Jeff Chang is the author of the forthcoming Water Mirror Echo: Bruce Lee and the Making of Asian America, as well as We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, Who We Be: a Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America, and Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: a History of the Hip-Hop Generation, and co-author with Dave “Davey D” Cook of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: a Hip Hop History (Young Adult Edition).
Season 2 of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.
Produced by BlackStar Projects, in partnership with RowHome Productions.
Host and Executive Producer: Maori Karmael Holmes
Producer: Imani Leonard
Associate Producers: Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman
Managing Producer: Alex Lewis
Executive Editor: John Myers
Music Supervisor: David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams, BlackStar’s Music in Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative
- Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams.
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (written by Jeff Chang, 2005. YA version, written by Jeff Chang and Dave “Davey D” Cook, 2021)
Hieroglyphics an underground hip hop collective based in Oakland, California that was formed in the 1990s.
Greg Tate (1957-2021)
On March 16, 2021 eight people were killed in Atlanta, Georgia, by a 21-year-old white man: all but one were women, and six were Asian.
When Art Becomes Your Ethnicity, (Adrian Younge Interview with Jeff Chang, 2021)
Solesides Records SoleSides was an underground hip hop label based in Northern California. a collective of artists and hip-hop lovers founded in 1991. It was reborn as Quannum Projects in spring of 1997.
The Message (song by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five,1982)
Wild Style (directed by Charlie Ahearn, 1983)
Malcolm X (directed by Spike Lee, 1992)
Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes (directed by Byron Hurt, 2006)
Ladies and Gentlemen,(is this) the next president of the United States (?) (written by Jeff Chang, Vibe Magazine,2007)
Yori Kochiyama (1921-2014)
Malcolm X (1925-1965)
We Gon’ Be Alright (book written by Jeff Chang, 2016. Docu series by Jeff Chang and Bao Nguyen, 2019)
Bruce Lee (1943-1970)
[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes : As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity, and expression, the Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens.
You’re listening to Many Lumens, where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change and popular culture. I’m your host, Maori Karmael Holmes. For this episode, I have the pleasure of being joined by my old friend and kindred spirit Jeff Chang. Like me, Jeff did time in the music industry as one of the co-founders of SoleSide Records. He’s worked as an activist and organizer, and, of course, he’s a writer. In 2005 his first book, the seminal Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, was released, with a YA edition, co-authored by Davey D, published in 2021.
Jeff has written three other books, Total Chaos, Who We Be, and We Gon’ Be Alright, the latter of which was adapted into a limited nonfiction series by director Bao Nguyen. In our conversation, we time travel back to the 80’s and 90’s, looking at how hip hop transformed our politics and shaped our outlook on the world. We examine the learnings of failure, what it means to move forward, and how our chosen family can become some of our crucial systems of support. I also talked to Jeff about his prolific writing practice, Black and Asian solidarity, and what it was like to grow up in Hawai’i.
[00:01:40] Maori Karmael Holmes : I think we met in 2007 or so when I was managing Tariq [Trotter], I think that was the first time. And Ill Weaver introduced us to work on Tariq’s book. And I had already taught Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, so I was like super excited. You were a here to me, you still are. And one of the things that I just feel like has been so great is that I felt like I met this kindred spirit who had done like all these different careers and still continued to do so, you know. I had been trying to like, settle on one thing and then I was like, oh, I can be Jeff, I can keep doing like everything. Can you talk a little bit about your journey, a little bit? You know, you’ve worked in the music business, you’ve worked as an organizer. You’ve worked in nonprofits, social justice, you know, you’ve co-founded all of these things like what’s the elevator version of your career.
[00:02:30] Jeff Chang: Oh, wow. You’re asking me for that? Like, I don’t know, like, I don’t really feel like I’ve had a career. I feel like I’ve just sort of had interests and I’ve been lucky enough to have an amazing partner who––she lets me do everything and has a lot of patience with me. So I, yeah, so I went to school here on the west coast. Me and Dave were doing the same thing, the same time and stuff and got involved in activism and community organizing. Got sent to DC in the first summer of my community organizing to go work on what became Justice for Janitors in DC. And that was like, wow, that summer was amazing because I was getting inducted into what it meant to be an organizer. And then at night, because we would have these really long hours. Those are the days when, like there were no breaks, you’d be up and you’d be working like 11 or 12 noon maybe. Cause you know, you’re working organizing hours and then you’d be waiting for the workers to get out of their jobs, of the buildings. And so after that, we’d always be like, we’re going clubbing. So, that was a summer of like ‘87, I think. Fast forwarding, I thought I was headed for a career in politics, burnt out on that super fast, and while I was working in the state capital in Sacramento, was like, this is killing me.I need to do something about it. So I went and talked my way into getting a position or a DJ slot at KDVS, which is at the University of California Davis. And there, I got to meet all these guys. Then we formed a crew. It’s called Quannam now, but it included Blackalicious, it included DJ Shadow, included Lyrics Born & Lateef, The Truth Speaker. And we were deeply involved in like that sort of independent west coast hip hop scene that kind of got germinated by Freestyle Fellowship. And that continues on with Stones Throw Records and Dan the Automator. And of course my crew and Hieroglyphics were of course, were our contemporaries. And so did that for a while, and then I went back to the folks who had trained me in organizing they had formed a think tank. And we started up a magazine called ColorLines. At that time I started writing for the Village Voice, which was totally a dream. Like I had discovered Greg Tate, and Bob Christgau, as a teenager in Hawaii cause they’d get like a couple copies of the Village Voice. And I was so into hip hop. I was trying to find all the things I could find out about hip hop. So the Village Voice, I would like, go to the store just so I could read it. That was like part of what I wanted to do was my dream. So I went back into writing and got to write for a bunch of hip hop magazines, got trained by the best. By people like Sheena Lester who has deep roots in Philly. Of course, Danyel Smith, you know, Sue Cummings was one of my first editors. Eventually got to be like, edited by Bob Christgau and like, developed that. And eventually went to work for––I’m giving you a long version––I should shorten this, but I worked for Russell Simmons at 360 Hip Hop during the first dot com phase and then when that imploded, which is a whole other story––started writing Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop. That’s pretty much the path that I’d taken through my twenties, I suppose. And I’ve just been writing since, you know, writing and I’ve taught and I’m working a lot in narrative strategy and cultural strategy now. Yeah, and I’ve just continued to stay like right around that center of where culture meets mass movement change type vibe. So that’s sort of it. Yeah.
