Alumni Spotlight: Jeff Chang

Author speaks with Berkeley Connect students about his own days as a student at Cal

jeff chang

“I actually was not an Ethnic Studies major here at Cal,” Jeff Chang admitted as he introduced himself to the students at a recent event in Berkeley Connect Ethnic Studies & African American Studies. In fact Chang, who has since become an influential Asian American scholar, writer, and journalist, was an Economics major at UC Berkeley. He then received his Masters in Asian American Studies at UCLA and now serves as Executive Director at the  Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford. Chang is also the co-founder of ColorLines and CultureStr/ke, as well as the hip hop label Quannum Projects (formerly SoleSides). Best known as the author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Chang has written for many publications, including San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Vibe, Spin, The Nation, and Mother Jones. In October 2014, Chang published his newest book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America.

Although he was not an Ethnic Studies major at Berkeley, Chang credits his time at our university as the beginnings of his politicization. As an undergrad, Chang became involved with the anti-apartheid movement on campus, which inspired him to take his first Asian American Studies class. “Ethnic Studies allowed me to ask the questions I wanted to ask,” Chang said, noting that that first class sparked something in him. He particularly credited Professors Ling-Chi Wang, Ronald Takaki, and Elaine Kim as inspirations and role models. At the time, however, Chang had been planning to go to law school. “I chose to be an Econ major so I could take Ethnic Studies and Sociology classes and still be the pre-law student my parents wanted me to be.” It was also at Berkeley that Chang began to pursue his interest in music seriously, working at KALX, UC Berkeley’s student-run radio station. “Between KALX and student protests at Sproul, I’m not sure when I found the time to study.”

After graduation, Chang worked in local politics in Sacramento for a while. “I had always been interested in politics as well,” Chang, who was ASUC president from 1988-89, said. “But I realized very quickly that it was not for me.” It took some time for Chang to find what he truly wanted to do. “My path as a writer was a long one,” he admitted. “I would not recommend it to you, but I’d be happy to talk about it. But I have this advice for you all: don’t be afraid to take risks or make mistakes. In the long run, they aren’t mistakes, but kinks in the road that gets you where you need to be.” He further admitted that he almost pursued a PhD in Sociology at one point. “I made a hip hop record instead, and while a lot of people thought I was crazy at the time (including my parents!), I don’t regret it at all,” Chang said. “I wouldn’t be able to ask the questions I wanted in the way I’ve written.”

Chang’s current work at Stanford focuses on the arts and social justice, as well as art development and research on hip hop education. Chang has focused much of his writing and career on hip hop culture, particularly in the way it has been used as a tool for social change and catalyst for youth movements.

Speaking about his new book, Chang said, “At the core, it’s about the notion of racial progress. I was a part of the class of ’89 [at Berkeley], the first class with majority minority students, and I found myself in the midst of the culture wars. There were two narratives about multiculturalism then – one that diversity made America stronger and another that claimed that it would erode America. I wanted to capture that in this book.”

“When I first pitched this idea a while back, my editor didn’t think it was relevant,” Chang said. “But then when Barack Obama ran for president, there was a backlash that re-sparked the culture wars. The question I asked myself as I wrote this book was ‘how do we see race?’ On one hand, we’ve seen the desegregation of popular culture – from the mainstream media looking like the Brady Bunch to one that is much more diverse today. On the other, there is a resurgence of culture wars. So, how did we get to this paradox?” To begin to answer that question, his book explored the history of multiculturalism, a term coined in African American writer and UC Berkeley professor Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo. “Up to this point, culture was seen as one thing, that there was one way to be an American and all must assimilate to it,” Chang said of the novel. “He explores the idea that there are multiple ways to be an American.” Hip hop, of course, is also present, as Chang explores the history of hip hop culture and its significance as a youth movement.

Afterwards, Chang and students discussed everything from Kendrick Lamar’s new album to the recent murder of Tony Robinson, who was fatally shot in Madison, WI by a police officer just last month. Students also got an exciting opportunity to enter their name into a raffle for a copy of Chang’s Who We Be.

Chang ended the event with a picture of a wave. “We think of a wave as an event. But by definition, it is a motion and a process. We think of change as events, as well – elections and demonstrations. But it’s important also to remember it as a process,” Chang stressed. “Culture is like the ocean, with many invisible forces pushing back and forth. Cultural change always precedes political change.”


posted by Katherine Wang

Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant