Groundbreaking Writer Jeff Chang Talks Bill O'Reilly's 'Racist Love,' Twitter Beefs and Obama's Best Next Steps
It’s easy to look back at 2008 with a sort of bittersweet nostalgia. A jaded remembrance of the last moment in which our collective naÃ¯vetÃ© – or hope, rather – allowed us, if only momentarily, to believe in the possibility that America might someday get beyond race.
We all know what happened next. Obama’s election, once heralded as a moment of transformative possibility, became the catalyst for the reengagement of culture wars launched with Nixon’s cynical deployment of the Southern Strategy in the late 1960s. Our most recent history is marked by state-sanctioned murders of unarmed black men including Michael Brown and Eric Garner, nationwide protests around police brutality, “white privilege” as a mainstream talking point, the rise of the Tea Party, and the most vociferously rightwing Republican party in generations. In the midst of our current national conversation about race, it seems worthwhile to retrace our steps to understand quite how we got here.
Enter Jeff Chang’s cultural history tome Who We Be: The Colorization of America. Chang’s exhaustive and beautifully written book traces the trajectory of American multiculturalism, from its beginning as a simple descriptor for America’s increasing cultural diversity, to the complex nexus of academic programs, artistic expressions, ideas and philosophies it grew to encompass. A consummate historian, Chang deftly guides us through the history of multiculturalism – as well as the culture wars that have inevitably followed each move toward progress – via the prism of art, both high and low. He argues that artists are visionaries who “help people to see what cannot yet be seen, hear the unheard, tell the untold,” and that cultural shifts are both shaped by and visible within their work.
From Morrie Turner, the African-American artist behind the Wee Pals comic strip, the first to feature characters of multiple races; to the controversial and groundbreaking 1993 Whitney Biennial, in which artists of color challenged viewers with uncompromising and often racially charged images; to the often under-recognized Asian-American, Latino and African-American artists working both in and outside of the mainstream, Chang assembles an incredibly detailed look at the rise and fall of multiculturalism via the culture of visual art itself. All the while, he examines how artists create output that reflects and embraces new and emerging ideas while also influencing our ideas of ourselves. Artistic movements, Change suggests, both broaden and maintain our notions around race, nudging and pushing at the path of racial progress, and re-defining its contours.
AlterNet sat down with Chang, whose last book, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, won an American Book Award, to discuss Who We Be, his thoughts on Obama’s legacy, the difficulty of talking about race with willfully obtuse audiences and the ongoing Twitter feud between two of today’s biggest female rappers.
Kali Holloway: First of all, congratulations on writing such an amazing and beautiful book.
Jeff Chang: Thanks. Appreciate it.
KH: What have you thought of hip-hop's response to Ferguson and Eric Garner and everything that’s happening?
JC: I’ve really been proud of it. What I loved about it, too, is that, it hasn't been this kind of thing of folks sort of saying, ‘Look how down I am doing this shit.’ People are just quietly going about the work, you know what I mean? All the people that showed up at Ferguson, it just goes on and on, you know what I mean? I feel like this year is going to be a year in which the art is going to sort of reach new heights. I mean, shit, D’Angelo kind of like raised the bar for everybody, you know what I mean?
The whole crew that did the “Hands Up” posters, they raised the bar for everybody.
Hank Willis Thomas, he raised the bar for everybody. The Yams Collective, they raised the bar for everybody. They all were working on race before this happened and then after this happened. And so, I feel like there's going to be just a whole period of creativity that's going to blow up this year.
I've been around long enough to kind of see how these things kind of go down. I was there in Los Angeles after the L.A. riots. Which, what you saw sort of leading up to and after the riots was these massive shifts that people couldn’t have predicted. There's the rise of gangsta rap but there was also the really intense rise of avant-garde type stuff where people were going back to looking at Horace Tapscott and black art collectives that had been formed in Los Angeles and Chicago and all these different types of places. Afrofuturism was jumping off.
It was this explosion of ideas that came through at that particular moment, and '93, '94 and '95 were really fertile years. I feel like we're in that kind of a moment right now. It gets me excited. I'm always really interested to see what my students are up to and I'm kind of really looking forward to whether between now and the end of the school year – April, May, June -- when things are starting to cohere for them and their voices are getting a little bit more solidified around what it is that they want to do. It's going to be a really interesting year.
KH: Early on in Who We Be you mention that Obama's rise, in general, sparked the book. But I just wondered if there was a precise moment in which you knew that you had to write this book – and specifically via the prism of so many different cultural moments?
JC: I actually started thinking about the book right after I finished Can't Stop Won't Stop. I was lucky enough to be part of a cohort of folks who were thinking about and working in hip-hop aesthetics in a really deep kind of way, that had been convened by Roberta Uno, who is a program officer at the Ford Foundation.
One of the things that kept coming up in conversation was multiculturalism: the aesthetics of multiculturalism, the culture wars of the '80s and the '90s, and a lot of the ideas that had been pushed by avant-garde artists and critics during the '80s and the '90s.
The question came up whether or not hip-hop was an advance off of that particular intervention and the positions that people had taken in the culture wars. If we had moved forward or moved backward from the culture wars.
It's a really interesting question to rethink the artists and the critics who came after the Black Arts movement and after the aesthetic impulses of the mid '60s through the late '60s that so much of the Golden Age hip-hop heads were saying they’re all about.
This is like, 2005, and we're past the point of hip-hop being at the peak market, but still have a lot of conversations about hip-hop and commodity culture. And I thought this is kind of interesting, and I didn't really talk about it too much in Can't Stop Won't Stop. I kind of referred to it in sort of sideways kinds of ways. There's mention of Amiri Baraka and there's talk about the anti-apartheid rallies. And there's references to the generation gap and the discussion between Angela Davis and Ice Cube, but there wasn't anything in which I had kind of taken it on straight ahead. It felt like a really big hole.
We decided to put together a big public discussion that we held at the Ford Foundation on hip-hop in the age of post-multiculturalism. At that time, I had no idea what I was talking about. I didn't know what post-multiculturalism [was]. I had no idea what folks were going to talk about. I just was like, let's get some really smart motherfuckers in this room and kind of figure this out.
So, [author of The Hip Hop Wars] Tricia Rose was going to be on the panel but she couldn't make it at the last minute, she was sick. Greg Tate was going to emcee the panel, which was kind of a funny thing. Brian Cross, an old friend of mine -- amazing photographer, Irish immigrant -- and Mark Anthony Neal, brilliant dude from Duke University. And the great Vijay Prashad from Trinity College. And everybody had a different take.
Vijay was like, multiculturalism is a farce, it's a lie. It's basically the state bending to neoliberalism and it's all bullshit. We've all been fooled.
Mark was like, it was a hustle for me. I don’t think about multiculturalism anymore. But when I was in college, it was a hustle. It was a way that we got funding for the black student union.
And Brian was like, well look, I came from Ireland – in '86, I guess he came, right in the middle of the cultural wars, especially as they were raising that in the Bay Area. And he was the one closest to my position. I was staking my politics based on what I was seeing out there. And Greg, being older, was like, ‘Well I always thought of it as the heir to cultural nationalism and, so, I was down with it.’
Everybody had a completely different take on it and I was like, ‘Huh, this could be something really amazing.’
The second part of that day was a panel that we did at the Bronx Museum that was curated by Lydia Yee in conjunction with this exhibition that they had done, called "One Planet Under a Groove.” Which was the first big exhibition to really look at hip-hop aesthetics in contemporary art.
She laid out this narrative in which she talked about the importance of the direct attack on multiculturalism in the 1993 [Whitney] biennial, and that artists [who] had come of age after that particular period had had their entire careers shaped by this denigration of "identity art."
I'm like ‘Wow, okay, so that sounds exactly like the kinds of stuff that I've been dealing with around "identity politics" on the left.’ So, I could totally relate. Then I was like, holy shit. So for about two years after that, I wrote version of the proposal after version of the proposal, and each time my editor at St. Martin’s – god bless her soul – would laugh at me like, ‘Nobody cares about multiculturalism. Who cares about multiculturalism?’ You know, you look out the window and there's like a Diddy billboard. This is like 2006, 2007. We were all kind of taking a victory lap, right?
So, it didn't really turn until 2007 and Obama starts getting himself ready to run for office and all of this race stuff starts coming out. First from the Clinton camp, from Mark Penn. And then from the far right when it looks like Obama's really going to be the dude.
Then she and I looked at each other and were like, okay, let's look back at this and let's kind of figure this out. Because there's actually something here that we’ve got to do.
KH: Then you spent six years writing it, right?
JC: Yeah, I had been writing different pieces and parts and all that kind of stuff the whole time. It started as a way both to ease myself in and also as a way to kind of begin the book, because it wasn't like now. At this particular moment in history – we're at a moment in which it's too hard, I think, for folks not to be able to see what's actually going on.
I was proceeding, I think, from some of the same things I was criticizing. Like the idea that, in order to talk to white people about race, you have to soft-pedal it. Which, I thought, okay, shit – let me start talking about this wonderful guy, Morrie Turner, who talked about these things using bits for years.
KH: Right, via comics.
JC: Yeah, so that was the first piece that I think I wrote for the book, and it appeared in The Believer. And people seemed to dig it. And I was like okay, where do we go from here?
I had the outline of it all and I began writing it. But you know, the other thing that happened was that when we first started working on this, Obama had been elected and we're all like, "Yay!” Irrational exuberance and all that kind of shit. And just sort of full of energy. And I'm like, ‘I'm going to write this book.’ I told [my agent], ‘I'm going to write this book in a year. It's going to be done. We're going to get this out. It's going to be a victory lap, and we’re going to be awesome.’
Then, of course, immediately, the culture wars kicked back in. And then, it all just got deep after that. (Laughs.)
So it took a lot longer to actually get the book done. And I had to fight off all kinds of doubts and all that kind of stuff to get to an authentic voice to write the book with.
KH: What was the most difficult part of researching it? Because it’s so incredibly thorough. I also thought maybe you could talk about the difficulty of writing it from any number of vantage points.
JC: I never actually have any problem researching. I'm so...what do they call it? There's an actual name for this. It's research ecstasy. Like, I could stay in and research something all day and all night and for weeks and years and never actually write. You just get caught up in your own research ecstasy.
KH: But I just mean – like the number of people you talk to. The minutiae you bring to the surface. I feel like it must've taken a tremendous amount of time and effort and tracking down people…
JC: Yeah, that's just, I guess, my mode. I'm not good at doing small. I'm trying to learn how to do that better and I think it's really, really key, and the next book is going to be big ideas but written in much more of a small way. That's what I'm developing.
I guess part of your question is about sort of what became difficult about the process because, shit, it has taken me six years since signing – more than six years now – and it's been like seven or eight years since conception. And it was a real difficult book.
It's kind of a tough thing to get up. It's not like hip-hop. Everybody wanted to talk about hip-hop [for Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop]. Versus, if I'm talking about art or visual culture. It's about a topic that is not necessarily easily entered. So I had to kind of go through that whole thing of experimenting and trying out different kinds of voices.
There's a section, I think, in chapter six that I wrote and rewrote a million times. And I think right up until to the very end I was still rewriting it, because I just didn't know how to strike the right kind of – the whole thing was around modulation. I didn't know how to modulate my tone correctly, you know?
Do you want to be snarky? Do you want to be sarcastic? Do you want to be sort of ironic? Do you want to be post-racially humorous, a la Sarah Silverman, about this shit? Like, what do you want to do? All these choices you have to figure out how to make. That was the most difficult part.
Because there's no sort of mid-point any more about this stuff. Either we don't talk about it at all or we talk about it intensely and intently amongst people that we trust and love. But I certainly wanted this to be something that was going to reach beyond that.
So who is that median person out there? I didn't even know who that median person was who was going to read or want to read it. I still don't, actually.
It was a problem. It was a writing problem, actually.
KH: At one point you quote [pollster] Cornell Belcher talking about the problem with equality and he says the way people see it is, “They're trying to get equality, which means I'm losing something.” And that quote reminded me very specifically of a poll I saw that found that white Americans believe that race is a zero sum game and, that it's one that they're losing at this point.
KH: In light of all that and having done all this research I wonder, how hopeful do you feel about race and racism at this point?
JC: It's hard. Some days I'll go out and do a radio show and the conversation will be deep and wonderful and just really hopeful amongst white folks. And then other days I'll go out and I'll do a radio show in my own backyard, in the [San Francisco] Bay Area, where you would hope that people would know better because you have to live with these motherfuckers every day.
KH: Right. (Laughs.)
JC: (Laughs) And people will just be like – they'll be getting down in, ‘Well you're not making a distinction between race and culture and ethnicity.’ All kinds of strange and crazy justifications to actually not have to deal with the question or the topic that's at hand.
All of these very weird and perverted amalgamations and variations on color blindness that people have, and then you leave feeling exhausted. I admire somebody like Hari Kondabolu who can go out there and do this every fucking night.
KH: He’s my favorite comedian.
JC: Yeah, he's the best, right? I just admire him because he can go out and do that. He doesn't lose his fire or his clarity -- I think "clarity" is the word -- about what it is that he's trying to say and what it is that he needs to understand.
Because I feel like I have none of that. I'm sort of on the opposite end of that and I really admire what it is that he does.
Yeah, I don't know. It's tough. It's weird.
KH: As a person of color, how do you define yourself within this book? Meaning, in what way did the process of writing this book and tracing this history impact your view of yourself, an Asian-American man living in this hyper-racialized culture we all exist in.
JC: It's a really good question, actually. I don't know. It's interesting. God. There's so many threads to disentangle there.
The first is that part of my intention, personally and in terms of writing the book, was to go back to this period in which I'd come of age intellectually, which is the late '80s through the late '90s. The decade between, say, about '86 and '97, when I was getting to the points of view that I pretty much hold today, and the evolution of that and trying to go through and attack the things that I had so much certainty about and then to be certain about all the things that I was really unclear about. That was part of it.
Part of that is knowing that, to my family and friends who had known me for that time, I love them and they always support me. And I write a book – and they don't know what the fuck I'm doing anyways. And I'm always a little on edge when we're at family parties, when everybody’s like, ‘Ah, I got your book. I started reading it.’ And then you're like, here comes the hammer, right? And then it doesn't happen. Then you’re happy like, ‘Whew, got through that one.’
Then the next person comes up, same thing. There's part of that. There's a sort of seeing them seeing me type of thing. Like, where am I in relationship to myself? To their perception of me? And all that kind of stuff.
I think the larger thing, like the outside world type of stuff, is I'm actually a little bit more – not a little bit, I'm a lot more – comfortable with going out and talking about it to people in a broad way. Because I'm much more certain of who I am and comfortable about who I am and about what my values are now in middle age. As a parent, as an activist, as an organizer, as a writer, as an artist. All those kind of things. I'm much more clear about.
I think the book helped me to understand much better and much more intimately and in a much more nuanced way all these different parts of the spectrum that people have to live on, on a day-to-day basis.
From dealing with a myriad of microagressions to being someone like Thelma Golden. Who on the one hand is thinking strategically, really long term, at the same time that she understands that almost every interaction is charged with people perceiving her as a Black woman.
That was a revelation to me. And it made me much, much more appreciative about people like her who have to walk this high wire that you're balancing on day to day to move these very large projects that make big change and really shape people's productions in each language.
I suppose in that regard, I'm a lot more aware of what it takes to actually bring about change than I was before. A lot of things that I took for granted – a lot of the nuances of people’s sort of minute day-to-day shifts around different types of things – I can appreciate that a lot more. Trying to incorporate that, I guess, into my own sort of living.
KH: I'm sure you're aware of how someone like Bill O'Reilly consistently cites the example of the success of Asian-Americans as an argument against white privilege, and I think tacitly for black pathology. I wanted talk generally about that with you.
JC: Yeah, it's so interesting. And what I love about it is the way in which it totally reveals that racist love is pretty much the same as racist hate.
All the model minority stuff, the compliments, the wonderful, ‘Oh, you're so good, you're wonderful, you're great, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah’ Behind that is just a little bit of, well, like shit -- if you're going to attack me you're going to have to attack these folks first.
Which is basically Bill O'Reilly's position on this. And I love that because it'll take the scabs off of a lot of eyes of Asian-Americans who believe in this stuff.
Okay, if you're really listening to Bill O'Reilly, don't you think he's actually kind of fucking with you? I like that. I like that that stuff is coming out right now. I’ve talked about this a lot I guess in recent years but not as much as I feel I could be or should be.
A lot of the trigger points for a lot of the campus organizing over the last three years have come from bullshit that Asian-Americans have raised. If you look at the UC Irvine blackface video – I don't know if you heard about this – the “Suit and Tie” video that the Asian-American fraternity was putting out there. They're in blackface and the whole –
KH: I don’t know about this.
JC: You didn't hear about this? Okay. So, [a few] years ago there was an Asian-American fraternity that put online, or somebody related to the fraternity put online, a video of them lip syncing to "Suit and Tie." What happens is all the kids are in their suit and ties and they're all looking cool and everything when they're singing the Justin Timberlake part. Then when the Jay-Z verse comes on, this kid comes out in blackface and starts rapping it.
Now this is at Irvine, and Irvine's just sort of an interesting place. It was the first UC campus to go predominantly Asian-American. And it's a place that's been a central hub for Asian-American cultural production. What I mean by that is, you think of all of the dance crews that have come out on ABDC, almost all of them can trace themselves back to organizations or dancers that came out of UC Irvine or that UC Irvine-centered fraternity sorority scene.
It's at UC Irvine that they started stepping competitions. In the '90s they would imitate black fraternities and sororities and do stepping competitions parallel with them. Back then there was a lot of cultural traffic between the two Greek systems.
There was very much a strong understanding of what you can and can't do. These are kids that are coming out of hip-hop in Los Angeles after the riots, okay? You've got the whole picture.
What you then get is the next generation of kids come into this stuff and they don't necessarily know what the history is or the story of it is. They can affect all of these kinds of hard-earned, what [writer and activist] Kenyon Farrow would call “accoutrements of cool," you know?
The “Suit and Tie” video basically shows you that you've got Asian-Americans trying to be down until they want to be white. And that's basically how they're trying to get down.
There was that situation and then about two years ago at the University of Michigan. You probably remember the hashtag #BBUM campaign that started? Being Black at University of Michigan, #BBUM. This sort of preceded “I, Too, Am Harvard.” It was the same year, but it preceded it and it sparked the action on the Harvard campaign.
The University of Michigan campaign was started by black students who were justifiably angry at the fact that a historically white fraternity, but which is headed up by Asian-Americans -- like the president, leadership, the whole cabinet was Asian-American or predominantly Asian-American -- was throwing a “ratchet” party
They put out this video in which there's a Black guy dancing with a Black woman who's in stripper-type clothing and it was all bullshit. The University, at the behest of African-American student groups, shut the party down before it could even happen. But this was, again, a situation in which Asian Americans were involved in, if not putting together the video and putting it out there, at least being complicit in all of this.
My point is, it's been at these elite universities where Asian-Americans are – if they're not a minority, like at Michigan, they're certainly the predominantly entitled minority for sure. And at Michigan as well, same type of thing.
It's a type of situation where it just really pains me. You kind of can't let this stuff slide anymore. But, by the same token, we have such a weak infrastructure, I think, of cultural institutions in Asian America that there's no real strong way to critique it and have it hold, generationally. It's pretty much by geography, by place, ad hoc, and that kind of thing.
So the best thing that I can do in the role that I play is basically just to be able to go out and reflect a really strong aesthetic and politic that sort of represents calling out anti-black racism where it’s showing up.
I recognize that because I’ve done this book on hip-hop and that kind of thing that folks are going to be calling on me for that. It is what it is, I guess.
KH: Then springboarding off that, what do you think has been people's response to the book as far as you've been able to gather? And do you feel like it’s the response that you wanted?
JC: I don't know; it's been interesting. There's been the curse of good timing, I guess, around this book.
In so many ways, what's happening in the streets has outrun, I think, what my goals were for the book. I think the conversation is at a completely different point than I would've expected it would've been.
Yet there's still a very strong sense in which, part of what's happening right now, when you see, say, Bill O'Reilly trying to raise, ‘Well, hey if you're against White privilege, you should be talking about Asian privilege too!’ There's this sort of on-the-fly, spontaneous re-thinking of how to recruit for a colorblindness amidst all of this stuff.
I feel like we've already gone into that new phase. Because at this particular point, with Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the point that I was trying to make about seeing race, it's pretty patently obvious and plain, you know? That in so many ways, the ways we haven't changed how we see race continues to impact us. I think that's key. And so, it's easier, I think, for Bill O'Reilly to be able to remark upon Asian privilege because of the obvious difference that we present visually. Much more difficult, probably, to do it with Latinos, in that regard.