[00:06:29] Maori Karmael Holmes : And so we were talking a little bit before we started and you haven’t been to the east coast since the pandemic has been on, and how is that? Cause I feel like New York is such a part of your, you know, like, cultural background. How is it feeling?
[00:06:45] Jeff Chang: Yeah, it’s really strange. You know, I have so many friends who live in New York, still and family that lives there as well. I do miss it a lot. And it was weird too, because our young adult version of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop came out last March, actually on March 16th, which, you know, of course, for those of us who are Asian American, Pacific Islander, it’s like such a, it’s gonna be one of those days that just etched into our minds forever. And so we wrote the book, Davey D and I wrote this version of the book together. And there were times when it was kinda, like, wow, like wouldn’t it have been great if we were just able to go in and talk to these folks, go to the Bronx and, you know, kind of get the whole vibe of that again and all of that, so. So, you know, like being able to engage, especially younger folks around it and that kind of thing we really missed that we really, really missed that.
[00:07:38] Maori Karmael Holmes : Well sort of speaking of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, which is the young adult book that you’re talking about. I’d love to ask you about your coming of age during the golden age. I was just listening to––the team did a lot of research and pulled up an interview you did with Adrian Young last year, but you know, you said hip hop has been the biggest teacher in your life. And so I just wanted to ask you, you know, how? How sway?
[00:08:12] Jeff Chang: I just feel like everything that I’ve gotten into, I’ve learned through hip hop. You know, first of all, just a sort of expansive vision of black freedom that is encapsulated in the music, like even after college and, you know, even after being a hip hop DJ on the radio, even after having our, you know, our label, our record label Soulside, like I never really could put my finger on how hip hop shaped everything from my politics to the way I see the world to like even ideas and visions of like what democracy can be and all that, like all of that was embedded in the music. So not just the music, but the culture, right? The visual arts, the dance, even though I was never really a dancer, all of those kinds of things.
[00:09:09] Maori Karmael Holmes : I wanna see B-Boy J.C.
[00:09:12] Jeff Chang: No, not at all. I’m like, I’m like MC Eiht like we don’t dance, you know, that’s not what we do. Yeah. So, you know, like even coming into community organizing and all these different types of things, It was all shaped by this notion of being able to connect and making sense of the world. So my older cousins had kind of come up on folk rock and that kind of music during that particular era in Hawaii merged with a lot of the Hawaiian Renaissance.So they were really putting into that music, a lot of the feeling of what it meant to be authentic and Hawaiian and, you know, rural and back to the land and that kind of stuff. And in Hawaii, they have what they call town and they have country. And I grew up in a suburb right in the middle of it, right. So, um, but that was like a romantic type of thing for a lot of us looking up to our older siblings, cousins, all that kind of stuff, and hearing what they were about and seeing what they were about. And then for us, when we came of age, it was like, After this period of huge development and this massive expansion of investment from Japan and from the U.S. I just remember being mad at concrete, you know. Like, what’s all this concrete coming up? And so for like me to see––
Maori Karmael Holmes : The Message
Jeff Chang:Yeah. Well, the message or wild style was like, oh, I can take a spray can. It wasn’t necessarily political, but it was the type of thing where I could say, oh, now I’ve got language to be able to express what I’m angry about, which I didn’t really understand. And so being pulled in by Black freedom music, Black freedom culture takes you inevitably to the Black freedom movement. So that was sort of my education process in a nutshell, I guess.
[00:11:21] Maori Karmael Holmes : I mean, thank you for saying that. I’m thinking about, and I don’t know what is true for generations after, and I put myself in your generation, even though I’m at the end of it, but-
[00:11:33] Jeff Chang: You’re just trying to remind me how old I am.
[00:11:37] Maori Karmael Holmes : No, I mean, I’ve been talking to a friend who’s just a little bit younger, but he’s like, definitely a millennial where I’m like on the border. And, you know, I think like wherever you are, what I feel like when you’re about between 12 and 15 years old, the music that comes at that moment, like it gets in your heart in a certain kind of way. And I’m so fortunate that that was Tribe [Called Quest]. You know, and that was like all of like Native Tongues and all of that was that moment.
[00:12:04] Jeff Chang: I’m laughing because for my kids, it’s Kanye. I’m like Kanye is so foul now, and they’re like, yeah, but he’s always going to be the G.O.A.T., and I’m like, okay.
