by Lisa Peet
When Sophia Chang lays claim to being The Baddest Bitch in the Room—the title of her new memoir, out from Counterpoint this week—she isn’t kidding and she isn’t fronting.
Chang may be the “first Asian woman of hip hop,” who spent time at Atlantic, Jive Records and Universal Music Group; worked with Paul Simon; managed the Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard, RZA, and GZA, Q-Tip, A Tribe Called Quest, Raphael Saadiq, and D’Angelo; but the designation is not about being tough. Rather, it’s about getting in your face—okay, it’s a little bit about being tough—and confounding expectations: of what a middle-aged Korean Canadian woman, a single mother, a practicing Shaolin Buddhist, a public speaker, and a mentor to young women of color might look like, act like, and scheme like.
Bloom’s Lisa Peet caught up with Chang this summer to talk about lockdown, friendship, slang, storytelling, and changing the world—and that last bit is not fronting either.
Lisa Peet: First of all, how are you doing with the long-term lockdown and social distancing? I get a feeling that you’re someone who thrives on social interaction.
Sophia Chang: I spent the first two to three weeks grappling with the reality of it and just figuring out how to navigate that emotionally. Like everybody else, I realized, OK, so death is at my door. I think most of us in the U.S. have had the privilege of not having to face death on a daily basis, and it was terrifying. My allergies would get to me—I have postnasal drip and I’d cough and I’d call all my friends. You have any symptom and you’re like, Omigod, I got it! That has abated somewhat.
I was pretty unproductive and then I turned a corner. I have never felt so creatively inspired in my life, and that is enthralling. I am also aware from having managed talent for decades that the muse doesn’t stay with you forever. As much as I would love it to, this creative explosion and expansion for me—I don’t know how long it will stay and sustain, so I am trying to get as much done as possible.
In terms of how I feel emotionally, I am sound, and I’m also sound of body. I have a very regimented kung fu workout practice. I work out every morning for an hour and a half to two hours a day. I don’t remember the last time I skipped two days of working out.
LP: When did you decide that you wanted to write a memoir? Have you always written, or is this something new for you?
SC: I’m a language major, I’m a French major, and I love words and I love wordplay. The notion of writing a book came to me, I don’t know, 2010, 2011, 2012, something like that, when my friends said, You’ve had such a crazy life, you should write a book. In my mind I could only imagine it as a book about hanging out with famous people, because that’s kind of what they were talking about, but it felt like an exercise in narcissism. Then in 2014, Lean In came out. I bought it, I read it, I absolutely learned some things—but it was also very clear to me that that book was not written by me nor for me. And I conceived of this book as a Lean In for women of color. Then it took on its own life and it became something different, and now it is essentially a traditional chronological memoir.
I’ve been around famous people for 33 years, and I knew the price that you pay. I never wanted to be famous. But when I understood that by stepping into the spotlight and telling my story that I could be in service of others, then it became a mission for me. A lot of that happened around when I started mentoring young women and realizing, Sophia, you’re literally old enough to be their mother, and your experience of having had so many jobs in so many different industries, and as a single working mother who was a woman of color—my work could be prescriptive. And then I was all in. Once I decided, I just was like a horse with blinders on. I had a corporate job and I was doing other stuff, and I finally came back to [the memoir] seriously in 2017, after I’d been quite unceremoniously fired.
LP: One of the things that really struck me in your life’s arc was that so many of your opportunities came about because of relationships and friendships—starting with the conversation that you struck up with Joey Ramone in a bar when you first came to New York. Do you feel like you have a particular talent for friendships?
SC: I do. I’m an extrovert, I always have been. I’ve always been really confident. But those two qualities do not a good friend make, necessarily. I worked at being a good friend—I was told how to be a better friend. I’m hardly a perfect friend, but I’m always trying to think about how I can be better. But I will also hold you to task, and I will tell you, You know Lisa, this disappointed me, this hurt my feelings, this made me feel betrayed. I would say that I do not have a single strong friendship that has not undergone at least one of those conversations that is about confrontation.
LP: Do you keep a journal? The book is filled with such telling details—about what you wore, or what people said to you, or that wonderful vignette about Method Man drawing faces on mandarin oranges to make you laugh.
SC: That was so funny—he was in the middle of doing an interview, and he’s got this mandarin orange in his hand and he’s got a Sharpie. He’s not looking at me—he’s looking 45 degrees the other way, talking to the interviewer. And while he’s speaking to the interviewer, he’s scribbling on this orange, and then he turns the orange to me and I just burst out laughing. That’s a very intimate moment, because he was like, I know I’m gonna crack Soph up. That’s a decade-long friendship.
I did not keep many journals, but I will tell you what really helped me is that I have been a shutterbug since I was in my early twenties. And then there are moments like when I describe meeting RZA, I remember what I was wearing. I do not have a photo but it was such a profound milestone in my life. I was like, Oh my God I’m meeting Prince Rakim, and he’s the head of Wu-Tang Clan, but that’s not what made it so important for me. I knew at the moment, as soon as we sat down and started talking, this man would be a lifelong friend. So it stuck with me that way, and as time wore on—27 years later, now—that image has been etched in my brain.
LP: The language you use is evocative as well, the combination of highly literate writing and good old-school slang. I hadn’t heard the term “ride or die” in ages, and now I want to go back to using it, it’s so good.
SC: Isn’t it, though? Don’t you have girlfriends who are just your ride-or-dies?
LP: I do! So how did you get that to that tonal sweet spot? Do you write the way you speak?
SC: There is virtually no daylight between how I think, how I speak, how I write, and how I move. It was very easy for me to write because it’s actually how I speak. And again, I’m a language major. My father, God rest his soul, was a math professor, my mother a librarian, my brother a tenured English professor at Vassar, so I grew up around a lot of books.
I say that I exist somewhere in the intersection of the picky and the profane, and the profanity and the slang is straight out of golden era hip hop. There’s nostalgia there for me. My friends make fun of me all the time—“Nobody uses that word, Soph.”
LP: Do you ever write raps or lyrics?
SC: I don’t! I think maybe it’s because it’s a little bit of an affront, like, I think I could be a rapper! I know that’s not what you’re suggesting, but it’s such an art form. I could write very clever things that rhyme—those aren’t raps, though. Not the way that I look at hip hop. The best MCs use metaphor and simile and euphemism, and they’re such deft storytellers. They weave the most amazing tales. I don’t have that skill. I’m a writer. I don’t think I’m a poet.
LP: You’re also a prolific public speaker. When did you decide that was something you wanted to do?
SC: Mark Josephson and Tom Silverman founded the New Music Seminar, and hip hop became a very prominent component. I started moderating the panels, and I really enjoyed it. People would invite me to talk about this and that,and then I did an interview in maybe 2014, with Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest for his NPR show called Mic Check. That was a turning point for me, and then people started reaching out to me.
I put a lot of work into it. I actually script my lectures. I am not one of those people who can just write down talking points, I’m not that good. I write the whole thing out, and then I edit, I rewrite, I edit, I rewrite. I record myself probably ten times doing it, and then I listen to it over and over again. And I really enjoy it, because it is one of the things that I have come to understand over the last year—that there are myriad ways to tell one story.
Everything that I’m doing is storytelling. Lecturing is storytelling. I am developing a YA graphic novel about me, that’s a story. I have a deal at FX for a scripted show. I’m developing different docuseries ideas. That’s all storytelling. And public speaking, I think that is where I’m supposed to be. I really like to connect with people, and the more direct it can be, the better. But I also know that I cannot speak to every person who wants to speak to me. I cannot mentor every woman who wants me to mentor them. I cannot give advice to everybody who wants my advice. And that circle will only continue to grow. So that’s why I wrote my book.
I have a healthy, I might even say outsized, ego, but I never did it for self-aggrandizement. I didn’t do it for self-enrichment. I don’t care about money like that—I get what I deserve and I like what money can buy, but I’m not on the paper chase. I do it because I know that my storytelling can help other people. That is always the bottom line for me. And that takes on many different faces. Everything I do is political.
LP: Do you consider yourself an activist?