They haven't had to re-think that yet. And they are probably still hopeful that they'll get the Latino vote for 2016.
It's all sort of in flux right now and I feel like the conversation in that sense is kind of moved to a completely different level. Where it hasn't yet moved [and] where the book is still really relevant is in regards to the way that the left understands race and the sort of really kind of tested, I think, support that we've seen happening from white quarters around a lot of the protests.
You see a lot of young folks in the streets, but you don't see a lot of folks my age trying to re-think this. And it's the sort of, what George Lipsitz calls a "possessive investment.” There's this investment that other people have in it and they're not willing to question that. And I don't know how to get at that. My main job, I think, is to raise the questions and hopes that these kinds of conversations might start.
KH: I'm going to get a little bit lighter here…
KH: That was at the end of December, and I feel like Iggy has doubled down on a lot of stuff. More recently, she complained that she was being targeted as a white woman, which is a little amazing since I feel like black male rappers keep running to her rescue. And there's a whole vulnerable white woman trope that's happening there. And it's a little bit like, ‘Um, be a rapper. Use your words.’
JC: (Laughs.) Yeah, yeah.
KH: I feel like she's been repeating this line she's been fed by a handler who told her when these questions of appropriation come up, that she should reference the Rolling Stones and Elvis and these predecessors who appropriated black music and culture. And that's kind of been her go-to line.
JC: God, I haven't thought about Iggy Azalea for about a week and a half. All the stuff you just dropped on me is brand new. I guess it's a luxury not to have to think about Iggy Azalea. (Laughs) It's interesting. That's really interesting.
You said that she's been citing the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and all those different acts?
KH: Yeah, more than once. I've seen her mention it maybe three times recently. I feel like it's an idea that someone gave her a while ago and she keeps using over and over.
JC: She keeps on using it. Yeah, she didn't strike me as a particularly deep thinker.
I think it's interesting. Somebody should be telling her, ‘Dude, you're not Paul McCartney. You know, you're not John Lennon, come on. You're not Keith Richards, you're not Mick Jagger.’
You have one hit. You have one album out that's been decently received. You have no track record. I think it's just bad advice – whoever is giving you advice in that regard probably should go back and tell her she's a little bit out of hand there.
I mean, shit. Iggy Azalea is one of those folks where I go, "God, this too shall pass," you know?
What's interesting is that she seems to have some sort of – at least right now anyway – she seems to have some sort of a staying power because of social media. If it were just up to her music and her performance she wouldn't be around. She's not going to be around in a couple of weeks, you know what I mean?
KH: Right. (Laughs.)
JC: Really, honestly, you know? Who remembers Vanilla Ice had a second album?
JC: I don't even know what the name of it was, you know what I mean?
She's living by her tweets and she's not necessarily living by her art. She may be interesting as a social figure but so is M.I.A. and sadly, M.I.A. didn't do so well at her second album, either. Even though I thought it was better than the first.
If we're taking a long arc of history on this, I feel like Iggy Azalea will pass, unless she starts getting her shit together and starts making stuff that people care about. But I can't imagine artists lining up to guest on her next record. After the events of the past three weeks or so.
KH: I think it's been a kind of disastrous for her. Every time [something like] this happens I just think, she must have handlers. Why isn't someone taking over her Twitter? But maybe her handlers are as clueless as she is.
The response wasn't great. I've disagreed with [Azaelia Banks] a lot in the past, and I don't necessarily think that Twitter is the best medium to express every thought or to settle every beef that you have. But you know, she's kind of nailed it lately. So, yeah. It was kind of a tone deaf response [from Iggy Azaelia].
JC: Yeah, and I think this is clearly a battle that [Banks] won, and I think that she raised a lot of really, really important points.
One of the things that I was really happy to see happen out of this whole thing – because my editor at the Guardian was like, "You should write about this." I'm like, "No, please. Are you kidding?"
I walked around a little bit for an hour or two and I was like, actually, there's a lot of stuff going on here that really needs to be brought out. And I thought what was particularly salient about Azaelia Banks’s response on Hot 97 was – talk about it in theoretical terms, right – linking the affect to the erasure, right? Her basically linking her personal feelings to this larger question of the dehistoricization of pop and that kind of thing. And then talking about it, I think, too, explicitly from the point of view of being a black woman. And a queer black woman at that. A bisexual black woman at that.