[00:12:17] Maori Karmael Holmes : Well, I mean, I think no, no. I mean, I think that’s exactly the point. I mean, it’s so fascinating because this particular friend grew up religious, so also didn’t listen to hip hop. So for him it wouldn’t have been Kanye, but it might’ve been like, I don’t know, Nelly or something, you know, like it was just a little bit earlier.
But he came to Tribe, or he came to Q-Tip with like, Vivrant Thing. And so, like, that’s his favorite song. And I was like, you know, so opposite. And I think, again, you know, for those of us into hip hop in the eighties and nineties, that it wasn’t just about music. Like it really was a transformative culture. And I think about people making decisions about their religion, about their relationships around how they were going to eat. You know, so many people became politicized. It’s like between Malcolm X coming out and, you know, KRS-One, the number of folks who became Muslim, who started kind of discovering like African culture generally, or other, you know, third world culture, broadly. I think about, like how important it was. And so when people say like hip hop is culture, I think for younger folks, it’s so distanced from all of that. Right? Like, you know, you might think Megan Thee Stallion is an incredible lyricist, but you’re not like, looking to her for, like lifestyle. You know what I mean?
[00:13:35] Jeff Chang: Yeah. I think, I think folks do though, don’t you?
[00:13:37] Maori Karmael Holmes : I don’t know. I don’t know. And maybe, cause I don’t have young people in my life like that, so that does make me old.
[00:13:46] Jeff Chang: Well, I’m not on the frontline anymore. Like when I was teaching and stuff and, you know, and running this arts institute. Yeah, like you could see the culture kind of changing before your eyes, and what’s happened recently, what’s so prominent that you can’t mistake it, right is like, even like older folks. I was just talking to Ishmael Reed about this, of all people yesterday, but is this shift around gender and ideas about gender in hip hop, right. And that the artists who are the most exciting in the moment are like women or queer, right or, or both, right. Or, or like, you know, like femme, I should say femme and queer. And that is like a huge, that’s a huge, massive shift. And I guess what I’m saying is, is you can kind of see it coming, as taste shifted how that would translate into clothes, into art-making, into just the way they hung out and hang out. And even thinking about now, like, you know, talking with friends and their kids, like feeling okay to be able to come out at the age of five or six, you know what I mean? Just how dramatic that shift is from when we were coming up and Byron had to put out Beyond Beats and Rhymes and really like, sort of put it out there for us to kind of have this, you know, mass conversation about toxic masculinity. As if like you know, Tupac and Biggie, like we’re in enough for us to, to, to make that happen. And all the other kinds of things that came along with that, that Black feminists were at the forefront of, from, from the very beginning.
[00:15:38] Maori Karmael Holmes : You know, another, in the research, one of the things that I also saw that you said, and I was curious about this because it’s something that I struggle with, um, that of all the things you’ve done, you keep coming back to writing because it is difficult, but it brings you the most joy. It is the thing I put off the most. Like it is the hardest thing to do. And I was curious for you, like where do you find the metal to push yourself? You know, because I just, I avoid it even though I love it. I mean, even with SEEN, I wanted to contribute more to it. And I did two interviews for our first two issues, but I was late with those, you know what I mean? Like it was just. I have all these ideas-
[00:16:18] Jeff Chang: you only can do that when you’re the publisher!
[00:16:23] Maori Karmael Holmes : We shouldn’t though, you know. And I feel like conversations that we’ve had, you know, you’ve been like, where’s your book Mai, you know?
Jeff Chang: Yea, totally.
Maori Karmael Holmes: But tell me, like, how do I, where do I find the strength, you know.
[00:16:33] Jeff Chang: I don’t know. I mean, it’s, yeah. It’s the hardest thing that I do. And it’s the most rewarding thing I do. Yeah, maybe there’s a little bit of that, like chasing the high of it. Right? Like sort of the other day, I had a really good day of writing and I just felt so good. We’ve been preparing for an event. And so like the first thing to go is writing time. Right? When you’re preparing for something. And it’s literally like, I’ve structured myself now to where, like, I’m only supposed to be working on this job part-time. And I’m supposed to have all the rest of the time for writing. And of course the last three weeks as we’ve geared up for this launch the writing time has kind of shrunk. Luckily my team is all like 20 and 30 year olds who are like really understanding, like in a way that we would never have been of like-
[00:17:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: They’re like, “rest”!
Jeff Chang: -boundaries. Like, of course, you know what I mean? But, yeah. You know, like I went on, when I had the full-time job at Stanford and I had to commute four hours. I would literally like round trip. Right. I would literally get up at four in the morning and work for two hours every morning, but it was good ‘cause it was kind of like a meditation. So like two books came out of that style of working, and working on weekends and that kind of stuff.
[00:17:56] Maori Karmael Holmes : Every serious writer I know has that kind of schedule, like when I’ve talked to Jason Reynolds and Sonia Sanchez and Lorene Cary, and they all are like, I write at 4:00 AM or 6:00 AM, whatever the time is because Sonia was, you know, her most prolific having twins and a full-time teaching job. And she was like I got up at 3:30 and I wrote everyday. You know, and I mean, she’s like Virgo, and like super disciplined, but I don’t think that was easy for her. It was just necessary.
[00:18:23] Jeff Chang: Yeah. Yeah. And I don’t, I don’t think there’s like a mystical thing of like, oh, I want to do this so badly or blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I think, like part of it is just the rational thing of like, scheduling it and then, and then like, anything else, it’s the showing up and stuff, you know. I don’t necessarily have great writing days, even when I’ve got everything cleared and there’s nothing else going on, some days are great and some days are just like really hard work, really hard work
[00:18:55] Maori Karmael Holmes : You’re in Berkeley, so you probably know this, but what’s your rising?
