality. You could take any one of those combinations and talk through the ways in which those three—he called them big triplets—of despair would interact with each other. We can’t talk about climate change if we’re not talking about the economic imbalances between the first and the third worlds, but the fact that race and imperialism still have legacies doesn’t allow us to fully grasp and approach these sorts of questions in a way that would make things better.
Rumpus: It can sometimes feel like it’s too overwhelming a job. Racism is systemic, it’s in every facet of our government and culture. Can you fix one without fixing them all? Can you fix all at once? Or is it too impossible a task?
Chang: Well, it’s not any one person’s job to fix all the world’s problems at once. The main thing is for us to be able to trust those who are most impacted to say, “These are the best ways to fix these issues.” The interesting thing about this particular moment is what the folks in sixties would have called movement building, is this idea that we need to trust in a process of bringing folks together so we can talk through solutions transparently, openly, and fairly, with an eye toward justice and freedom for all. I don’t come from a point of view of, “Let the experts figure it out.” It’s an energized democracy at its best that can bring about changes.
Rumpus: You wrote in your book, “the traditional, charismatic Black messiah model that typically privileged straight male leadership and top-down, hierarchical infrastructures” is no longer the de facto way to lead movements. It seems like with Black Lives Matter, with other grassroots organizations forming, with people donating money to Planned Parenthood under Mike Pence’s name, you’re talking about attacking it on many fronts through energized citizens. Maybe it’s to our benefit that it’s no longer a top-down model.
Chang: The way in which the folks who came together to form The Movement for Black Lives thought about leadership was a different model than the charismatic model. It’s about the people who make up the body that is pushing for change. That’s an idea whose time has come back around in the moment of Occupy and The Movement for Black Lives, in the moment of climate change work and reproductive freedom. It’s less these days about superstars than it is about bodies of people. And we don’t define ourselves in a singular way anymore. We’re interested in hip-hop and punk rock at the same time. We’re interested in reproductive freedom, transgender rights, migrant justice, and ending police brutality all at the same time. That’s the way people are trying to think about movements now, and I hope that’s something that’s here for good.
Rumpus: I wonder about the opposite side of the coin, those who would resist these movements. Do you have a sense of why conservative politics has become synonymous with anti-equality views?
Chang: I think there’s two things going on. There are always going to be people who are opposed to movements that begin from the bottom because they want to preserve their status at the top. I’m not so naive to think that the opposition will melt and go away. They’re just doubling down. These are people whose power is predicated on inequality of race and gender and all other -isms. By the same token, it’s important to note that in some ways the insurgent social movements maybe haven’t made the best case yet to those who are searching for a different way, and the reasons are complicated. We’re not allowed to, the message is distorted, the message is suppressed, the message is confused. I think that’s the work that social justice movements try to do. Take Occupy for instance. Suddenly there was a new language to describe inequality, and it was simple. “One percent, ninety-nine percent.” I think the Black Lives Matter movement has one of the most progressive agendas out there. At the same time, their message has been completely distorted and suppressed in many ways. Their platform, which, I think, would free us all, is not reaching people in its undistorted form. It’s reaching people in ways that are framed by fear. Those are the kinds of things justice movements are trying to change, to create an imagination people can move toward, a society, a nation, a world that has not yet been born. It’s a difficult process. All the other side has to do is preserve the status quo. We’re the ones who always have to push the rock up the hill, but they’re happy where the rock is because it’s on our foot.
Rumpus: It’s not only imagining a different world but also living as though you’re already in it. It’s hard to maintain that.
Chang: It’s one of the most difficult things in the world to do. But it’s always our unique burden to say, “this world is going to be a better one, come and join me.” We always have to make that invitation, and it’s a pain in the ass sometimes.
Rumpus: Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in Between the World and Me, “I do not believe we can stop them because they must ultimately stop themselves.” What you’re suggesting is that we must imagine the world we want to live in and invite others to join us. Coates is saying that they have to be the ones to choose it themselves. Are those ideas in conflict?
