Inside Man: Jeff Chang

October 1, 2006

Jeff Chang can't stop, won't stop thinking about the new generation of Asian Americans in the arts: Part Two
This is what the cipher looks like. Courtesy of http://www.sfist.com

Inside Man: Jeff Chang can’t stop, won’t stop thinking about the new generation of Asian Americans in the arts: Part Two

by APA A/V Team

The author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, a cultural history of the hip-hop generation, and a giant in the world of arts criticism, Jeff Chang gets candid about the future of Asian American programming, his so-called career, and what it means to step into the cipher.

APA: What are your thoughts on the intentions behind some of these networks though? Especially considering what’s come to light with AZN TV?

JC: AZN TV has been disappointing for a lot of folks in the community. On the one hand, it was sort of symbolic of the way that people are starting to rethink Asian American audiences. Because originally, it was the International channel, which had the goal of reaching first-generation, thirty, fifty, sixty-somethings with programming largely coming from overseas. And so, when AZN launched, after ImaginAsian, they went in a big way to the other direction. They went strictly toward trying to serve a dominantly English-speaking, Pan-Asian American community, the idea being there was going to be anime, soap operas, but if it’s from overseas, we’ll have it in subtitles.

So then it’s, we’re gonna have original programming that features Asian Americans from across the spectrum, and we’re gonna do that 24/7. So they hired a pretty amazing staff, a creative staff to develop programing and just before Christmas they fired them all. And the real truth about AZN is that it’s a Comcast-owned channel that’s run by white male executives. Now that they’ve eradicated, decimated — whatever word you want to use is appropriate here — the Asian American staff, the real question is whether they wanna be in business anymore. I have a good friend Jeff Yang, who did reporting on it for sfgate.com, and the word he has is that Comcast had devloped AZN because it fulfilled FCC regulations. And now that those regulations have ben relaxed quite a bit, and this larger environment of media deregulation, there’s no incentive anymore. So we’ll see what happens. It’s still on the air, there’s still new content, the AZN Excellence awards, for example, but we’ll see what their commitment is gonna be in the long run.

It raises a larger issue for Asian Americans — how media justice issues affect communities of color. This is something that Asian Americans are behind in, African Americans have been dealing with it for years; for us, it’s kind of been a new thing. I would hope that Asian Americans on the other side of the camera or microphone can make these kinds of issues plain for the rest of the community. Because we really don’t realize how all this kind of ground is shifting under our feet and how this is gonna affect the content we actually see when we finally get more Asian Americans on TV or radio.

APA: Does this raise issues about demographic programming: Asians versus Asian Americans?

JC: That’s a really interesting question that I haven’t got as much into, this question of balancing the content between what you’re importing and what you’re trying to Johnny Appleseed here in the U.S. It’s a very important question because in speaking with Nusrat, one of the things I noticed was from a content point of view. I think Nusrat has a much more global view than an Asian American kid growing up in Califronia. Here, globalization is very natural, your household might be trilingual, if you’re living in Los Angeles, you’ll be familiar with Nintendo music, as well as meringue, as well as reggaeton, K-pop, V-pop, J-pop, hip-hop. It’s very natural in a way, but at the same time, you’re very much rooted in L.A. streets, and the community that L.A. is. Your peers are speaking in English, and your friends are across the spectrum, those kids are equally fascinated with the way you live, the food that you eat, the toys that you play with, your sister or brother who they think is fine — it’s a different kind of interactivity. And that makes that group of folks uniquely American in that way. But the challenge is how to strike that balance.

So for instance, with MTV Chi, what they do is have these things where they vote for their favorite records; their lists are very eclectic, there’ll be mando-pop, canto-pop, mando punk, Taiwanese hip-hop, Jin — it’s a rich mix. Their whole thing is to get the feedback from young people and what it is that they want. I would presume that young people want to have a lot more content from the U.S., and over time, that balance will probably shift, but right now a lot of the reason they’re programming 24/7 is that they can repurpose content that’s created in MTV China, MTV in Singapore. And so it’ll be interesting to see how that balance gets struck over time, and whether or not that is going to be a format or a venue for Asian American artists to grow faster and to be able to develop themselves faster.

If you were someone before, there’d be very little chance for you to work the Asian American angle. The long term thing is very interesting, you see it going back to the history of Giant Robot, which I think is kind of the turning point, when you have the Asian American media specifically directed toward Asian American communities, largely baby-boomers, to the hip-hop generation, where there’s a turn, where now it’s not necessarily about struggle and service, but how cool we are. With Giant Robot, you see this fascination with Japanese toys or Hong Kong cinema, in which Asian Americans position themselves as, we can translate this for all you folks out there. Then, coming out at the same time with the yellow power issue or more historical stuff, or lifting up Asian American visual artists, and that’s a very interesting kind of tension. So that poses a question about how Asian Americans positions ourselves, in relations to the multicultural audiences here in the U.S., and the Americanizing of artists in Asia.