[00:19:00] Jeff Chang: What’s my, oh, because I’m in Berkeley? No, it’s because I have a millennial staff that is why. A Gen-Z staff. My rising is Gemini.
[00:19:13] Maori Karmael Holmes : Oh, it is. Okay. And what’s your Venus?
[00:19:16] Jeff Chang: Oh, I don’t know what my Venus is. Oh, I think my moon is Taurus and my rising is Gemini.
[00:19:22] Maori Karmael Holmes : Oh, I love it. Your moon is in Taurus. I was asking because my Venus is in Gemini and––
Jeff Chang: What does that mean?
Maori Karmael Holmes : Well, one of my friends, there’s a whole book. There’s a book I can send to you afterward that talks about your creative endeavors and it’s based on Venus and Mars. Venus and Gemini, because Gemini, as you know, our communications and, you know, often have multiple sides. Venus is supposed to be about romance, but for me, it’s shown up as like, kind of like avocation, you know? And so I feel like the reason I’m attracted to so much, so many different projects is that it’s like this bright, shiny thing. And so similarly to you, it’s like, oh, I’m interested in this. I’m going to go over here. I’m interested in that. I want to go over here. And it isn’t at all. It’s actually a wiring. It’s not really disorganized. It’s like organized confusion. Right? You gotta go in these different ways because of the way you’re wired. And so I wonder if your rising contributes to that for you.
[00:20:23] Jeff Chang: Yeah, I think probably it really does for sure. Yeah. Yeah, you’re definitely singing my song. That’s also a process like my process too, is, I mean the best way to describe it is iterative. That’s like a nice way to describe it. The poor way to describe it would be like, whatever attention deficit or whatever, shiny thing, right? Like you said.
[00:20:46] Maori Karmael Holmes : But it’s not really attention deficit disorder for you because, one, you finish the things you just start. And I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying out a thing and walking away, you know. So often we like, hold on to things when it was meant to be a project or it was meant for someone else to run or, you know, so I feel like that’s a good thing.
[00:21:05] Jeff Chang: Can I just put a pin in that? One of the things that, that I think I’ve learned too, is it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to try stuff and really like, not have it work out the way that you wanted it to. And yeah, there are all the feelings that kind of go along with it and stuff, but it’s a thing where it’s like, oh cool. You know, like you’re still going to take away the learnings from it. The worst thing to take away from a so-called failure would be, not to try again, not to actually exercise the knowledge that you’ve actually gained from that particular process. So, I just wrote a screenplay. Yeah, a couple screenplays and it just didn’t work. Like the first one was not good. Second one was not bad, but it wasn’t great, you know, and I’m a little heartbroken about it because it was a story that I really, really wanted to tell. So I’m just gonna, like keep on walking and just like, continue and learn about how to write this better.
[00:22:06] Maori Karmael Holmes : I’m going to shift direction a little bit and ask you about you and Lourdes. Because you’ve been together for a thousand years and I would just like, can you talk a bit about how you met and how she’s shaped your politics and your approach to your work?
[00:22:25] Jeff Chang: Yeah, no, she and I met at Cal in college. Like I remember distinctly seeing her in my freshman year, hanging out with another mutual friend of ours and telling my mutual friend, like, Hey, can you introduce me to more of your friends? Like right in front of her? And she was so turned off, she told me this later, but I was just like, wow, like, you’re fine. I want to get with you. And the reason that the summer of that summer of ‘87 was so amazing was not just this whole mind blowing, like visceral experience, but I came back that summer and that’s when we actually like, started hanging out a little bit and, and by the fall we were dating and stuff. So yeah, we’ve been, so we’ve been together forever. It’s really true. And I’ve been really lucky in that during the periods where, well, I’ll put it this way: I’ve taken a lot of risks in my so-called career, that would not have been possible had we not been together. A) for her encouraging me, and B) for her, like saying, all right, I’ll hold it down now. I’ll expect you to be holding it down in a minute. That kind of thing. And there’s been that exchange, but I think that the deepest thing about it is––I can’t say this without sounding a little bit corny or cheesy, but when you’re in a really deep relationship with somebody, it actually allows you to be able to be more expansive and generous in the way that you see the world in all the ways. It makes you more open to be able to see the world in different kinds of ways. And I know that you’ve experienced this as well. Yeah, so I, you know, it’s, I owe everything to her, really. I absolutely do. She’s always been the person to be like, all right. You know, that’s enough. Like if I’m being too ideological or if I’m being too argumentative or, you know, this or that and so like okay. And that’s grounding because you know, it’s just a basic check. And all of that comes out of like, look, dude, if you’re going to live here with me nah. Nah, no, you’re not going to act like that. And that’s real, you know. So yeah, that’s part of the loving relationship that we’ve, that we’ve had. For sure, yeah.
[00:25:12] Maori Karmael Holmes : Thank you for letting me ask that. some other impressive friends whose children pretend to not be interested in their work. And then once the children are in their early twenties, we kind of discovered they’ve been taking notes. And I was wondering if you found this to be the case with your sons, you know, have they shown an interest in your world?
