Jeff Chang on Hope, Change and How Culture Can Shape Politics

The author of one of the hip-hop generation's seminal texts talks about shifting cultural images of Barack Obama, storytelling and what's been inspiring him lately.

By Jamilah King Oct 17, 2012

Join Jeff Chang and at Facing Race 2012, a gathering of hundreds of racial justice thinkers, advocates and culture makers, in Baltimore, Nov. 15-17. Register now.

The Creative Time Summit is an ideal place to meet up with Jeff Chang. It’s an annual gathering in New York City, about four decades old, that brings together artists and thinkers to talk about public works of art. Chang’s here to talk about the intersections of politics and art that he’s been observing for about the last two decades. He was politicized during his years as an undergrad at University of California-Berkeley and then garnered international acclaim with his book, "Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation." In between all of that, he managed to do a whole lot more, including co-found Colorlines. 

Still, it’s been an abnormally busy year for Chang. He began his tenure as executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford, where he’s teaching and mentoring young student artists. He’s also working on more books, including a biography of Bruce Lee. The first, called "Who We Be: Race in the Obama Era" is due out next fall. A diehard Oakland A’s baseball fan, I caught up with him near NYU the morning after his team’s heartbreaking defeat in the playoffs. He was in good spirits, and shared his hash browns with me.

He’ll bring that same spirit of giving to Baltimore next month to kick off Facing Race, where he’s leading a plenary discussion on the role of arts and culture in society.

Facing Race is a week after the election. I kinda feel like we’re at this place where in 2008, art and culture took such a prominent role in who Obama was, how he was reaching out, and how young folks and folks of color were reaching out to him. How do you think that’s changed or evolved over the past four years?

Obama’s gone from being a sort of generalized symbol of hope and progress and change to being reinvented as a symbol of the lack of change, the lack of hope, and the lack of progress. On both sides. So on the right, when you think about the images that started coming out in 2009 of Obama in whiteface or as a witch doctor or with watermelons and chicken–and that’s still going on now with images of him and Michelle, in particular. But on the left, too, one of the most powerful images was created by the Presente folks when they were protesting [secure communities] about a year and half ago in Chicago. They had an image of Obama that was in the same red, white, and blue that Shepard Fairey had put him in. But the message was "Stop the Deportations Now" or "Ya Basta!" He’s got a tilt to his body, like, "What are you telling me?"

It’s really, really interesting how that shift has occurred. And what I think it represents is that there’s still a lot of these ideas and forces and currents that are at work, pushing from the left and the right around this particular presidency that aren’t finding their way into the political discourse just yet. Or, I should say, are having a hard time finding their way into the political discourse.

But on the flip side, what we’ve seen too is that storytelling has been able to make breakthroughs because Obama the politician–as opposed to Obama the symbol–is very sensitive to pressure. The greatest example of this is Jose Antonio Vargas’s story on the cover of TIME Magazine about his experience being undocumented in the year since he came out as undocumented. The story hit on the Web late Thursday night and by Friday morning, within less than twelve hours, [Obama] had announced a deferred action proposal to essentially remove undocumented, DREAM Act-eligible students from the cues for deportation. So culture is still bubbling and culture still has a very strong role to play in this very polarized, very divided political stalemate that we’re in right now.

It’s interesting that you say that storytelling has had a breakthrough. There was a lot of fear that progressive artists or artists who were political in some way might be co-opted by the administration. In your work with CultureStrike that’s proven to be completely wrong. There was so much activism during the Bush era that I think is starting to come around again.

What we gained in the transition from the Bush era to now is a sense of nuance and a little bit more sophistication around cultural strategy. I think that that’s come about because people have been so disappointed in Obama’s presidency. And still conflicted and ambivalent as well about the role that he actually plays. It’s not all stuff we didn’t know before, but it’s certainly different to be dealing with it on that level.

What are some of the projects that you’re really excited about right now? Whether it’s artists, things that are happening right now in different cities. What’s got you pumped?

I’m very thrilled by the UndocuQueer movement. And this sort of explosion of storytelling amongst these young people who are coming out on two different levels. And I think that the really really interesting work is happening there right now. There’s a lot of energy in visual arts, people like Julio Salgado, and spoken word poetry. And the list goes on and on. I feel like that’s, in a lot of ways, some really cutting edge and brave work that’s being done. So I’m really fired up about that.

What’s happened in the last two or three years is that people have said, "Let’s get organized." They’ve tried to figure out these mass networks. What’s happening here with Creative Time is a good example of that. The Opportunity Agenda and their Creative Change retreat has been another central place that’s generated a lot of energy around the arts and social change. What folks are realizing now is that a lot of networks were activated over the last 10-15 years, from Seattle through the anti-war protests and the immigration protests. 

I think what folks are becoming able to understand now in the aftermath of Occupy is that there are ways for us to all come together as this mass network under a certain pretense. For me, that’s the most exciting development. Occupy triggered a model in a way that gave people an understanding of how communities could be built in a different way. And it did it by calling to the imagination as opposed to calling to the older sense of how you organize in politics. I think Occupy was a breakthrough in cultural organizing. And I think what’s needed now is for these vast new networks to be able to work with an eye and anunderstanding and a depth of clarity around cultural strategy.