There are often debates about the trajectory of hip-hop music and its meandering path from what originated as an insular cultural phenomenon into, perhaps, the most prolific and widespread music genre in history.
Much of the praise for the earliest days of hip-hop music, and for its subversion of acceptable American society, is heaped upon the figures we’ve seen and those ― typically, men ― with whom we’ve grown familiar since the first drum loops rattled public housing units in the Bronx over 40 years ago.
But there is, generally, an anemic reception for those who’ve toiled in the background as hip-hop evolved and those whose cultural contributions were not expressed through the lyrics themselves but through their influence upon those delivering the lyrics.
Sophia Chang is among this class.
Chang is a 52-year-old Korean woman from Vancouver, Canada. She has an extensive list of management clients whose popularity throughout the ’90s characterized what is now heralded as the Golden Era of hip-hop; namely, RZA, GZA and Old Dirty Bastard from the widely celebrated Wu Tang Clan.
Despite her heavy influence on the genre, it wasn’t until Chang was deep into graduate school that she diverted course and set out to immerse herself in New York’s music scene.
“Hip-hop just spoke to things in a more profound way for me,” Chang said of her early discovery of the genre.
“Having grown up a first-gen Korean immigrant in a very white world, I had plenty of anger,” she said. “It was really beautiful to see that there was this music that wasn’t, of course, all angry, but the sense of urgency behind it, and the poetry and the storytelling impacted me very deeply.”
During a stint working for Jive Records, Chang met RZA. She recollects being startled by his brilliance.
“I remember walking away thinking, ‘That’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.’ And I know a lot of smart motherfuckers,” she said.
Her enthrallment with the group sprouted from there, culminating in Chang forging bonds and professional relationships with its members and asserting her position within an industry typically averse to empowered businesswomen.
Chang took time to talk with HuffPost about her ties to hip-hop culture, Asian representation in media and being “the baddest bitch in the room.”
How did you come to know and love hip-hop culture and R&B?
I was in Vancouver, well on my way to becoming a French professor — that was going to be my trajectory. I’d come from an academic family of Korean immigrants. I was going to college and it was my senior year in high school, and I heard “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and it changed my life. Literally, one song changed my life.
In what way?
Hip-hop just spoke to things in a more profound way for me.
Having grown up a first-gen Korean immigrant in a very white world, I had plenty of anger. And I also have a mean temper, and it was really beautiful to see that there was this music that wasn’t, of course, all angry, but the sense of urgency behind it, and the poetry and the storytelling impacted me very deeply.
Was that anger drawn from your personal experiences or was that an anger resulting from your observation of New York and the depths at which some of its people were living? Was that a sympathetic anger?
Of course it was sympathetic for me. You can’t hear that song and go, “Oh, that’s awesome.” But in terms of how I connected with it personally in terms of anger, it was completely about my identity politics. It was absolutely about being called “chink,” “jap” and “gook,” and never, ever being told anything but that I was the other. You know, my phenotype betrays that I’m not like everybody else. I could never hide that, so I went through my childhood feeling like I was other because I was. And I got racial shit said to me all the time. So when I heard this music, it felt powerful — it felt indignant.
Although the song wasn’t a call to action literally, it certainly was a call to attention.
At what point did you make the foray from academia into the music industry?
I was already really exposed to the live music scene, and I loved it. I loved going to see bands, I loved venues, I loved concerts, I loved musicians and I really liked creative people. So I was already accustomed to the culture of the music business at large. When I chose to move to New York, I actually skipped my university graduation to come because I was so anxious to get here. I’d met Joey Ramone on a trip to New York, and so what better introduction to the New York music scene than Joey Ramone? He had me stay with a friend of his — a music journalist and his girlfriend. That girlfriend at the time worked for Paul Simon’s tour manager, and she got me a job as an assistant, so that was my first formal job in the music business.
How did you navigate from that job into managing hip-hop artists specifically?
