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The Change Agent

Some writers want to make sense of the world, Jeff Chang wants to save it.

Story and photos by Kyle Blankenship

Jeff Chang sits behind a plate of green chile migas in the restaurant at the swanky Lumen Hotel located just across the street from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The Lumen, with its cold, modern industrial chic, makes for an odd pairing with Chang. Older couples and young businessmen in suits idle past in the quiet midmorning hours, mostly white, seemingly rich. Chang positively exudes chill in his low-key outfit of a black polo, cardigan and jeans, sipping hibiscus tea and elaborating quietly on the constant evolution of racial incidents in the U.S. while waiters scuttle by in their slick uniforms. Suddenly, a concerned look passes over his face as he asks with a pointed finger, “This happened in Dallas? This is in Dallas?”

A shaky, silent video plays on the nearest flat screen over the bar running along the far end of the restaurant. The camera, capturing the scene from the body camera of Officer Andrew Hutchins, holds for a moment on the image of an older black woman in the doorway of her home. A large man, his face obscured in shadow, stands behind her in the darkness of the entryway, twirling a metal object in his hands. The woman steps over the threshold and chaos erupts. Both Hutchins and his partner, John Rogers, repeatedly command the man to drop his weapon before pulling their firearms. Five shots ring out. The man stumbles to his left and crumples face down in the driveway with two bullets in his chest as his mother jumps away, screaming “They killed my child! They killed my child!”

Chang watches the video in silence before digging back into his breakfast with a resigned shake of his head. It’s one more thing to add to the list, one more event proving that things are still not right in this country.

The author and activist, who has been speaking to audiences all over the country after the release of his most recent book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America, says that Ferguson and other headline-grabbing killings of people of color by law enforcement have made discussion of his book more challenging, forcing him to repeatedly edit his presentation to capture the shifting racial landscape. But for the Berkeley activist turned hip-hop label cofounder turned best-selling writer, change is a familiar companion. In fact, change is what Chang is all about. “As long as I’m alive, I’m going to change.”

While most writers aim only to describe their world, he wants to fix it. In the written word, Chang has found his tool. But making repairs is difficult when the world won’t wait. The death of Jason Harrison — the 38-year-old, mentally-challenged black man videotaped as he was shot by two Dallas police officers on his mother’s doorstep in June 2014 — is one of many breaking events to be incorporated into Chang’s speech later this March evening at SMU. In a chaotic period defined by the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other men and women of color, audiences have begun looking to Chang for guidance.

Chang will finish his breakfast and, as he always does before a speaking engagement, go somewhere quiet and reflect on what he knows and what he doesn’t. He doesn’t know all the troubling details of Harrison’s death — his history of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, the fact that two white officers shot a black man to death for brandishing a screwdriver — so he spends his afternoon catching up as much as he can, making sure he’s on top of the issue if it’s brought up at the presentation.

Chang’s three books and numerous articles on hip-hop, arts, politics and race, featured in publications such as The Nation, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Vibe, and The Village Voice — have received high praise from critics, earning the author a designation by Utne Reader as one of the “50 Visionaries Changing Your World.” His first book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, won both the American Book Award and the Asian American Literary Award. Chang also directs the Institute of Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, working at the cutting edge of race, music and the arts, educating the next generation of artists and activists and utilizing his unique past to analyze the racial turmoil currently embroiling the nation.

But despite his accomplishments, Chang points to his mentors, his peers and the young generation of artists and activists still developing their world as the real pioneers of racial harmony. This is no great surprise. Chang remains characteristically humble and deferential despite his trials by fire, failures and many successes.

You would think that writers are individualists, tied to their writing desks, desperately trying to show readers their unique vision of the world. But then again, you haven’t met Jeff Chang.

“I’m not out to be the voice,” he says. “I’m out to be a voice.”

“What do we do now?” Chang hesitates for a moment while the young woman in the third row leans forward. She seems unaware that this is not Chang’s favorite question, but her request is well meaning. She looks to Chang, like so many other young activists do, for a nudge in the right direction. Before he has time to answer, another audience member cries out from across the room.

“Join Mothers Against Police Brutality!”

The Dallas advocacy group has partnered with the families of those subjected to police brutality in a call for more effective oversight on law enforcement. Chang claps his hands together with a laugh.

“Great, problem solved! Next!”

