Hip-Hop and Social Justice: Insights from Jeff Chang

Jeff Chang, an award-winning author, activist and hip-hop historian, recently visited Punahou as an expert in residence with the Davis Democracy Initiative, in partnership with Hanahau‘oli School. During his visit from March 1 – 3, Chang met with Punahou students in grades 4 and 8 – 12 and faculty, led public presentations, and visited Hanahau‘oli’s K – 6 students. He discussed complex topics related to race, history and culture, including Black and Asian American history, diversity and social injustice.

Chang is the former senior advisor at Race Forward, a nonprofit organization that advocates for racial justice. He has authored “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” served as former director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, written for the New York Times, and received an Asian American Literary award, among other accomplishments.

During his visit, Chang bonded with students over a shared interest in hip-hop, which is not typically brought into an academic setting. He shared how his interest in hip-hop developed while growing up in Hawai‘i inspired by the music’s messages of hope amid struggle, protest against injustices, and the community the genre created. “Hip-hop taught me that when people come together, their creative powers are multiplied and anything is possible,” he said. 

Being part of a community and developing solidarity can have a powerful impact, especially when it comes to finding solutions to social justice issues, Chang said. He encouraged teachers not to shy away from engaging students on complex topics and emphasized how the classroom can be a place to have healthy and meaningful conversations that create movement instead of just anger.

Students and faculty responded to Chang’s visit with enthusiasm. “When he said he loved hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar, my eighth graders spontaneously applauded him,” said Christina Torres Cawdery, an English teacher at Case Middle School and faculty member of Punahou’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging advisory group. “It was invigorating to see the kids so excited and inspiring to be exposed to their joy again because we didn’t get to see that a lot during the pandemic.”

View the March 1 presentation of “Race and Resegregation in Hawai‘i” with Jeff Chang and Professor Jonathan Okamura from the Department of Ethnic Studies, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

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