Asian-Hawaiian journalist and music critic Jeff Chang delivered a convocation talk last Friday on the significance of hip-hop music as a cultural music. More than just an influential and expressive art form, hip-hop became a worldview for millions. From there, Chang addressed the current discussion on race and multiculturalism, and how both strongly affected the demographic and cultural landscape of today’s America. In his talk titled “Who We Be: The Colorization of America,” Chang outlined how musical art forms were contributing to attitudes towards race and identity.
“I felt like a cliche,” Chang admitted when detailing how he started on his path writing about hip-hop music, first as a critic, now as author of two published books. “Growing up all I listened to was hip-hop music,” and even though he dabbled in politics for three years after undergraduate study, Chang veered off to DJ-ing and ran a music record label for a few years. “In many ways, hip-hop allowed me to see the cultural desegregation, though now race has become obscured again, and often we only see it when there is a scandal.” Chang added that though multiculturalism “taught us what not to say...it has not yet taught us what to say,” reinforcing why race continues to constitute a major cultural issue in the United States. “In fact, the culture wars have returned, and race is not just a problem for folks of color, but for whites too,” he emphasized.
Chang used the term ‘demographobia’ as a useful concept to think about America today, which referred to the “irrational fear of demographic change, especially those formerly--and perhaps still--considered ‘Other.’” To him, even though many refer to 2013 as a “post-racial moment” with Obama in his second term as U.S. president, race was not something America had figured out. “To see the paradox of this post-racial moment, you simply need to look at the many indices showing increased resegregation across America,” from schools to neighborhoods to employment opportunities.
He then reviewed how hip-hop played into all this, starting with the epidemic spread of gangs in the Bronx beginning in 1968. After years of violence and an agreement to peace, gangs hosted outdoor music ‘parties’ that would attract people to the different styles of life represented at each performance. “The logic of hip-hop is essentially integrationist,” Chang emphasized, “from these outdoor gatherings open to anyone, down to the music itself with polyrhythms and amalgamation of different tunes. It represented a new worldview.”
To Chang, waves of political change were preceded by cultural change, and hip-hop became the strongest current in the final quarter of the 20th century. The music transformed how artists dealt with the concept of the “Invisible Man” aptly coined by Ralph Ellison, which referred to the lack of representation and misrepresentation of people of color. Hip-hop became collaborative and explorative, starting out as simply “kids who wanted to have fun,” yet soon evolved into a catalyst for change, after many saw that it embedded a worldview.
Chang emphasized the challenges facing young adults in the United States: “If the younger generation comes up undereducated, underemployed, and resegregated, it has tragic consequences for not only them, but also us older folks.”
Yet as a self-described optimist, Chang emphasized his hope in the upcoming generations of youth in America, “a cultural majority” that was constantly readjusting its position on multiculturalism and diversity. He gestured at a “revolution in values,” hoping that the conversation would move beyond debates on cultural identity and race, which were tinged with the need for political correctness. “Art can help us move forward towards truth, justice, freedom, redemption, and creativity,” Chang concluded, emphasizing that the empowering musical art form was only at its beginning.