The 200-seat auditorium where Chang is presenting on the SMU campus is mostly full, and despite the thin walls and the adjoining comedy club hosting an open mic night, the mixed audience of differing ages, gender and ethnicity hangs patiently through Chang’s circuitous presentation. He leads them past the Civil Rights era, through the rise and fall of multiculturalism in the 1980s and 1990s, and toward 2042 — the year demographers predict the U.S. will become a “majority-minority” nation. Depending on whom you ask, this controversial date represents hope or holocaust. Chang predicts, looking back at his own history, that a new generation of activists will play a central role in shaping the direction that controversy takes.

Raised in the multicultural oasis of Honolulu, Chang never expected to become an activist. He arrived on the mainland in 1985 at the age of 18 to attend school at the University of California-Berkeley with few big ideas in his head. Chang was a hip-hop lover as a kid, dazzled by the style of the blossoming street movement out of the South Bronx. He had buddies in high school who were graffiti writers and rap lyricists and breakers. He was in the mix as early as he can remember and Berkeley’s hip-hop scene held a powerful allure. “I would leave my dorms and go up to Telegraph Avenue, and every weekend there would be kids cruising up Telegraph,” he recalls. “You know, rap ciphers, dance ciphers, people with boomboxes, people driving up with these massive subwoofers in their trucks playing Too Short and RUN DMC and Beastie Boys, and this L.A. stuff. So it was really, really happening.”

For the Chinese-Native Hawaiian teen working toward a parent-pleasing degree in economics, Chang found his new home was more racially conflicted than he could have imagined. In his first few weeks, he experienced what he terms “microagressions”— reduced to being called a chink, a gook, being tossed around by wasted frat boys and told by street-side hippies to “go the fuck back where you came from.” He began to comprehend the challenges of just getting by as an Asian-American in a culture that felt stacked against him.

The block parties on Telegraph soon came to an end, a casualty of the battle for Berkeley’s cultural soul, and Chang started to rail against the school’s unspoken cap on Asian-American admissions, a lack of ethnic studies, all of the injustices that he and his Asian-American friends experienced daily.

Chang had known about the growing anti-apartheid campaign on UC system campuses, one of the largest student movements in the history of the U.S. He had even started to see a connection between the racism of the South African regime and the inequality at his doorstep. But in April 1986, when he decided to tag along with two friends to a shantytown erected as a protest on campus, he had no experience in actual protesting or activism, just an emerging notion of injustice and pent-up anger.

He chatted with those in the camp, learning more about their call for the UC system to divest billions from the South African government. Those conversations ended with the arrival of police officers in riot gear ready to break up the protest. Chang, in an act of defiance, sat down and others sat down around him. He now says that it was all accidental, he didn’t expect people to follow him.

As the police violently broke up the sit-in, Chang grew horrified. While watching young men and women clubbed on the head and dragged away, he remembered his mother, who worked in the police department back in Honolulu, and the detectives he looked up to as a kid. What was making these men act this way? Chang escaped that evening without a scratch — a friend and veteran protester pulled him from the fray — but he witnessed many others beaten and incarcerated for what they believed to be a noble cause. His outlook didn’t change in a moment, he didn’t have a vision of his future, but he was seeing for the first time what being an activist was all about and what he could achieve.

As another audience member speaks, Chang nods his head in agreement.

“I feel as if at times the media has a way of embellishing stories and magnifying situations and forgets the accomplishments that we’ve made,” the young African-American man remarks. “I think that is very frightening because we’ve grown so much.”

That same feeling of hopelessness in telling stories about minority communities is one that Chang confronts directly. He says that watching television news as an Asian-American man can be a disheartening experience and that communities of color need to reclaim their culture.

“I like to talk so much about the imagination, that we have to maintain the imagination,” he responds. “Even when it’s impossible to see the images that are going to help us to figure out what a new world can be like.”

Through extensive interviews and research, Chang’s books weave artists and activists at the margins of society into mosaics of cultural change, flying from the hectic dance halls of 1970s Jamaica in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop to the work of artists of color on the quiet museum walls of the Met in Who We Be. He is a cultural archaeologist, telling stories that are buried in history. It’s through the power of storytelling, Chang believes, that communities can reclaim their past.

Chang got his first taste of writing after composing a column for a local magazine as a senior at UC Berkeley during his time as student body president — the first Asian-American to hold the post in more than 20 years. But he never thought his writing would come to anything. During community organizing training, however, with the Center for Third-World Organizing at Berkeley, Chang discovered an ear for narrative — often at the expense of his training. “I was really bad, because all I wanted to do was sit with the organizers and hear their stories. I wanted to learn their stories. I think I realized later that this is why I would be a better writer than an organizer, because I was like really into the narrative of it all.”