I can be pretty intrepid. Probably foolhardy. [Laughs.] So I started going to the hip-hop clubs, and I just hung out at these clubs every night that I could. My friends and I were probably going out four or five nights a week to these hip-hop clubs, and it was a very small scene at the time. Back in the ’80s, you would have every single aspect of the hip-hop industry represented in a nightclub. You would have all four pillars: MCs, DJs, graphic artists as well as the b-boys. That’s just on the creative side. But then you’d have producers, the lawyers, the publicists, the publishers, the booking agents, the managers, the label people, the A&Rs, the promo execs. I mean, literally everybody was in the clubs.
Do you ever reminisce over the time when hip-hop was a new phenomenon that still had some mystique to it?
In terms of the scene being small, and insular and close-knit, I don’t care about that. Hip-hop did what it was supposed to do. It became a global cultural phenomenon. It forever changed the way the whole goddamn world walks, talks, dances, dresses — all of that. I would argue that there hasn’t been a musical genre that has had such a deep and broad cultural impact. Some might argue rock ’n’ roll has, but I don’t think so.
I’m with you on that.
I think that the Wu Tang “W” is the most recognizable musical logo ever. And it will probably remain so for a long time — even more than The Rolling Stones. If you go out there all over the world, what people will say, what you will see on people’s Instagram pages and what gets reported back is people in X tiny village, in X country, on X continent rocking either a Wu Tang tattoo or a Wu Tang logo.
It’s definitely a universal brand at this point.
Exactly. That’s hip-hop. Hip-hop struck a nerve. A global nerve. And I just don’t think you can say that of any other genre.
Did you ever feel as though there was a cultural exchange taking place between you and Wu Tang Clan? Were they learning and borrowing from you just as you were learning and borrowing from them?
In the beginning, it wasn’t much of an exchange because I hadn’t yet embraced my heritage. You know, like many first-generation immigrants. Korean was my maternal tongue, and I lost it in my desire to assimilate.
So there were all these ways I was clamoring to fit in and assimilate. And that was a zero-sum game, and it necessarily meant that I rejected who I was. In striving for assimilation, also known as the “white ideal,” it meant that I rejected my Asian heritage. So at the point that I’d met Wu Tang, I’d never dated an Asian man, I wasn’t attracted to them, I didn’t watch Kung Fu movies, and it was kind of my broad rejection of my culture. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I was ashamed of it, but I wasn’t embracing it and celebrating it the way I do now. So, interestingly enough, it was them who helped me go back to my roots. And it was them helping me see the beauty of my culture through their lens.
“It was them who helped me go back to my roots. And it was them helping me see the beauty of my culture through their lens.”
A lot of people might think that their interest in martial arts movies is kind of superficial, as it is for many of us. Like, “Oh, my God, look at the incredible fighting! The choreography! The wire work!” But their connection to martial arts movies was much, much, much deeper. The superficial aspects might have been what drew Wu Tang to them at first, but it was the themes of brotherhood, loyalty, few-against-many — I think they would say it mirrored a lot about how they felt about their own experiences.
Hip-hop was a radical art form at the time. Did you feel any pressure from your family to continue along a path they’d set or were they more amenable to your goals of entering this industry and kind of examining the convolutions of black culture?
Oh, God, when I think about it, my parents were incredibly gracious. It was not at all about hip-hop — it was more about me being in New York and not going to grad school. So it wasn’t about the culture in which I was immersed, it was about the city in which I’d chosen to live; and it was about my not pursuing a graduate degree. Look, I am very much the child of my parents. They completely understood why hip-hop resonated with me. I was taught to understand social justice in all its form. Not particularly in the American form, but you know, Korea has a rich history in Asia with the Japanese involvement there, and my parents both lived through wars. So the sense of justice was very, very strong in my household. So it made sense to them that music speaking to social issues and racial issues would resonate with me.