[00:25:32] Jeff Chang: It’s really, man. I’m like, I might cry, but it’s like. It’s been really, really beautiful to kind of see them flower into their own voices and into their own spirits and souls as creative folks, as like human beings and that kind of thing. And one’s a filmmaker, one’s a rapper. And, one’s a musician I should say. And they’ve been working on this major project. You know, over the last year and a half or so. And in this particular process, they didn’t tell me and Lordes they were going to go out and start doing all these different types of things, like getting a producer and like, hiring people and developing a budget.
And putting together pitch decks and, you know, and then like hiring a cast and crew of, you know, their peers and like going all out and stuff and doing all these things. And they’ll probably kill me for saying this, actually for having this out there in the world. But then I won’t tell them that this podcast is out. I remember, like we had one night where, you know, I was trying to be general. I was trying to be, like very supportive and very understanding. But, you know, one night we were having this discussion and it was about a pitch deck that they had put together to kind of like take to folks, gain interest, raise funds, do whatever they needed to do. And I was like, I know how to tell them how to make this pitch deck better. And so in the middle of our conversation, I was like, well, why don’t you guys just pitch me? Like, show me your deck, pitch me. So like half an hour later, they called back, we went through it all. And I was like, as gentle as possible as I could be and gave them some sort of suggestions, but it was never like, directive. And then I got these long texts from each of them about how hard it was for them to actually do, to do that with me. You know, and then like, here’s a part where I have to prevent myself from crying on this podcast, but it was, it was one of those things that was really powerful because like you said, they had been taking notes all along, but it was also the step of moment where it was like, you know, acknowledging how I’m learning from them. And them what they’ve kind of learned from me, it was this beautiful thing of now we both actually kind of feel released to be in a different kind of relationship with each other. So that was really powerful. That was a really major moment for me.
[00:28:10] Maori Karmael Holmes : Thank you for that.
[00:28:12] Jeff Chang: Thank you for asking. Nobody’s ever asked me that,
[00:28:18] Maori Karmael Holmes : Oh, this next one I want to ask. And you can also say no, because it also might make you cry, but I just wanted you to, you know, reflect on your father. And when you were growing up, sort of what you thought you wanted to do, and if he understood your sort of relationship to all of the work that you’ve done and how he sort of encouraged you, or maybe didn’t, but if you want to talk about that a little bit.
[00:28:46] Jeff Chang: Yeah, no, my dad, wow. I don’t think my dad ever understood what I was doing. I don’t think, I actually don’t think that he ever really did. Like, I’m actually looking at a picture of him right now and he’s smiling at me like, ha. And I know that actually, because you know, I’d have to be like yeah, dad, I’m not going to continue in politics. I’m going to go get a degree. “In what?” In Asian American studies. You know what I mean? In ethnic studies, you know, like, oh, what’s that? And then me saying, oh yeah, you know, I can become a professor. Stable job, you know, classic stuff. Classic stuff. When I was writing and that kind of thing, it was like, he didn’t really, he wasn’t really checking for that. And then I’m like, yeah, dad, I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna go and get my PhD anymore. I’m going to run this record label. And he’s like, “Oh, okay. What do you mean?” Well, I’m trying to be an entrepreneur dad. Like, you know, we’ve got all these great artists and we’re on the edge of something big and you know, we’ve got these deals in hand from overseas companies. All of this is true. So I’m going to make a go of it. And then, oh dad, like I, you know, the record label thing, didn’t work out. I’m going to go back to writing. They’re going to hire me to write, “Oh, they’re going to hire you to write now. Okay.” You know, like I just, he never, I don’t think he really understood. But he didn’t nag or judge or that kind of stuff, you know? I mean, he probably judged, you know, I’m sure he was talking to mom and the other folks and like trying to find ways to do it. But I remember many, many years later they had like, when he was getting ready to retire they did an interview with them and they asked him the same kinds of questions that you’re asking me, like about his family, you know, and about his relationship with his kids and stuff. And he talked about how proud he was of all of us. And he’s like, yeah, like my son he’s a writer. And he went, he went to go interview Obama and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I was like, oh, okay. Maybe you see me? But I think his, he never laid down ultimatums or anything like that. You know?
Maori Karmael Holmes : What did he do?
Jeff Chang: You know, I think that at some point he was probably just like, that’s my head strong son, and he’s gonna, he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do. You know? And I remember a conversation that we had, I think it was probably my late twenties and this was just after the, like the record label thing had not worked out. And I was kind of at a bottom and, you know, I didn’t know what I was going to do. And he looked at me and he was like, “You know what, you’re going to be fine.” He’s like, “You know, everybody goes through things,” but he’s like, “you know, just have faith.” And just for him to even say that at that particular moment, after like me justifying this and justifying that for all these years. It was pretty powerful. It was what I needed to hear. And I think that’s something that lingers with me in terms of like, my relationship with my kids. Just reminding them, like you got all these qualities, you got all these skills, you know, what you might not have right now is like the sight to see where are you going to be in five years or 10 years? Nobody has that really, but you know, just believe and it’ll be alright. So yeah.
[00:32:39] Maori Karmael Holmes : Thank you.
[00:32:40] Jeff Chang: Fuck.
[00:32:45] Maori Karmael Holmes : I just remember, I think when you got hired at Stanford, you said he was like, “Oh, You have a job. You got it.”
[00:32:54] Jeff Chang: Yes, yes, I totally remember that. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. He was like, “What, you have a real job now?” [00:33:00] Yeah.
[00:33:03] Maori Karmael Holmes : We’re going to switch again. I want to ask you about the May 19th project. And just, if you could tell us a little bit more about it. I know that it’s inspired by Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X, a shared birthday. Shout out to Tauruses! But yeah, could you talk a little bit about the––just for if anyone doesn’t know the genesis of the project and what it’s doing?
