Defining Moments ... With Sophia Chang: Bad and Very Much Back
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because protecting your own neck is still solid life advice.
By Eugene S. Robinson
The following is based on the latest episode of Defining Moments With OZY, which airs on Hulu starting May 1.
If you ask Asians in the creative space if their parents can describe what they do, the answer is no.
The gift that hip-hop gave me was expressing myself in a way that was raw. Wu-Tang Clan helped give voice to my anger.
I was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, the child of Korean immigrants. My mother escaped from North Korea. She left behind siblings and parents, whom she never saw again. She and my father met at the University of Seoul. They got married, and in ’64, they came to Vancouver. I was born in ’65.
Where I grew up was almost exclusively white. So I faced lots of overt racism: I got called “Chink”; I got called “Jap”; I got called “gook.” Every image I saw of beauty and power and sex appeal was white … I was ashamed of being Asian for a long time.
When I had to talk about my parents’ names, it was embarrassing. Listening to my parents talk with heavy accents was embarrassing. When people came over and smelled our food, it was embarrassing.
I was always defiant, always angry. When I first heard Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message, at 17, it was a lightbulb moment. I believe the reason it resonated so deeply was because it was people of color taking control of their own narrative.
My father, God rest his soul, was a math professor. My mother, a librarian. My brother is a tenured English professor at Vassar. There’s no doubt that I was supposed to be an academic, but there was nothing academic that really stimulated me. Hip-hop opened my eyes, and I was so anxious to get to New York that I skipped graduation from the college where my father taught and where my mother worked and where my brother graduated from. That was really disappointing for them.
I fell into New York. This world was so new and vibrant.
One of the first people I met in New York was Sean Carasov, this surly Brit who was doing A&R for Jive Records. He was moving to LA, and he said, “Sophia, you should interview for my job.”
I interviewed with Barry Weiss, president of Jive at the time, and he told me later that the minute I walked in the door he was positive I wouldn’t get the job. I’m sure he had doubts about me because I’m a woman, I’m Asian and I’m Canadian. But after an hour and a half he gave me the job.
I asked him recently why did he give me the job and he said, “Because you were so deeply embedded in the scene that I knew you’d be a good scout.”
The Wu-Tang demo was three songs: “Protect Ya Neck,” “Tearz” and “Method Man.”
There were nine emcees. Nine. I mean, that’s crazy — there was no way Jive would sign them. Loud ended up signing them, but I was still excited. I was a Wu evangelist.
I wanted to meet RZA; I knew he was the brains behind them. I got a meeting with him in the summer of ’93.
Later, I went to the studio. I had met Method Man and he rushed me into the back room saying, “Sophia, Sophia, you gotta come here, you gotta watch my video!”
He showed me the video. Sitting across from me and watching me was this guy. When the video finished, he said, “Where you from?” Now, any person of color can tell you that that’s rarely a question. That’s a statement. It’s saying, “Who the fuck do you think you are? Because you don’t belong here.”
Before I could answer, Meth flew between us and yelled, “That is Sophia Chang and she’s down with Wu-Tang and never disrespect her again!”
So, on the one hand I’m getting “you don’t belong here”; on the flip side is Meth: This is for her. This is her home. She is our family.
Hip-hop embraced me, but Wu-Tang claimed me.
Wu-Tang’s infatuation with Asian culture really intrigued me. I studied kung fu with a 34th-generation Shaolin monk, Shi Yan Ming. I called my parents that night and told them I had met the man I was going to marry. But we were master and student.
The first time Yan Ming and I made love it was in this little room at the temple and it was at all levels. It was physical, it was carnal, it was spiritual. Emotional and psychological too. It was amazing. He shaved my head, which represents nonattachment, a central Buddhist tenet.
We became serious very quickly and never looked back.
In 1995, when Wu-Tang was at the height of their popularity and relevance, I introduced Shaolin to Wu-Tang and Wu-Tang to Shaolin. RZA never said no to the temple. Every interview, every appearance, he was there.
You fall in love with somebody, and you don’t think you could ever love more. And then you have a child. When the kids were around 2 and 4 was when the fissures between me and Yan Ming started to show.
One day I found some condoms, and it was over. Walking away from Yan Ming meant walking away from the temple. Sure, that was the low point of my life. But it was also eye-opening.
As for my latest chapter? I realized I had spent 30 years of my life helping men tell their stories. So what I’m doing now is telling my story and telling the world in no uncertain terms that I am resilient, I am powerful and I am the baddest bitch in the room.