diversity | May 27, 2013

Who We Be: Jeff Chang's Convocation Speech On Race, Rap, & America

Jeff Chang, a diversity speaker and author of Who We Be, recently gave a rousing keynote at Carleton College in Minnesota. In the speech, Chang focused on exploring cultural identity and discussed the role that the arts has in molding attitudes about race, multiculturalism, and the demographics of America today. Race continues to constitute a major issue in the United States, he told the liberal arts students. In his speech, Chang says that the "culture wars have returned, and race is not just a problem for folks of color, but for whites too." Further, he explains that despite the fact that multiculturalism has "taught us what not to say...it has not yet taught us what to say." The need for political correctness, he argues, has stalled us from having in-depth conversations on these complex issues.

However, he believes that today's youth (the "cultural majority" as he calls them) may spark a revolution in values. And they will do this through the proliferation of new art and media. In an interview late last year in ColorLines, Chang explained that culture often precedes politics. Hip-hop, for example, became a prominent current that propelled a new, integrationist worldview in the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st century. "Art can help us move forward towards truth, justice, freedom, redemption, and creativity," Chang told the new graduates in the audience. Similar to the way that early outdoor hip-hop shows drew a wide array of people from all walks of life—and, the way the music itself fused together different melodic structures and drew inspiration from varying genres—Chang says that art acts as a catalyst for change. It propels the views of the current generation into the mainstream and changes the discussion surrounding prominent societal issues.

Chang is the Executive Director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, and a respected social historian. He presents compelling parallels between the rise of hip-hop music and the evolving discourse around race and multiculturalism. In his books, and his talks, he explores the way that music, culture, diversity, and politics overlap—exploring a changing America through the lens of the pop culture icons who drive it.