In The Art of Exchange, The Root explores the intersections where different identities and communities of color meet. Each story covers a different place or personality that expands or challenges our idea of what cultural exchange, allyship and cross-cultural support look like.
Sophia Chang wears her heart on her neck.
On a sliver of red thread running across her collarbone hangs the iconic Wu-Tang “W,” a symbol so ubiquitous and recognizable, variations of it appear all over the planet. But Chang isn’t just signaling her fandom. As the former manager for members of the Wu-Tang Clan, it’s as much a sign of devotion as it is one of appreciation.
On her website, Chang includes the tagline, “Raised by Wu-Tang.” Not only is it a clear subversion of the manipulative Svengali trope that dominates our view of artist-manager relationships—think N.W.A’s Jerry Heller—but for Chang, it’s simply the truth.
“So many things have come to me because of Wu-Tang,” she says. “There’s no way I would be who I am or where I am without those friendships. There’s no way. And it’s really important to me to acknowledge this. How their love of, and respect for, and embrace of me has impacted me.”
Along the way, Chang—who, as a Korean-Canadian woman, was an anomaly within an anomaly in the male-dominated world of ’90s hip-hop—advocated fiercely for Wu-Tang and other artists behind the scenes, helping to shape the very foundation upon which hip-hop’s golden era is built.
“I always say that ‘The Message’ is the song that changed my life,” Chang tells me over a long weekday lunch at a Japanese teahouse in New York’s East Village (full disclosure: Chang and Danielle Belton, The Root’s editor-in-chief, are longtime friends).
Chang had biked over, having just finished a workout. She has practiced kung fu for years, and Chang’s dedication to the martial art shows in her small, taut physique.
On first glance, the most noticeable thing about Chang might be her haircut: shaved down at the sides, her long black hair wrapped in a loose bun balanced atop her head. But what permeates through her conversation—the thing that seizes you, that is as present in her contemplative moments as when she’s gushing over Hasan Minhaj or Chow Yun Fat—is a welcoming, hard-won confidence.
As she speaks with both care and passion—Chang is not the type to hide either—it’s easy to imagine Chang as the sort of friend you’d call to help you figure things out. The kind of woman capable of both seeing you and gathering you up.
Chang encountered Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message” as a high school student in Vancouver, British Columbia—it was one of her first tastes of hip-hop, and she was instantly hooked. She says “the urgency, the anger, all of that, the defiance, the owning of all of it” spoke to her.
Chang understood the anger. For her as a Korean Canadian, the Vancouver she grew up in didn’t bear much resemblance to the diverse, cosmopolitan city people encounter today. Back then, she says, it was majority white, and her experience of going to mostly white schools instilled in her from a very early age that she didn’t belong. As early as age 5, Chang dealt with racial taunts, being called “chink,” “Jap” and “gook” and all the other words blanketed on Asian immigrants to impart that they don’t belong.
Even in the instances where her Asianness wasn’t called out directly, “looking different was a constant reminder,” she says. “You’re other, and to a large degree, you are less than.”
The bullying eventually faded away as she grew older, says Chang, but the feeling of otherness didn’t. It’s a strange tick of the minority experience—particularly the Asian immigrant experience, with its emphasis on assimilation and performance as a way to endear yourself to a white mainstream—to feel both hyper-visible and invisible.
Fueling her anger, too, was the way she saw her parents treated, particularly because of their foreign accents. So Chang lived her teenage years actively pushing away her Korean heritage, shunning Korean food, even while at home.
“It was a broad rejection of the culture,” Chang says, acknowledging that her family probably took it as a rejection of them as well. Even as the taunts receded into her memory, that sense of rejection remained. Of course, pushing her culture away didn’t bring her the sense of belonging she sought.
“That’s how white supremacy works, right? You still always know you are outside,” she says.
And it remained that way, even as Chang first discovered hip-hop, which gave her a vehicle for the rage and defiance she’d long felt. It wasn’t until Chang moved to New York City to work in the music industry that it changed.
“When I first came to New York, I hung out a lot with the guys in Native Tongues, Tribe [Called Quest], Jungle [Brothers], De La [Soul], Monie [Love]. And they were a huge part of the Afrocentric movement, which impacted me really deeply,” she says.
“Watching these artists long for connection to their Motherland, to Africa. You know that’s a lot of what it was about. It was the medallions and the colors, you know, the green, black and red color scheme. I found that really moving,” she says. “Watching them want that connection was deeply impactful.”
But it was her relationship with the Wu-Tang Clan in particular that sparked what she refers to as a personal renaissance.
“Their wholehearted, unabashed, extremely expressive embrace of Asian culture—it piqued a curiosity in me about my own culture because they celebrated it so deeply, and in a way that was so organic and so reverential,” Chang says, adding that she never once felt fetishized or tokenized by the group because of her heritage. The connection between Chang and the group, particularly with Wu’s mastermind, RZA, was visceral and immediate.
“It’s kind of like a futuristic or sci-fi movie where you get to compress time, so that months and months and years and years of getting to know each other was compressed into moments,” she says of the intellectual and spiritual connection she felt with the group. “It doesn’t mean they knew about my life, but they knew who I was.”