SC: I absolutely consider myself an activist. I think that protests are an incredibly powerful way to move the needle politically and socially and culturally, but my form of activism comes in my writing, my speaking, my being. Again, I’m a 55-year-old Asian single mother of two adults who wears a Samurai hairdo, who’s out here announcing to the world with no compunction whatsoever that I’m the baddest bitch in the room, and I think that that’s fucking radical, and I think that’s political. Do I think that I’m some behemoth who will go down in the history books as some great political activist? No. But everything I do, all of the television shows that I’m developing, every story that I want to tell, every voice that I want to amplify, it’s all going to center people of color—it will be marginalized stories and marginalized voices, and that’s a form of activism to me.
LP: You’ve worked mostly with men, and mostly in a role where you subsumed your own creative impulse to advance theirs. Do you feel like this memoir is taking back some of your power?
SC: Taking back some of my creative power would imply that someone had taken it away from me, and that would be unfair. I chose to work with extremely talented men, and in so doing I absolutely subjugated my own creativity, but that was not at their ask. It’s something that I did willingly.
Do I regret it? I do not. Do I think I told my story too late? I do not. Do I think I’m too old to start a career? I do not. I believe in what the Chinese would call yuanfen, destiny. I believe that I came to this stage in my life exactly when I was supposed to. It wasn’t a minute too late and it wasn’t a minute too soon, and I believe that working with such extraordinary talents and amazing storytellers helped me develop my own skills. Frankly, I think that part of why I was so good at managing extraordinary storytellers is because I am one myself—it’s a two-way street. So I wouldn’t characterize it as taking back my creativity. I would say that I am now nurturing my creativity in a way that I didn’t before, I think that’s a more fair way of saying it, because otherwise I sound like a victim. I was not a victim.
LP: What are you reading?
SC: I am reading Fear, by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk. I love his writing. I actually consider myself to be fearless, so it’s not a book that is going to be earth-shattering for me, but it was given to me and I have so much respect for him, I love his writing so much—I am a Buddhist, and it’s beautifully written. What else? I just finished the graphic novel Persepolis, which was eye-opening. I know that I’m coming to that decades late.
Damon Young, cofounder of VerySmartBrothas, wrote a book called What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker. I just finished that yesterday and it is incredible—this really amazing blend of beautiful writing, gut-busting humor, singular world view, and all around race and Blackness: what it means to be a Black man, and what it means to love Black women, what it means to raise a Black daughter. It’s so good, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
LP: And what’s next for you? What should we look out for?
SC: What’s right in front of me is that I have a series based on The Baddest Bitch in the Room at FX that I am writing. I’ve also developed a program in the last month and a half called Unlock Her Potential, which provides mentorship for women of color in the United States 18 and older—women, trans women, nonbinary, gender nonconforming. I secured over 100 mentors in less than four days from my personal network. And I think that’s not only about the fact that this is important, and there is a searing dearth of mentorship for women of color in this country—it is also about my relationships and that people love me and want to ride for me. Lastly, I think it’s about the fact that they know that if I say I’m going to do it, it will get done. This is what I do for a living, I uplift—particularly women of color. I’m very, very excited about that, because I think I’m gonna change the fucking world.
What I did with The Baddest Bitch in the Room was I cracked open this country’s imagination on what a middle-aged Asian woman could do. And I forced their gaze. I say at the end of my memoir, You might not like what you see, but you will see me, motherfucker. It’s not a popularity contest. I don’t give a shit about that. I need you to look at me and the assumptions that you make, and I’m going to obliterate all of those stereotypes and all your preconceived notions.
And the same thing with Unlock Her Potential—I am forcing corporate America’s white male gaze onto an issue that they should have long since paid attention to. Because if any of them were honest about it, and they looked at their employment as it ascended from assistants all the way to the C-suites and saw what percentage of them were women of color, it would be shocking, it would be shameful, it would be abominable. And why? Because you are not giving women of color the tools they need to ascend. You are not giving women of color the tools they need to stay.
My mission is with the program is that in the same way CSR [corporate social responsibility] and DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] are now de rigueur components of a corporation, I want what I call MforWOC, mentorship for women of color, to be de rigueur, what every fucking corporation in this country does. I want everybody to turn to their head of HR and say, You see what Sophia Chang is doing? Do that here.
Lisa Peet is the News Editor at Library Journal and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
Top photo: Sophia Chang with Del That Funkee Homosapien
Bottom photo: Sophia Chang with Ghostface Killah and Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan
Featured image: Sophia Chang with The Fu-Schnickens
Click here to read Lisa Peet’s previous features