Subject: Jeff Chang, author of Can't Stop Won't Stop -- a book (currently $6 on amazon? cop it now, yo.), and a website -- long and short, he's one of the contemporary Professors of Hip Hop.
Backstory: I first came across Jeff at a sorta Jews-to-save-hip-hop panel at the 92nd St. YMCA. And he did the recent Obama cover story for Vibe. And is generally an Asian blazing the charts these days, so it was a nice opportunity to holler at him about the intersection of race, hip hop, identity politics in the wake of Obama.
Mission: Figure out what all this "postracial" business means for hip hop. He gave me plenty of fodder, so let's get into it:
TAN (The Assimilated Negro): I recently went to a hip hop show with a writer from Gawker, he's a hip hop head. we talked some about the struggle for a writer who comes from that hip hop background but now speaks to an audience that doesn't appreciate it. so if he does something hip hop focused, and it gets no reaction-- without taking into account our inadequacies as writers-- is that indifference a product of hip hop's limitations? or people who are small minded? why is it so tough to get page views for substantive hip hop content?
Jeff (Jeff Chang): i don't know. i ponder this a lot when i'm writing or speaking on hip-hop and politics. the way i keep from going nuts is i tell myself i haven't found my audience yet. :) it's a serious question, but i think sometimes it's hard to tell what's the result of daily tides and what's the result of global warming, you know?
TAN: What do you think about the assimilation of hip hop into advertising? i.e. the abundance of white people rapping and such. The skills seem to be getting better -- people love this one for holiday inn express -- but it still feels exploitative. is it?
Jeff: yes it absolutely does feel exploitative--and we feel it the most when it goes awry. but i also think that it does no good to wish for 1989 all over again. back then we complained about not being recognized. so it is what it is. i'm certainly less sensitive about hip-hop in ads than i am about asian americans or pacific islanders (esp. pacific islanders) in ads.
TAN: how about Eli in your blogginheads vid, he seemed to suggest he could rap. certainly he had enough familiarity in talking about it that it might not be a stretch that he legitimately has skills. but there's still a cringe reflex there, right? is that telling of anything? are there still proprietary issues over hip hop?
Jeff: oh yeah. and you're right to point it out. i'm from the days where if you bragged, you had to back it up, right then and there. instant cipher. not no karl rove shit. (although amy poehler as sarah palin was kinda funny.) it doesn't sting meas much as it may others because i don't feel as keenly the lack of respect aspect as much as i know the pioneers do. but everything i'm about with regards to hip-hop is about treating this as a serious arts and cultural movement, and as a serious political tendency. i'm still happy to jump up against any hater in that regard.
TAN: does you being a hip hop journalist also make you an expert on urban youth? is it fair to make that equation?
Jeff: no not at all. i'd say that i'm up on urban youth because i rely on the experts--urban youths themselves, as well as those who work closely with them--when i write.
this gets into a whole 'nother issue for me. i'd say that hip-hop critics are a growing breed and hip-hop journalists--real true hip-hop journalists--are not. what elizabeth mendez berry or rob kenner or keith murphy or kris ex or a whole list of folks i could mention do is far different and much more complicated than most of what i read on blogs or even in magazines these days. i'm not trying to create an elite class of writers here--although i do have a long list of favorites--or to privilege journalism over criticism. i do both journalism and criticism. what i am saying is: there are folks who have skills and opinions, and folks who have opinions. i favor the former and wish more folks would work on developing their skills.
TAN: do you deal with "hip hop” fatigue? ... just sick of framing everything within that "coding"? for you, it might all tie to hip hop. for a women, it might be feminism. some say i play the race card... seems we often couch things in certain ways just to serve our brand, or the brand of who we work for, reinforcing these broad niche categories? do you get tired of it.... or do you believe in this worldview enough that you don't view it so cynically?
Jeff: i love this question. it's something i struggle with daily. i've proudly called myself a hip-hop journalist--and taken an expansive view of what a hip-hop journalist covers and does. i started doing artist q+a's and record reviews, and now i can write about the aesthetics of hip-hop dance, the development of globalization and neoliberalism, the politics of presidential elections, anything--and say this is my hip-hop perspective. it captures my background as something of an outsider, someone who was opened to the world by hip-hop not by formal training.
but sometimes i wonder how folks view me. do they see me as the dude who can write about pop music but not about theater? who can talk about youth activism but not the historical sweep of political change? who can talk about funk samples but not arts policy? would things have been different if i had a j-school degree from a prestigious eastern university? these questions were admittedly more gnawing and upsetting when i was less sure of my financial stability and editors were nixing my ideas. the book-writing career has eased the pain a bit.
the thing that kills me is how everything non-mainstream is marginalized as 'identity politics'. as in, 'oh we have our hip-hop book this year thanks.' i want to broaden the definition so it's not an albatross. this is at the core of lots of discussions we capture in total chaos. on the one hand, we have the swagger to carry the fact that our point-of-view on politics and aesthetics is a majority one, not a marginal one--and the obama campaign suggests we are right, both in terms of our centrality to the new political majority as well as a new cultural majority (which hip-hop's crossover already revealed 10 years ago). but on the other hand, we constantly worry about whether or not others--and by 'others' i mean the folks who still hold real power in this country--recognize what is so clearly an on-the-street reality to us.
i think of jesse jackson in grant park crying at obama's acceptance speech. his rainbow coalition was realized in the obama campaign. but he was one of the last to recognize it. so your question--what comes after 'identity'?--this is i suspect the ending question of our generation, the precipice from which we leap into 'the post-racial', whatever that fucking term really means.
The saga continues in Part II: Will Obama kill Hip Hop? Like for real... and what's gonna happen when ethnics run this country?