It’s difficult to think of a group like the Wu-Tang Clan stepping onto the pop-cultural scene today and not running headlong into a discourse about cultural appropriation, a conversation that has become increasingly messy on the social media sphere, in part because people impart their own definitions on the term.
Chang herself approaches the topic with refreshing humility.
“I’m not smart enough and I’m not erudite enough” to define appropriation, she tells me, adding that she can’t articulate specifically why Kendrick Lamar employing his “Kung Fu Kenny” persona doesn’t bother her, but seeing a white person do it would.
“Somewhere there, in the back of my mind, are the terms ‘colonialism,’ ‘imperialism’ and ‘white supremacy,’” she says. “I couldn’t write a thesis on this; I just know how it makes me feel.”
As we continue talking, though, she makes clear that power dynamics and acknowledgment—whether one attributes the source of their inspiration or influence—matter deeply to her.
“Like the bone-broth thing,” she says, referring to a burst of stories in mainstream media outlets about bone broth, long a staple of Asian cuisines that has become trendy among white Americans.
“Motherfuckers, you fucking think you invented bone broth? Right now in the 21st century? I don’t think so,” Chang asserts.
Through Wu-Tang’s influence, Chang herself became a student of kung fu films, watching them with girlfriends and falling in love with the John Wu films and Chow Yun Fat in particular. The movies weren’t specific to her Korean heritage, of course, but they gave her a foothold to embracing her Asian identity—particularly the parts that didn’t jibe with being a “model minority.”
“It’s one thing to be angry and just kind of keep it all to yourself and, you know, punch pillows in the quietude of your home. It’s another thing to be able to get out and claim that anger and express it,” Chang says.. “As the ‘model minority,’ especially as a petite Asian woman, I’m expected to be quiet and docile and not upset the apple cart. So being around people [like the Wu-Tang Clan] who helped me own that was incredibly empowering.”
What Chang doesn’t mention, but comes up continually in conversations with her friends and the people she’s worked with, was how she could take that confidence and empower others.
Joan Morgan, an author and original staff member at Vibe magazine, has counted Chang as a close friend since they crossed paths in the ’90s.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in my life that’s female ... that’s such a strong advocate for themselves and for other people,” Morgan says. “She’s very clear on what she deserves, but never compromising someone else’s humanity to get to where she wants,” adding that her example has helped Morgan advocate for herself.
Chaz Hayes, who manages E-40 and Spice 1 and worked with Chang when she was at Jive Records, says she impacted his management philosophy and that of others in the business, teaching him to stay loyal to his artists’ vision and advocate for them.
“[Of the other label executives], she would be the one I would say to understand from the artist’s perspective. What we were trying to accomplish,” says Hayes, adding that without her at the table at Jive, hip-hop artists, he believes, would have felt more compelled to bow to whatever the label wanted.
“I don’t think the artists would have longevity because they wouldn’t be themselves,” he says of her influence.
Tajai, a rapper from the West Coast group Hieroglyphics, whom Chang helped sign and develop, says it was her lack of pretentious that appealed to him.
“She wasn’t trying to front like, ‘I’m this super b-girl,’” he says, adding that she knew when a thing was dope and wasn’t afraid to say it, and when she didn’t know something, she would ask questions.
He says Chang also trusted and advocated for what her artists wanted to do—even when they were teenagers. “Her treating you like an equal, like a human being, went a long way,” Tajai says.
It’s striking—but also makes complete sense—that the traits others highlight in Chang, she credits to hip-hop.
“Hip-hop taught me everything about loyalty,” Chang says. To her, both in work and in her personal life, loyalty is paramount.
So, too, is giving back. As the Wu-Tang Clan’s manager, she tracked down a 34th-generation Shaolin monk (Shi Yan Ming, with whom she would later have two kids) and introduced him to RZA. Through her efforts, RZA also became the first performer to ever perform at Shaolin temple, later taking him to Wu-Tang Mountain, “where the abbot of the original Wu-Tang gave the reimagined abbot of Wu-Tang a gift of his temple’s music,” Chang wrote in a 2012 article for the Asian American Writers Workshop.
That allegiance and fidelity to hip-hop’s most well-known artists, and to the art itself, is what makes Chang an integral part of hip-hop’s story, Morgan says. Hip-hop’s golden age helped spark a personal rebirth for Chang, but so much of what continues to shine from that era was made possible through Chang’s hard work and deep, sincere appreciation for the culture.
“She literally is responsible for helping to develop segments of the culture. And not in a way that’s tangential or harder to read,” Morgan says. “She was responsible for finding talent. She’s managed some of the most influential acts in the business. And, like all of us, she was coming of age with the culture simultaneously, and ushering in from some subculture to mainstream.”
Tajai is even more direct.
“Some of the iconic things we love about the ’90s, she had her hand in,” he says, noting that Redman’s classic debut song, “Blow Your Mind,” with its unforgettable Korean-language verse, was penned with Chang’s help.
He adds, “If you want to talk about ’90s hip-hop and you don’t include her in the conversation, you got to question either your historical knowledge or what is your motivation for not including her.”