[00:33:27] Jeff Chang: Last May. Actually, even before March 16th. I had been talking about the rising violence against Asian-Americans and what we began to notice, especially after Biden got elected, is that the narrative started to change about anti-Asian violence. What you saw was media, especially in the big cities, doing the same thing that they had done in the early 1990s in Los Angeles, which was running these videos over and over again of these acts of violence that, you know, were polarizing. And in this particular instance, it was of incidents in which Asian Americans had been harmed, attacked, and the perpetrators were Black or brown.
What we know, and knew back then was the overwhelming amount of violence that’s directed at Asian-Americans is from whites. But it’s possible to play a video of a Black person, say kicking an Asian grandma, play that a million times, have that amplified through social media and have it be seen 10 million times more. And that will become the narrative. And there was already a narrative that fit that, right. That had been developed around the late eighties and early nineties, which is that Blacks and Asian Americans are never going to get along, which belies like, again, the truth, right. That’s not how our communities, you know, act to each other. We live with each other, we’re in community with each other. There’s lines of influence that go back and forth. And so we began to see, you know, accounts starting up on Instagram and social media and those kinds of things that had to do with taking this narrative of stop Asian hate to the extreme of, like being belligerent and aggressive towards other folks. So we were like, there’s this entire history of solidarity that goes all the way back, that people don’t get taught in schools. Right? The reason that Asian Americans are even here is due to the civil rights struggle that resulted in the 14th amendment, and then establishes birthright citizenship. And that the civil rights movement is the context in which the immigration and nationality act can get passed in 1965. So as a result of Black struggle, that birthright citizenship gets established. So for us, you know, it was like AAPI heritage month is in May and for us, the biggest symbols of solidarity is the friendship, and the real kinship between Malcolm X and his family, and Yuri Kochiyama and her family and it continues even to this day, right? And so using that, we said, well, what we want to do is make a bunch of video shorts that would literally play about the same amount of time as one of these videos might play of an Asian American being beaten. And how do you flip the narrative of stop AAPI hate into something that’s positive and creative and forward-looking. What we wanted to do was to move from this sort of defensive stance of just stopping AAPI hate, stopping racism, right? Stopping anti-Black racism and flipping it into a, like, we stand together in solidarity and we always have on a whole range of different types of issues. So we created 14 videos for Asian-American/Pacific Islander heritage month last year in May. We began airing them on May 19th and we ran them all the way through like the beginning of June. And they’re now at a website called SeeUsUnite.org/unite and See Us Unite was a project of the Asian-American Foundation, which was literally about trying to advance and is about trying to advance Asian-Americans in all aspects of U.S. life and is about like, trying to talk about the coming together of folks. And if we can think about what that means, solidarity amongst us, then it leads us to think about solidarity with all communities, right. And particularly other communities who have been oppressed. And when we talk about that, we have to go to the heart of it, which is, you know, anti-indigeneity, anti-Black racism. Right? So by opening the door with these stories, we want to lead people down that particular path and, you know, in that way the videos became sort of a statement and we’re, we’re really proud of them.
[00:39:07] Maori Karmael Holmes : You talked a little bit about the narrative work with the May 19th project and writing a screenplay. And it definitely feels like you are doing more and more, you know, film and television projects. And I wanted to ask you about the digital mini series that came from another book you wrote called We Gon’ Be Alright, directed by Bao Nguyen. And I was just curious, what was the process of adapting that book into serial form? And do you imagine there’s more film and television work in your future?
[00:39:38] Jeff Chang: Yeah, I do so Bao and I met because a mutual friend of ours had introduced us because we were both working on Bruce Lee projects and we just got to be fast friends. So we were like casting about trying to figure out how we might be able to hang out more and work together. And we talked about taking this book and the essay format and adapting it into shorts and so applied to Independent Lens actually, and got funded to do a web series. And the way that we kind of took it was each of these will be episodes that will, maybe there’ll be pertained, or pertaining to, or influenced by chapters in the book, as opposed to sort of narrative nonfiction so we could get topical. And so each of them kind of evolve––of course, the book is about re-segregation and race relations. And there was a story in our backyard in East Palo Alto, which is a historically Black community that is increasingly being encroached upon by Facebook and Google. And tells the story of displacement and gentrification through the eyes of a friend of ours or a friend of mine, I should say this young rapper named Isaiah who had literally been displaced out of East Palo Alto. And then the last one we knew we wanted to do on this essay that we called The In Betweens, that was literally about Asian American identity, because the heart of the book is about Ferguson. The Ferguson movement. At some point in the process, the editor told me, she’s like, “You know, look, you’re, obviously you’re not Black a nd yet you’re writing about the importance of this particular movement. You have to like, disclose what you’re about, where you’re coming from,” but it became this essay that was about sort of, what does it mean to, to be in between this sort of North American paradigm of Black and white? And as we talked about this concept, we realized, oh, actually this applies to so many different types of things, and that particular last essay became the last episode, which Bao like pushed us to make it really personal and so my kids appear in it and, you know, part of it’s filmed in my house, which I never would have, I never would have agreed to you know, it’s just, it’s like a personal space, but Bao was like, I have an idea of how we’re going to do this. And so brought in Rafael Casal who had been in Blindspotting and is like an amazing actor and a screenwriter himself and Linda Sarsour right. The amazing, like inspiring, Muslim-American organizer and activist and brought them in to talk about what being in between meant to them. That rounded out, kind of, the series for us. Bao shot it in black and white. And in part it was because the cover, which was by Damon Davis, amazing, Missouri artists from St. Louis. Who’s deeply deeply engaged in the Ferguson movement.. And he had taken pictures of folks who were in and around the Ferguson movement that served as our cover. And he’d done it in black and white. He was trying to show how, like really literally this issue is in black and white and the thing that Bao loved about that notion was this idea of if we’re going to do present day then we should do it in black and white. And if we’re going to do the past then we’ll do it in color, we’ll render it in color. It was just a brilliant choice that he decided very early on, that he wanted to do. And we had to pitch it to a million people and people were like, what are you talking about? But yeah, it was pretty, it was pretty powerful, really, really proud of the work that we did on that and forever indebted to Bao to pull this story out of us, of me and the family. And to add that into the whole thing.
