Jeff Chang

Cultural scholar Jeff Chang presents ASU Visionary Lecture

By

Maureen Roen

To what extent have the cultural and demographic changes over the last 50 years changed our attitudes about race and the way Americans see each other?

That will be the focus of award-winning author and cultural scholar Jeff Chang when he presents ASU’s annual Visionary Lecture on Nov. 5. It is also the subject of Chang’s 2014 book “Who We Be: The Colorization of America,” which articulates the progress and shortfalls made since the civil rights movement.

The event, organized by ASU’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy in the College of Letters and Sciences, will feature Chang, who is executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, in conversation with ASU alumnus Lasana O. Hotep, now dean of Student Success and Equity for the Peralta Community College District, in Oakland, Calif.

The shortfalls of ‘colorization’

“Before multiculturalism, before hip-hop, the ideal was that you had one way of being an American,” explained Chang, in a recent interview.

“Colorization is talking about the process of breaking that open. The multiculturalism movement comes along in the ’70s and ’80s, and hip-hop comes along and has changed, I think in a lot of ways, the way that we see each other.”

"We’re in a culturally desegregated world, right? Diddy’s a superstar, Jay Z and Beyonce are everywhere…And yet at the same time you can still have a Michael Brown, a Trayvon Martin, a Tamir Rice, an Eric Garner happen."

— Jeff Chang, award-winning author and cultural scholar

But he points out that multiculturalism — which has driven diversity, inclusion and widespread visibility of difference in corporations, politics, advertising, media and many other realms — has also fallen short in delivering justice for all.

“We’re in a culturally desegregated world, right? Diddy’s a superstar, Jay Z and Beyonce are everywhere … And yet at the same time you can still have a Michael Brown, a Trayvon Martin, a Tamir Rice, an Eric Garner happen,” observed Chang in a recent interview.

He attributes these opposing realities to our not wanting to have the difficult conversations we need to have as a nation.

“We’re afraid to talk about injustice, inequality, discrimination and privilege,” Chang said.

“We haven’t had a consensus around racial justice since 1965, and that’s why … we have these repercussions and sort of reverberations every generation … explosive moments that point to all these wounds that haven’t been healed.”

Chang believes artists and “those who work and play in the culture” offer us visions that lead us to the future: “They help people to see what cannot yet be seen, hear the unheard, tell the untold. They make change feel not just possible, but inevitable.”

The hip-hop generation

Take hip-hop, for example.

Its influence is everywhere — from food and fashion to popular culture and all the creative arts.

Chang explored the hip-hop arts movement extensively in his first book, the acclaimed "Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” in 2005, and “Total Chaos,” the 2007 edited anthology on the art and aesthetics of hip-hop.

“Hip-hop offers a generational worldview that encompasses the shoes you choose, to whether you’re inclined to vote or not, to how you understand the issue of race,” said Chang. “So I use this worldview to look at the last three decades of the American century."

In capturing the energy and reach of the movement, he wrote: “Imagine the infrastructure of the Harlem Renaissance — poets, artists, photographers, publishers, patrons and fans — raised to global proportions, and you have … the hip-hop arts movement.

“[Hip-hop artists] share a desire to continue to break down boundaries between so-called high and low, to bring the street into the art space and the art space into the street, to make urgent, truth-telling work that reflects the lives, loves, histories, hopes and fears of their generation,” he continued.

“But more to the point,” he said, “hip-hop is the voice of the unheard. Hip-hop looks at the world from the street corner up.”

On Friday, Nov. 6, ASU faculty members Joanne Rondilla and Rudy Guevarra Jr., from the Asian Pacific American Studies program, will participate with Chang in a conversation about the Hip-Hop Generation. ASU student Tomas Stanton, spoken word artist and co-founder of Phonetic Spit, will moderate.

The session, to be held in ASU’s Sun Devil Fitness Center at 10 a.m., will be followed by a reception featuring Phoenix deejay Kim E Fresh and performances by local artists.

“Jeff Chang is a compelling, accessible and thoughtful writer. He provides insights and asks important questions about current racial or, in his words, ‘colorized’ issues that people can understand and relate to. He specializes in pop culture and hip-hop, which speaks to a lot of students,” Rondilla said.

“Each time I have read his work, witnessed his public appearances, or listened to his radio interviews, I have always walked away with something new to think about. He is a top-notch cultural critic, and the ASU community is lucky to have him for two events,” she said.

Born from diversity

Born in Honolulu of Chinese and Native Hawaiian ancestry, Chang said he grew up around “a large extended family that had intermarried with pretty much every race under the sun, and continues to do so, … when I look at U.S. society, I’m putting it under the ideal of my family, I suppose.

“It’s not to say everybody always gets along, or that there aren’t tensions over resources and things that happened long ago. It’s to say that we’ve figured out how to work it out.”

Chang holds a master’s in Asian American Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles, and earned his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was student body president and politicized by the anti-apartheid and anti-racist movements on campus.

In 1993, he co-founded and ran the influential hip-hop indie label SoleSides (now Quannum Projects) which helped launch the careers of artists DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truth Speaker.

His 2005 book "Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” won accolade upon accolade, including the 2005 American Book Award, 2006 Asian American Literary Award, and honors from sources as diverse as New York Magazine (Best Music Book, 2005), and ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers (Deems Taylor Award).

His 2014 follow-up book “Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post Civil-Rights America” was a finalist for this year’s Dayton Literary Peace Prize, which celebrates the power of literature to promote peace and reconciliation.

In addition to his highly acclaimed books, Chang has published scholarly articles on culture and race relations.

He was a senior editor/director at Russell Simmons’ 360hiphop.com and has written for The Nation, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Foreign Policy and Mother Jones, among many other outlets.

The Visionary Lecture will be held at the Bulpitt Auditorium at Phoenix College at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 5. It is located at 1202 W. Thomas Road, Phoenix, 85013. The event is free, but tickets are required. A Community Resource and Volunteer Fair featuring local arts, community, and educational organizations will precede the lecture. A book signing with Jeff Chang will follow. Register online at http://csrd.asu.edu/visionarylecture

The conversation on the The Hip-Hop Generation and reception will be Friday, Nov. 6, 10 a.m., in the Maroon Gym, Sun Devil Fitness Center, ASU’s Tempe campus.

Questions about either event? Contact CSRD program manager Sarah Herrera, sarah.herrera@asu.edu or call the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at 602-496-1376.