After graduation and a failed stint lobbying the California Legislature in Sacramento, he took a job at KDVS, the student radio station at nearby UC Davis. Chang had worked as a DJ for a hip-hop show at Berkeley and felt at home behind the controls, playing the music he wanted and crewing up with the hottest musicians in the area. He fast-tracked his way into hosting a show and brought his new friends on air, performers like Lyrics Born, DJ Shadow and Blackalicious, even a few big names like Cypress Hill and Michael Franti.

His connections to these artists gave him a huge advantage in the booming hip-hop journalism industry. When Chang started graduate school at UCLA in 1991, URB, a hip-hop and rave magazine out of Los Angeles, offered him a column. Chang wasn’t sure that he had the writing chops. “I learned on the run. I mean, I was a shitty writer,” he laughs. “I was like faking it. I was totally faking it, man.”

Despite his lack of confidence, he brought national publications such as Vibe and The Village Voice the one thing their staff writers could not get: a way into the hip-hop community. He learned from editors way above his pay grade, mentors who were teaching him about the basics of the inverted pyramid and circle kickers.

One piece stands out for him. An early column for URB covered the Ice Cube song “Black Korea,” an outburst of hostility to Korean shop owners in the aftermath of the 1991 shooting of African-American teen Latasha Harlins in Los Angeles. It felt like an omen of more violence to come in the city that had yet to face the 1992 Rodney King riots.

The song caused an uproar, as did Chang’s column, the only Asian-American perspective on the song at the time. The hip-hop journalism industry was young enough that Asian-American voices were unique, and Chang was a rare figure in the business. For him, writing that column introduced the notion that art and protest were intertwined in a more challenging way than he had thought. Ice Cube, like other hip-hop acts at the time, toyed with politics and aesthetics in a difficult way. For a writer intrigued by complicated narratives, this was an intellectual goldmine in what was seemingly the least likely of places.

When the idea for Chang’s first book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, began to germinate, he looked back at the “Black Korea” article as its template. A central question dominates the book: What is the untold story of hip-hop? The more the book’s premise took shape, the more Chang found that hip-hop was firmly rooted in a South Bronx community rocked by racism, police brutality and societal neglect. Hip-hop’s birth was a story that intertwined protest, community pride and a cultural and aesthetic revolution. Writing the stories of the movement’s heroes and leaders helped him crystallize the connection between art and activism.

It’s also a story of change. When Chang finally sold the book in 2001, only weeks before 9/11, his own life had changed drastically since the seeds of the project took root. After cofounding the SoleSides Records label with a group of Bay Area musicians in 1992, he was unceremoniously released after the label’s failure to secure a domestic deal in 1998. Looking for his next break, he chose to uproot his family in 1999 to work as an editor for a hip-hop and political website headquartered in New York that tanked spectacularly after blowing through $20 million in about eight months. Watching that website and another opportunity implode, he spent every free hour either poring through museum and library archives of 1970s New York or hitting the block to hang out with the original cultivators of hip-hop in the South Bronx — gang leaders and community organizers.

In looking at the change hip-hop had made from a community movement to a global phenomenon, he could see the changes within himself, the skill to mesh individual lives into bigger narratives, the ability to take stock of his own life and move ahead. When he left New York to head back to the Bay Area in 2002 with his wife and two sons, he knew he had a book.

Chang slows it down for a moment. “What if we thought of change as this process that’s never-ending? That never stops moving, like the ocean itself.”

Eyes widen around the room, a few of the younger audience members visibly settle back into their chairs as though thinking in unison, here we go.

How would you explain to audiences what culture is? Establish that, and then explain that culture acts like a wave, a product of chaotic forces that build and crash in a history — a consuming loop. Try telling a room full of street-beating activists lobbying for new legislation that cultural change always precedes political change, that the real roots for change are in our shared ideas and visual images rather than in our laws. Wrestle with these issues for years, constantly editing your ideas, your words, your critiques and you can begin to appreciate the struggle of writing Who We Be.

The book had a troubled birth. A claim by Chang’s editor that “no one gives a shit about multiculturalism,” shook him to the core. It seemed that the story he wanted to tell about the birth and demise of the multicultural movement and the victories of the past generation of artists and activists didn’t have an audience. But Barack Obama’s rise on the political scene after his powerful speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention greased the wheels for the book to take form.

