For IDA Director Jeff Chang, Art is Prophecy

The first question that crossed my mind when I met Jeff Chang was: How does a Chinese-Hawaiian prep school kid from the islands with a hipster-esque fashion sense become one of today’s preeminent hip-hip scholars and activists? 

Chang, who is the Executive Director of Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts (IDA), first became interested in the exploration of social inequality and the arts when, as a schoolboy, he paid his way through school and at the same time discovered reggae.  Chang is as surprising and multifaceted as his background.  He talked lucidly about devastating social realities but was always quick to laugh, rocked Harry Potter-meets-Ray-Ban style glasses, and was incredibly down to earth. 

Chang is a true storyteller.  He would start to answer a question before his narrative would start to wander off in various directions, toward people, historical events, and ideas that resonated with the topic at hand.  Here are some of his thoughts on the most pressing issues of our time.  

On political change through art:

“Cultural change precedes political change.”  Chang explained that in the West, there is a conception that social change comes through politics and that culture is “soft power.”  But artists have always been involved in creating social change, an idea Chang has put to work throughout his career.  In 2004, he was part of the National Hip Hop Political Convention, the first national discussion on and effort to galvanize his people to vote through hip-hop.

“That’s a credit to young people at the turn of the millennium – beginning to use hip-hop to address issues like education, increased incarceration, police brutality…These kids weren’t organizing under a renewed civil rights banner,” he said. “They were saying, ‘We are hip-hop kids’.”

Chang noted that most of the increase in voter participation and registration in the 2000s was due to young people of color, those most alienated from the system.  Further, the abundance of art accompanying Obama’s emergence in 2007 did not surprise Chang.

“It was a point at which Obama became a symbol of hope, what Angela Davis was calling ‘the reservoir for imagination of change.’  And we know how that ended up,” he said. “But even there it really made sense to rethink how we’d been thinking of political movements and how change gets made.”

On the most important current artists and Chang’s personal favorites:

Although he protested that he has too may favorite artists to choose, Chang listed Erykah Badu and Chuck D from Public Enemy.  “Lately I’ve been listening to LCD Soundsystem’s last concert because it still feels prophetic,” he said. “It still feels like a body of work that people are going be mining for many many years to come.”

The band drew on the work of artists like Miles Davis, Talking Heads, and Fela Kuti, “analyzing them and putting them up in their own unique ways. And Tune-Yards album is fucking great,” he added. Chang is looking forward to the Roots and Real Estate’s new albums as well.

Artists, Chang said, anticipate change and the need for change, and are often the first to be able to articulate shifts in the social sphere.  The work done at Stanford’s IDA is geared toward this work.  “There’s a great line by Jacques Attali: ‘music is prophecy’,” Chang said. “He talks about how music anticipated major shifts in economic exchange over the years. I feel that it’s so much broader than that, though. Art in general is prophecy.”

Chang is also interested in musicians who commented on the wars in the Middle East, including Neil Young, Green Day, Rise Against, and RDM.  In hip-hop, Chang also named Immortal Technique, Talib Kweli, Jean Grae, Geo from Blue Scholars, Bamboo, and Jasiri X.

On being politicized as a college student:

“It was a much rawer time back then. I grew up in Hawaii, so I had always had the experience of growing up in majority minority cultures,” Chang said.

At Berkeley, Chang was suddenly forced to confront the question of his own identity, his minority status, and racism, all of which were entirely new to him. During the first few weeks of undergrad at Berkeley in the 1980s, “there were innumerable incidents that happened that were both physical and verbal that made me aware that people really do see me as a chink.”

Chang’s struggle to process this racism led him into social movements and into music.  He became a DJ at Berkeley’s radio station KLX at the same time that he was becoming immersed in the activist community, working with hip-hop, punk, and funk.

Chang believes that there has been a revival of the tensions he experienced as a Berkeley undergrad on campuses and in the visual arts.

“In the mainstream, we tend to move through these moments in time often surpassing the kinds of histories that would make it inconvenient – that would disrupt the status quo,” he said. “What we’ve really suppressed have been the really intense culture wars that occurred as campuses began to change demographically in the 1980s and 1990s.”