I thought this is really actually a huge moment in the pop culture to be able to make an intervention. She didn't intend to but she so clearly made that. And so the critique of my piece in the Guardian was that I didn't go in enough on those questions, and people are absolutely correct about that. But within hours of my piece appearing, two or three really good friends were already weighing in on that on Facebook. And then the next day or maybe the next week, a good friend of mine, [hip-hop writer] Kris X, went in really deeply on that. And so it was great. It was one of those moments in which the discussion that had to be had reached critical mass in a really, really quick kind of way. So I was really happy about that.
We were able to take it away from, “Oh [Azaelia Banks] is crazy. She's bipolar.”
All the other shit that came along with that. ‘Look at all the people that she's attacked on twitter. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ I'm like all right, all right, all right, all right, cool but what about this? This is real, is it not? So, I think that was really the salient type of thing.
That's the cool thing. Those are the moments in pop culture where as writers we're like, fuck. You wake up one morning and some shit happens and then all of a sudden you're writing about it and then it can reach that kind of level. It was a beautiful thing. So thank you to Azaelia.
KH: What are you listening to right now and is there anything you're listening to that you think might have the same urgency as an agent of cultural change as the art that you cite in Who We Be?
JC: I mean, let's see. I'm always listening to shit. Here's a left field one. I was listening to some podcasts that Moshe Kasher has been putting together. He has this podcast with Neal Brennan, who is the co-creator of the “Chappelle Show.” And Moshe is a comic from the Bay Area.
KH: I've only heard an interview with him on Mark Maron's show.
JC: Okay, yeah. So, Moshe's been doing some really intersecting discussions of late. He did one with Reza Aslan on being brown in America. And it just seems like it happened before all the Charlie Hebdo stuff, but it was so on point. And I think the same week it had an episode around the Garner [verdict], which had just broken. Actually him and Neal, let me pull this up here.
I think he had done both of those in the same week. It was with Baratunde Thurston.
Both of these are brilliant. They were amazing. They're really insightful, they're funny, kind of laugh until you cry, cry until you laugh type of thing. And so timely. And I was like ‘Yeah, that's the way these race conversations should be going.’ So yeah. I've been listening to that.
Musically, shit. End of the year is when I catch up on everything that I missed during the year. So I have massive stacks of shit in here. Let me see, what have I been listening to. Actually, I was telling somebody yesterday this. Public Enemy, right now, seems really relevant, actually.
I think the other stuff that I'm just waiting for is, I just want Erykah Badu to be out with some stuff right now.
The other artist I really like is this woman called Fatima al Qadiri. She's sort of this conceptualist artist who makes post-dubstep shit which is really, really, really interesting. It's conceptual. She did something basically around the Iraq War – that was her first album. And [on] this next album she’s using Chinese samples and Chinese artists and that kind of thing even though she's never been to China. It's work that's kind of engaging with the mystique of China but in this really beautiful, non-Orientalizing kind of way. She's from Kuwait. So, how do you, as one who's been Orientalized, treat another culture that you don’t know too much about? Can't speak the language or anything. And she does it sonically, which is a really interesting kind of experiment to me, and it really works. I'm really digging her stuff too.
Catching up on all the footwork stuff.
Oh, and Vince Staples, who's kind of dope.
KH: One of my favorite quotes from the book is, "Calling someone else PC means never having to apologize for being racist."
JC: Dude, that was a line that I worked on for – that's the line that I was talking to you about, that's the passage.
KH: Oh, that's funny.
JC: I had a super cynical, super mocking, super snarky [tone]. And then I kind of dialed it back and that's what I finally ended up with. I think if I still had the book in my hand I'd still be thinking, ‘Should I soften that?’ I don’t know.
KH: No! I love it. It’s such a great, concise way of putting down a thought that I’ve had so many times. And it also recalls that old movie, "Love Story." So it's great on so many levels.
I've been thinking a lot about that phrase just as we all are sort of thinking aloud about Charlie Hebdo, which was obviously a huge tragedy. But that doesn't negate the need for us to critique and discuss the magazine itself. And so, I wanted to see if you want to express your thoughts on that.