I want to talk about your personal intersections, as well, because I think there’s something to be said about the experiences of women managers in the music industry, which is stubbornly patriarchal. Were there ever any incidents you experienced in which your womanhood was weaponized against you?
I wasn’t only a woman in a male industry; I was a petite Asian woman in a hyper-male milieu. Hyper-male. I mean, think about how male-dominated hip-hop is. Even the ethos is centered around bravado, and machismo, and masculinity — a lot of it extremely toxic.
But I also don’t underestimate the power of being a woman. I have no desire to be a man, just like I have no desire to be white. I understand, completely, the power of white patriarchy. I battle it every day. But I have no desire to become a white man. I understand that a lot of the character I have comes from struggle and my identity issues. And I don’t want to be among the dominant culture. I want my culture to become more dominant, but I don’t want to be the dominant culture if it means I have to buy into white supremacy and patriarchy.
I had to walk the rope between being liked, respected, desired and loved — all of those things. But as a woman, I’m aware that this is not a level playing field, and I will use every tool in my arsenal to get my foot in the door and to get my people a seat at the table. So if it means that the person across the table desires me because I’m beautiful, I’m attractive and they find me sexy, I’m fucking cool with that.
You’re comfortable with that?
Totally fucking cool with it, because those are my weapons. Because I have been stripped of so much of my arsenal that I bring what I have to the table. I tell women all the time: Use your beauty and use your sex appeal, but have the skills to back it up. Don’t skate on your sex appeal, but let it be the lubricant for negotiations.
I think that’s a discussion we see play out often: the encouragement of women not to change their appearance or demeanor just so insecure men will countenance them in the workplace. Is that what you’re suggesting here, or am I off?
As Joan Morgan, the feminist author, wrote: “Beauty is capital.” I would never raise my daughter to say beauty doesn’t matter. That’s a crock of shit. Look at the fucking television. Open a magazine. Look at the movies. Just like people said we’re in a “post-racial” period, any person of color knew that was bullshit. It doesn’t mean you have to be stereotypically beautiful to be powerful; there are as many ways to be beautiful as there are women in this world. We just need to figure that out.
It sounds like that absence of representation, and also the demonization of sex appeal, is something you’re passionate about.
Absolutely. I’m writing a memoir with hopes of helping women mine their power and see their beauty. Where can I go to see myself? Where does my daughter go to see herself? That’s why I love “Crazy Rich Asians.” They’re beautiful, the men are hot, they’re fucking [laughs], they’re living out loud, and it’s only us on that screen. There’s nary a white person, and I don’t ever see that unless I’m watching a movie made in Asia. We need that, just like all people of color.
I’m glad you mentioned “Crazy Rich Asians,” because having read a few anticipatory think pieces about it, it seems people are cautioning against heralding this as the end-all-be-all for Asians in cinema, but there’s a consistent theme of celebrating the humanness and normalcy in some of its characters rather than the tokenism we may be accustomed to.
Yeah. It’s all about us. We don’t need a white lead. We don’t need for every character to be Eurasian. We’re not scared that if we don’t put a white protagonist in there, it’s not going to open. We’re going to sell the fuck out of that movie and we’re gonna make so… much… money. So it’s a daily process of deprogramming and reprogramming. Deconstructing and reconstructing what I’ve learned and what we’ve learned as a society.
That’s a process you’ve surely internalized to help you navigate boardrooms in the past. Are you still applying it today?
You know, I am 52 years old, and I am the baddest bitch in the room, Ja’han. I know that — to my core. I’m a 52-year-old Asian woman with no tits and no ass, with a samurai hairdo, and I walk around this world knowing I’m the baddest bitch in the room.
OK! Talk that talk.
You know what that is? That’s an act of defiance. My life every damn day is an act of defiance. Fuck your “model minority.” I will obliterate every stereotype that you have about me walking in the room as an Asian woman — whatever you think that is.