Chang: They’re not in conflict at all. They’re totally compatible. We do have a burden to say “here is a world that would be better for all of us,” but ultimately Ta-Nehisi is correct. I can’t convince you of something against your will. Maybe in a Trump world, which is pro-waterboarding, perhaps, but that’s not the justice I want. I need to be able to make my best case, and in order to do that I need to be able to have these distorting aspects, these prismatic filters, removed. At the same time, you have to sit on the other side of table and nod your head. I reject the notion that there’s a binary, that there’s only a positive and a pessimistic way to look at this. People will fall all along the spectrum. I tend to be an optimist. I know Ta-Nehisi tends to be more pessimistic. At end of the day, his truth is absolutely real. People need to be able to come to a consensus, and that requires people to arrive at that consensus on their own.
Rumpus: Is there a place for pessimism in this fight?
Chang: Absolutely, yes. We have to be critical and see the world as it is. I think most of my book is pretty damn pessimistic, despite the title, which comes from Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” and that song is pessimistic as fuck. He’s describing the brutal struggle he faces on a day-to-day basis, yet he pulls seemingly out of thin air this chorus that says, “you got me, I got you, God’s got us, we’re going to be alright.” That right there is the human condition. Thank God for our young prophets.
Rumpus: The chapter that compelled me most was the chapter on Michael Brown’s killing and the birth of Black Lives Matter. What was so awful was the Ferguson police’s response, how breathtakingly tone deaf it was, how distorted it was. What are the methods of distortion, and how do we keep our messages from getting distorted?
Chang: One of the words I heard constantly from the organizers in Ferguson was escalation. At every turn, they encountered an escalation of violence. It becomes its own storm-producing weather system. First of all, the callousness and sheer inhumanity of leaving Michael Brown’s body out in street, and then treating residents, friends, family, neighbors as if they were combatants, not people who were observing and mourning trauma, that was a severe and intense escalation. That’s the first part. Then what you see is, rather than trying to speak to people within the community, the police immediately go toward militarized weapons, weapons of war. This escalation is a perfect example of how the distortion field gets created. And it’s still going on. We’ve seen it in other cities since, maybe not in the same scale, but a similar confrontational situation. You asked me, “How do we prevent the distortion?” I don’t know. One strategy organizers and activists have tried is de-escalation. You saw that in the scene with Reverend Sekou.
Rumpus: That story of Sekou beating his chest after Brown’s killing and saying it was the heartbeat of democracy, and having that work—the opposing officers left—it seems in that moment he was engaging people’s humanity.
Chang: When Mo Costello, whose café Sekou had been outside when that happened, told me that story, I couldn’t talk for a long time. We were sitting outside the jail where they had arrested protesters, journalists, bystanders, everybody in area at the time of the highway protest on the Moral Monday following the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing. It illustrated the bravery and sacrifice and beauty of the protesters, and it also illustrated that this distortion field is based in the dehumanization of fellow human beings.
Rumpus: Reverend Sekou cut through everything and demonstrated his humanity and the humanity of those around him. It seems like those are the moments that can turn the tide, and in that case it did. The question becomes, “How do we demonstrate our humanity?” That moment was one of great improvisation, but how do we do that in a way that is rigorous and regular?
Chang: You’re right, absolutely, you’ve pinpointed the import of the story in a way that I couldn’t articulate. But I think to get to the original question you had, “How do we continue to act in the face of injustice?” We have to be able to have a face. Part of the distortion field is this notion that comfort is our greatest priority even at the expense of other people’s security and comfort. Martin Luther King used to say that communism doesn’t recognize the individual and capitalism doesn’t recognize the social, and in a world that’s become so deeply marketized, what we’ve lost most of all is the idea that we’re connected and that we belong to each other, and we need to be looking out for each other, and moving toward that is moving toward the dissolution of all the distortion fields that keep us apart.
Rumpus: Do you see evidence of that movement?
Chang: I do. Maybe it’s my job now because I wrote this book with this title, but I am cautiously optimistic about this moment. I do see conversations happening between people that have not been had before. I see more people trying to listen hard to each other and trying to work out the way forward. To get past this moment of the despair of it all to the “what next?” of it all. As humans, it’s debilitating to live in fear and despair all of the time, and I don’t think most people have the strength to live in that space for their entire lives, unless they’re benefitting from it, and I think the vast majority of people are not benefitting from it. I’m optimistic in that regard. Call me crazy, but I guess I am.
Author photograph © Jeremy Keith Villaluz.