JC: The only comment I made on that on Twitter was to retweet something that (comedian) W. Kamal Bell had posted. Here it is: ‘Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful, and only aimed at the powerful. And when satire is aimed at the powerless it's not only cruel it's vulgar.’ And it's Molly Ivins's quote. And I was just like, yeah. I'm with that.
KH: I totally agree.
Just sort of using the Angela Davis quote [that appears in Who We Be] about Obama having been “a canvas onto which many of us are painting our desires and our dreams and our hopes.” I wonder what you now think Obama's legacy will be moving forward. How will history treat Obama's legacy?
JC: I think it's going to actually be a positive one. I think that a lot of us have been really, really disappointed, especially in his foreign policy. And other areas on which he hasn't moved the ball forward that we'd like to. And certainly there's a lot to be said about the fact that inequality – racial inequality – has increased under his watch.
I'm not even the kind of person who wants to let him off the hook and be like, ‘Well, he's black,’ you know what I mean? ‘What more could he have done?’ Because it's a line. It's a line that you hear from a lot of folks of color, especially. ‘Well he could've got more done if he wasn't black, and people didn't hate him because of that.’
It's a line that, I think, sort of speaks to common sense understandings, but actually is not that truthful.
I think it's obviously truthful to a large extent. I think that he has been punished for talking about race.
JC: But that he could've also chosen to still stand his ground on that. You know at some point maybe there's a piece to be written about [New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio versus Obama on race and whether what we're seeing there is balls or entitlement or white privilege, you know what I'm saying? Does de Blasio have bigger balls than Obama, or does he have white privilege? I think that's a really good debate for us to have.
I'm not going to be the one, though, who's going to be like, ‘Let's let him off the hook because he was the first.’ I think that in the end, his legacy is going to be seen as something that wasn't necessarily transformative, but that was positive. And I put a lot of that down to Obamacare, because we haven't seen the impact of that. I think that in the long run when we do – that is, if we’re able to defend it – It's going to be seen as transformative in some ways.
I say that and also that it'll be interesting to see how he shows up his last lame duck years because in a lot of ways he has nothing to lose anymore. He doesn't have to bow to leadership in Congress at all. And as ironic as it may be to the Republicans, what they've shown him is that if he plays hardball politics, that would be the best way for him to rally the base.
It's simply electoral politics that will get played out at this point, you know? And the best that he can do at this particular point is to move left – consolidate the left. Because what that'll do is force Hillary [Clinton] further left on a lot of issues than she would have liked to have been. And it'll shore up the base for her that could be lost when you don't have a candidate of color on the ticket.
So it's good political strategy, as well as good politics. And the right can complain about that. So he has all the incentive actually to move left and to move towards more racial justice stuff in the last couple of years. And it would be good to see if he does.
KH: If change, as you say in the book's opening, is “a process that, like the ocean, never stops moving” what does the latest wave tell us?
JC: I mean I think that, again, I think what we're going to see is a lot of unforeseen things coming out of what's happening right now. For instance, with Occupy, people are like, ‘It was a failure as a movement.’ But at the same time we've got the grounds for this Abolish Debt movement -- the sort of debt jubilee stuff that's happening. And we have a language now that people can rally around regarding inequality that we didn't have before.
I think in that same kind of way, a simple hashtag like #BlackLivesMatter helps to shine a light on anti-blackness in ways that we only had very theoretical ways to acknowledge before.
I don't want to be too critical, but what I want to say is that it opens up a more interesting dialogue than some of the strains of academic nationalism would have. While getting at the same kind of points that everybody agrees with, they open up a politics that makes things possible.
What I'm down on I guess is sort of academic nationalism that doesn't open up a politics of possibility.
The point is that the culture has to be transformative but the politics have to be transformative as well.
I should say I'm really partial to the lives of thinkers who are looking historically, laterally and really deeply at anti-black racism. And that's where I'm at, too. But it has to enact a politics that's open to transformation.
I want a politics that is not disabling but enabling. I feel like #BlackLivesMatter comes from that kind of place. I know the people who are involved, I know where they're coming from. They're coming from queer politics, they're coming from pro-immigrant politics. They're coming from a politics that is based in a deep sort of understanding of humanity and where we all need to go.