In this century’s opening years, however, there were roadblocks to talking about race. Chang remembers it as a time that “post-racial” fervor had taken hold of the nation. Even hinting at institutional racism drew accusations of inflaming seemingly dead racial differences. From the conversations that he was having with other scholars and friends, he knew there was an undercurrent of racial tension that was difficult to crystallize. Despite signs of trouble, Obama’s election in 2008 appeared for many a victorious moment for racial equality. Chang planned to end the book on an unexpected high note.

But Trayvon Martin’s death in February 2012 tossed that hopeful narrative out the window. The culture wars of Chang’s youth began again, and he went back to the drawing board to rewrite almost a third of the book. It was just another addition to a challenging and self-conscious writing process. He had been so consumed by the voices in his head — readers, editors, supporters and detractors — that he put up a quote by Toni Morrison on the wall in his writing room telling him to keep the voices out and write truthfully. He found it impossible to be free from the weight of his subject matter, spending years toiling over single passages. Even finishing the book brought little relief. “Writing and talking about race in the U.S. is so difficult,” he says. “There’s always a danger that you’ll be misunderstood, that you’ll be misinterpreted. There’s a danger that you’ll be pegged. Maybe the worst of all, there’s the danger that you’ll be ignored.”

By focusing on the human faces hidden in history — visionaries, artists, writers, leaders, many of color, many crushed beneath the weight of change — Chang slices through the difficulties of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, relating the human toll of racism. In the ashes of multiculturalism, Chang sees the future generation of activists and the challenges ahead for racial harmony and discourse. He recognizes that the reins are already being passed to the next generation of Americans and he wants each of his books to keep the past alive and reinvigorate the American dream for those to follow. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that “it would behoove anyone who has an interest in what it means to be an American to read [Who We Be].”

Who We Be also reveals another evolution in Chang’s life and his development beyond hip-hop scholarship. It was for Can’t Stop Won’t Stop that Chang earned distinction as a visionary, being one of the few writers treating hip-hop as a serious field of study. But he is always trying to challenge himself — being on the cutting edge is important to him — and in the aftermath of Who We Be, Chang faces a pivotal moment in his writing career.

In addition to the continued critical praise for his book and a rigorous speaking schedule — sometimes as many as 12 events in a 10-day span — Chang has been under pressure to alter his writing plans to capture the current demand for authoritative voices on racism. He continues to research two future projects — a book of essays on youth culture in the U.S. and a biography of martial artist Bruce Lee — while he and his editor discuss working on a more polemical book on race, a sort of “Jeff’s take” on the issues that Who We Be introduced. He is hesitant to pursue this idea, asserting that he does not have all the answers that so many seek.

Although he calls for collective action, the battle is personal: he has kids and works constantly with the younger generation at Stanford. He wants a better world for them. As his writing has developed, so has his eye for narrative. Like other tragedies in history, racial injustice always has a way of coming back around.

“One of my kids, who’s already in college, just started this year, and I have another one who’s in middle school, about to go to high school next year,” he explains. “It makes me very sad that all of these things that you thought in your 20s that you might be able to solve, change, are still the same kinds of things that they’re dealing with now.”

As the night comes to a close, the audience begins to shuffle in their seats anxiously. The comedy club drones on and the questions have begun to dissipate. Chang shows a bit of fatigue, slumping ever so slightly behind the podium. While answering a final question from the audience, Chang makes a plea to those in the crowd, telling them that they hold the solutions, not him.

“I believe in the power of folks coming together and figuring it out together. That’s eventually what I would like to see us move toward,” he tells them. “All these different kinds of forces are working really to divide us, to segregate us, to atomize us, to make us feel like we have no agency in our lives, that we should kind of sit back and accept. All we need for things to get worse is for nobody to step forward and say, ‘that’s not right.’”

The group warmly applauds and filters out of the room. Chang takes a seat outside to sign copies of his book and chat with those who still have questions. Most of the audience members mill about, talking amongst themselves. Despite the late hour, electricity moves through the crowd, a spark that draws them together and gets them talking about change. Chang fits right in, a bit of that spark seems to energize him as he joins the discussion and laughs with the group swirling around him.

Chang can’t read the future — or if he can, he doesn’t want to tell us. But in moments like this, in the darkened basement of a building on the pristine SMU campus, conversation is happening. Chang will be on a plane to Alaska the next day, preparing for a new audience and a new set of expectations, but tonight he can sit back and participate in the group — not as the voice, but as a voice.

Some writers want to make sense of the world, Jeff Chang wants to save it.
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