On identity, what it means to be American, and how growing up Chinese and native Hawaiian in Hawaii influenced his work:

Chang received his Masters in Asian American studies at a time when the sovereignty movement in Hawaii was gaining momentum and the question of native Hawaiian identity were coming to the fore.  It was during this time that Chang began to question his whole identity.

“For many years, I couldn’t even call myself American,” he said. “But what came around for me was involving myself in this electoral work.  What could be more American than that?  And just realizing that there’s still hope within these US ideals for change to be able to occur that can provide the kind of justice that people really need.”

In 1959, Chang’s father voted to make Hawaii a part of the United States, despite the country’s history of poverty, racism, colonialism, and forcible taking of land. It’s a part of his heritage that Chang has had difficulty processing. He views his latest book, Who We Be, as a space of “reconciliation” with his father’s actions by tackling the question of what it means to identify as an American.

On the writing of Chang’s latest book, Who We Be: the Colorization of America:

Who We Be is interested in the question of identity as expressed in the visual arts world, particularly surrounding gender, race, and sexuality.  The book was influenced by Chang’s interest in his romanticizing of youth and questioning of his own generational grudges.  He had not previously written about multiculturalism and the struggles surrounding representation.  “Who We Be came out of saying, well, let’s go back to multiculturalism and talk what it did and how influential it was,” Chang said.

When Chang first proposed his new book idea in 2006, “multiculturalists were the new hippies,” and were satirized in pop culture from the Boondocks to South Park as “ineffectual bumbling idiots.”  His editor, Monique Patterson, was not convinced.  But when Obama announced in 2007 that he was going to run and racial tensions rose to the forefront of American politics, Chang’s ideas were suddenly cast in a new light.

“People find themselves going, ‘Wow, look at the way they’re treating Barack. That’s fucked up,’” he said. “And suddenly he’s getting baited around the whole church thing in Chicago and suddenly he’s doing the race speech, which is this pivotal moment. People look at it as the heir to the ‘I have a dream’ speech.”  The book deal was signed.

Who We Be was written over the course of Obama’s first presidency.  Chang had anticipated finishing the book within a year, a happy tribute to the progress in American society.  But as Obama’s presidency failed to meet expectations, and events like the overthrow of part of the Voting Rights Act, the verdict of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case, and the negation of DOMA rocked the country, Chang kept rewriting his manuscript.  “The book became about the difficulty and the fact that we’ve culturally desegregated but we’re physically resegregating.”

On being a mentor for artistic students at a university with a strong techie side:

Chang has always been interested in teaching and in the point of view and essence of youth, which he described as “this almost effortless way of seeing the world in what we would call a visionary sense.”  In fact, his next book will be called Youth.  Although he did not divulge his new project’s thesis, he did share some of the perspective that he offers as a mentor, particularly to young artists questioning the status quo.

Chang’s adamant, youthful questioning of authority has become more subtle over the years: “I’ve always been opposed to methods of just, ‘here’s the law, here’s how it is,’” he said. “But what gets lost in the transmission of ‘here’s the law and here’s what you must do’ is that there are reasons that people came up with that.  If we’re able to contextualize it, you might be able to pull out things that are useful and interesting and important [that] could be methods or ideas or approaches or views that would inform.”

Chang’s younger self would have benefited from such perspective.  Much of Chang’s twenties were spent imbued in the generational conflict that led him to write Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, a history of hip-hop culture that debuted to critical acclaim, including the American Book Award and Asian American Literary Award.  “There was a chip on your shoulder sort of approach and the grace of old age – I’m not old yet – is that you begin to understand what your role in the continuity of things is.”

On the differences and continuities in art, culture and identity between Chang’s 2005 Can’t Stop Won’t Stop and Who We Be:

According to Chang, the “sad continuity” is that the same issues surrounding race, identity, and social injustice continue to reoccur.  But the “happy continuity” is that the effort to raise awareness and create a better society has continued as well.

“Culture has remained a place for people to be able to imagine these alternative visions of what a desegregated country could actually look like,” he said. These are the types of visions that Who We Be explores.

“To a certain extent, we now see [a happy multicultural country] on TV…how can we get behind the image to see what’s not seen?  Because that’s the main thing that prevents us now from reaching a new kind of consensus about what needs to happen next.”

photo credit: Jeremy Keith Villaluz

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