[00:43:49] Maori Karmael Holmes : I did have one more question about work, just sort of related to this one. And that’s that, you know, you mentioned the Bruce Lee book that you’ve been working on, obviously Bruce is such an important figure, but you know, why are you working on this book? What does he mean to you? And yeah, can you talk about how long you’ve been working on. Have there been any surprises, you know, things you didn’t know about him that you thought you did and you’ve changed your mind? You know, if you could just talk about that a little bit.
[00:44:16] Jeff Chang: There’s so much, so the original project was brought to me by an Asian American editor. Many years ago, but fast forward to now, and the book project really took on a different kind of a meaning over the last two years under the pandemic, because of all this anti-Asian violence. I think at some point in the process, it became really clear what we needed. Well, I say we just, me and my friends, my family, my close homies, whatever, was sort of a book to be able to kind of make sense of Bruce Lee as an Asian American. Ultimately, what we landed on Rakia and I, Rakia Clark and I landed on was a book that is sort of a dual biography. So it’s, it’s really interesting that Bruce Lee comes to international prominence at the same time that Asian-Americans are naming themselves Asian American. And making their presence known literally in U.S. history, like they’re intervening in U.S. history in the same period. There’s a way in which you could retell Bruce’s story that really opens up a way for folks who don’t have a lot of Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders in their lives to understand us in a much better type of a way, right? And what’s really interesting and weird is, if you go back and you put him back into history and him walking through all of these different sorts of periods and geographies, the scope and magnitude of what he accomplished actually increases. It makes him even bigger than he is now. He grows up during a period of war in China. He comes of age where war has caused the mass migration, similar to the kind of thing that we’re seeing in the Ukraine right now, a mass migration from mainland China into Hong Kong.
[00:46:27] Maori Karmael Holmes : And he’s born here, right?
[00:46:28] Jeff Chang: He’s born in San Francisco and he re-emigrates. So that’s also like part of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander experience, is crossing of the Pacific. Right? So all of that is part of his story too. And then he gets kicked out of Hong Kong pretty much by his parents because he’s getting into too much trouble. And he has to start all over again as if you were an immigrant on the west coast, in Seattle, in the same area in which people like Jimmy Hendrix are coming up, the counterculture is getting started. And so who is Bruce in this particular moment as an immigrant, as somebody who’s facing racism now in the U.S. and also he’s like seen as kind of a guru type of character, because there’s sort of this Oriental kind of fetish happening in the west coast culture, this counterculture, right? So, like, Kung Fu becomes the way that he becomes sort of a guru, in a way, right? And then he goes to Hollywood, he encounters Hollywood racism. And after years of trying to break through, he says, I can’t do this anymore. I’ve got to go back to Hong Kong. So all of that, even before the Bruce Lee that we know, right. Appears on the screen and the movies that we know, it’s an epic story. So the book then is, is kind of trying to talk about all this against the backdrop too, of Asian-Americans naming themselves of them launching these massive protests in colleges, all across the country. And then by the time Bruce Lee actually passes away. He has done so much to be able to increase the presence and the sort of level of visibility of Asian-Americans just at the moment that Asian Americans are politically beginning to define themselves. So there’s so much that can be told. And that’s what I’m trying to do in this book.
[00:48:31] Maori Karmael Holmes : We talked a little bit about Greg [Tate] earlier and you know, we’ve lost so many people. Over the last two years, many of whom, you know, are kindred spirits. Others are people that have been like intellectual now, ancestors. And I know that Greg loomed very large in your life. He loomed large in mine. And what I love about his practice is that he loved culture so much, you know? And it was so central to everything, particularly music. And I’m curious for you, what did you learn from him?
[00:49:04] Jeff Chang: So much. I mean, again, like Greg was somebody who connected the dots from Black freedom culture to the Black freedom movement. Like there was no line between the two, but for me to follow his writing and literally take every article as a map like we were talking about earlier, like, this is a map for me. Let me trace down all of these names that he’s talking about in this article about Public Enemy or Jean-Michel Basquiat or Afrofuturism. He was a person who literally was a guide for me, even before I ever met him in terms of figuring out for myself, what kind of path I wanted to be able to chart and coming into my sense of like, how do I see the world and how do I want to be in the world. And all this because he was like writing these incredible pieces about music that I loved in ways that just were as artful as the music that I was listening to, that we were all listening to, right? We all, I think we all share that same story about Greg actually, right? It’s like, oh my God, like, here’s the first piece of red from Greg. Like you just, your mind’s like blown open. He was, he was the one, man. He was the one.