APA: Were there some eyebrows raised when you first came into the game, writing about hip-hop and being an Asian American?

JC: It was a challenge, but it wasn’t a challenge for what people expect. People expect that because I’m an Asian American, I’m coming from an outsider’s point of view, and that there’d be a lot of hostility from Blacks and Latinos to my presence. So in that sense, it’s been a very interesting question, because I’ve actually received it from every interviewer I’ve ever had. I think it’s interesting that people would expect that that would occur, that I’d have all these tales of being kicked out of the club. I’m not an outsider to this, and that’s the whole thing; at one point, I had to back off because I would get really angry at people for asking about this. I’m a cliche, I’m just like every other kid at my high school in the early ’80s that heard “Rapper’s Delight,” “Planet Rock, and wanted to know what it was all about. For me, it’s been something that I’ve grown up with; I went to college, and I started in the whole anti-apartheid movement, and that’s when hip-hop shifted. Then I graduated, it was more about being fly, and dressing up, and I was into that as well. So I felt like hip-hop was the soundtrack of my life, it was intimately what I was about, and I don’t know if at some point, I realized this, but when I started writing about it in the early ’90s, that was natural too.

When I began writing about it, it was right about the time when Death Certificate came out, and there was a lot of tension between African Americans and Asian Americans, me and my homies were arguing all the time, and falling out with each other over the things that were happening in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, even the Bay Area — having these intense, huge arguments about these real issues that were happening on the streets, as opposed to what we were being taught as progressives of color. So when I entered into writing on hip-hop, that’s what I wrote about. But even there, it’s a situation where I went at it…some people disagreed with me, a lot of people agreed with me, but it was a discourse. The metaphor I like to use is, hip-hop is a cipher. If you’re gonna step into the cipher, you really have to add on, and if you’re not going to add on, you’re gonna get laughed out, you’re gonna get humiliated, then you’re gonna have step back, and come with something better next time. All through my involvement with hip-hop, it’s always been like that, whether or not you’re gonna add on, and if you don’t, just shut up and watch people and learn. So that’s been the relationship I’ve had with hip-hop. In a sense, the whole issue about being an Asian American in hip-hop, yeah, it’s been an issue, and no, it hasn’t been an issue.

APA: Any particular direction you see your career headed given all that you’ve accomplished?

JC: The career question [laughs]. It’s kind of like, my so-called career. I’ve been kind of a dilettante in a lot of different things, I’ve been a community campus organizer,  I’ve been in mainstream politics, I’ve been a teacher/lecturer, I’ve been an indie record label mogul, I’ve been a writer and a journalist and an editor all throughout this type of stuff. So I can’t really say where I’m gonna be in ten years, even at this point in life, I just know I gotta keep the lights on and the kids fed, and that I’ve been enjoying writing, and I expect that I’ll continue to be able to do that. My passion is in telling stories, and I feel like poeople need food, medicine, shelter, but they also need stories, and that’s one of the contributions I can make in this lifetime. I’m looking forward to finishing Total Chaos, and the next big project, which is getting at a lot of these issues that you’ve raised, about identity, and where the future is, and that kind of thing. So we’ll just have to see how it goes.

APA: What’s the best advice you can give to an Asian American — as a critic, as an activist, or as an artist?

JC: A lot of stuff. First thing is persevere, don’t give up. There are a lot of pressures on young Asian American artists to go get a straight 9-5, and just to sort of give up your passion, and so that’s the first thing. Stick with it, if it’s something you really feel defines you, it’s the thing that makes you happy, to get out of bed in the morning, the world will be a much better place if you’re gonna be yourself. That’s the thing with Asian Americans, you feel a lot of cross-cutting pressures on a daily basis, a lot of it can be boiled down to defiantly being yourself. And to never forget that people need what you have. People need stories, and art, and part of who we are as Asian Americans goes back to the way that Asian American artists can help us understand who we are, and a larger vision or imagination, and of who we can be. That’s very improtant. You can’t go back to your folks and say, “oh yeah, I’m selling stories now for a living.” My point is it’s important  to understand that there is a lot of value — maybe it’s a different kind of value — but there’s a lot of value to do what you do best, and what you’re most passionate about.

Date Posted: 6/8/2006

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