[00:50:30] Maori Karmael Holmes : Who are other personal luminaries or intellectual north stars in your life?
[00:50:36] Jeff Chang: Wow. There’s so many. I feel like I aspired to the clarity and just the, the style, the beauty of Greg, I aspired to the sort of clear-eyed analysis of people like, you know, actually Mike Davis and Angela Davis, both like for different reasons, you know, truth telling in that particular moment at that particular point in my young formation. And then, you know, as you begin to write, like there’s all of the people who are your peers who become your heroes as well. Right? So, you know Danielle still writes like a dream. dream hampton writes like a dream, right? Like Cheo. Cheo Hodari Coker for me like, taught me really how to interview people, you know, and all these folks I consider to be like friends and, and also mentors, you know, Davey [00:51:40] looms huge in my life because he, he’s everything. He’s like a walking encyclopedia of stuff going all the way back to the Bronx. He’s a master storyteller and he’s taught me so much. Another person is this person who wrote the book Funk, a guy named Ricky Vincent, who really inducted me into thinking about things like on a massive type of scale. What is all this mothership connection stuff going on? Like what does all of this stuff about? There’s so many people, like I could just, I could load up this for another three hours, but the beautiful thing about it is I’ve been able to live long enough and do enough work that I’ve been able to be engaged with them directly, um, at different points. Yeah.
[00:52:31] Maori Karmael Holmes : I have so much to say, but I won’t. So what’s next on the horizon? Is there anything that you haven’t attempted professionally that you’d like to experience?
[00:52:40] Jeff Chang: Oh, wow. Yeah, I’d love to try to, again, to pull together another screenplay. And I’d love to try fiction actually. It’s sort of something that’s always scared me. It’s almost like the boundaries are too wide there, but I’ve been really inspired by so many of the writers now. There’s sort of this wave right now, obviously we’re like in a Black cultural Renaissance, we’ve been in one for maybe a decade or more. You’ve been at the forefront of that, leading that and, and I think that what that has done as well as it’s helped to increase visibility for Asian-Americans.
And so we’ve seen this sort of outpouring, the sort of literary push that’s kind of happened, Viet Thanh Nguyen or Ocean Voung, or Jin Lee, you know, Cathy Park Hong, you know, I could just go on and on and on. And that’s been really inspiring to kind of see these stories being told. So I’m interested in telling stories that are rooted in Asian America, and also rooted in Hawaii and talk about the ways that we have been an, our, and hope to be. So that’s the thing that I’d love to kind of crack open in this next decade of life, I guess.
[00:53:59] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yeah, my last question will be, how do you maintain hope?
I feel like, you know, organizing. When you talk about the music industry, you know, fundraising, even the work for the Center for Cultural Power, all of that, there’s an optimism that I imagine you have. One, to start new projects and to kind of keep going.
And they also could be places that easily, one’s joy could be stolen. You know what I mean? That would’ve been very easy to do. And so, yeah. How do you maintain hope and continue to dream?
[00:54:31] Jeff Chang: Because so many people are doing such great things, you know. So one of the things I feel like the pandemic has kind of exposed to all of us is sort of the existentialism of aloneness. What it means to like, live with ourselves. Right? And that’s caused people to make big decisions about their lives and to change the directions in which they’re moving a lot of us. Right? A lot of, a lot of our friends, a lot of our loved ones, have gone through this and what I think I relearned again and again, was that even if we can’t be in space together, breaking bread together, maybe we can now, maybe we’re edging back into that now. We just, so need each other. And that particular piece of it, looking at what people have done, what they’ve been able to achieve, what they hope for, for each other. That’s the stuff that continues to give me hope. It’s infectious, right? Like we, we talk about it as kind of inspiration, like inspiration being something that is internal to us, but it’s really this thing of it being externalized. So for me, in particular, I would say over the last few years, reflecting on it, seeing, you know, my niece and my cousins and other folks heading up to Mauna Kea that’s been powerful. That’s made me want to explore more and more what it means for me to be Kānaka Maoli [Native Hawaiian] and to learn the language, you know, to learn my ʻŌlelo. Like your work with BlackStar is incredible, and like, makes me want to write more. Y’all have lured me back, right? And so it’s this thing of being able to share, continue to share it’s like the gift that keeps on going.
[00:56:33] Maori Karmael Holmes : That’s beautiful. Thank you. That’s it!
[00:56:40] Jeff Chang: I feel totally dissected. I feel like, yea oh shit. I feel like I owe you money for a therapy session.
[00:56:54] Maori Karmael Holmes : I’ll discount it––$325 an hour.
[00:56:58] Jeff Chang: Can I venmo you right now? Like what’s going on, this is wild.
[00:57:03] Maori Karmael Holmes : Thank you so much
[00:57:03] Jeff Chang: Thank you. I miss you.
[00:57:05] Maori Karmael Holmes : I miss you too.
[00:57:19] Maori Karmael Holmes : To explore more of Jeff’s work, visit his website JeffChang.net, follow him on Instagram and Twitter @Zentronix. Also, visit SeeUsUnite.org to learn about the May 19th Project.
This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions. The Host and Executive Producer of Many Lumens is me, Maori Karmael Holmes. Our Producer is Imani Leonard. Associate Producers are Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman. Managing Producer is Alex Lewis. Executive Editor is John Myers. Our music supervisor is David ‘lil dave’ Adams, BlackStar’s Music in Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative. Our theme song was composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by David ‘lil dave’ Adams.
Sending you light and see you next time.