Sophia Chang talks being The Baddest Bitch in the Room, and working with Wu-Tang Clan
Much like the Wu-Tang Clan, who she considers family at this point, Sophia Chang ain't nothing to f— with.
While the Korean-Canadian author first made her name as a manager to rappers like Ol' Dirty Bastard, Chang is a multi-hyphenate who's run record labels, managed a USA Shaolin temple, produced runway shows, and raised two children.
In her new audio memoir, The Baddest Bitch in the Room, the first Audible Original released under the company's deal with Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine, Chang adds new flavor to the audiobook space, employing features from artists and friends like Method Man to share stories and lessons from her prolific career. "If you knew how much work I put into getting the voices… There was a week a few weeks ago, where I was crying every day for probably seven or eight days because it was so incredibly stressful."
Chang pulled through though. As she tells it, "I'm supposed to have a mic in my hand," and any listener will agree after hearing the author's unique experience as the first prominent Asian woman in hip-hop. Listen to a clip of the prologue below, and read on for how Chang sees her book as a Lean In for women of color. <iframe width="100%" height="166" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay" src="https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/687334603%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-s3CUT&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true" class="" allowfullscreen="" resize="0" replace_attributes="1" name=""></iframe>
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did The Baddest Bitch in the Room go from a regular book idea into Hello Sunshine's first Audible exclusive?
SOPHIA CHANG: People have been telling me for years, you got to write a book, you have this amazing life and you have such crazy stories, and I always resisted it because it just felt super banal. "Oh, let me just tell you about me hanging out with famous people." And then I realized, "Okay, you know what, if you write this book, you can actually help people, you can inspire people and empower people, particularly women, and more uniquely women of color." So once I decided that I wanted to write a book, it actually started as a Lean In for women of color. I don't know if you've ever read the book, I don't see why you would, but it's essentially written from a very unique perspective, it's not really written for me or from my perspective either. That's not an indictment, it just doesn't really speak to me in a very wholesome way.
So I decided I wanted to write it, and then last February, I was having breakfast with one of my closest friends. Her name is Charlotte Koh, she's a Korean American woman who runs digital for Hello Sunshine. I was meeting with her just because we're really close, and she has advised me for years on all the professional moves I made in my life. I sat with her and said, "You know, Charlotte, I'm thinking of writing a memoir, and I'm also developing a scripted television show idea about myself." And so she said, "You know Sophia, we might want to look at the book." Because it was February, she couldn't tell me about the deal with Audible because it was still under wraps. She eventually was able to tell me, and I got really excited about the prospect of it, because I knew that I could make something unprecedented.
Before the deal, had you already been a fan of audiobooks or podcasts?
Neither, but the second that I spoke to my editor Jessica Almon, and she said we'd like to make you a bespoke audio product, I knew immediately. I thought, "Oh my God, I know exactly what I can do here." Obviously, I spent 30 years on and off in the music business, managing talent, managing producers, managing artists, managing composers. I've also spent some time on the film side, so I know what it's like to create an atmosphere, and at the time I thought about including the guests voices. I literally said on that first call with Audible, "I want Method Man in my memoir." And they said, "Okay, that's fine, you can do that." And from there, it kind of blossomed into this thing that I've done that nobody's ever done before. It's the author's voice. It's the guest voices of the people that I talk about, there is licensed music, there's sound design, and there is an original underscore.
I just thought, you know what, number one: I've come to love my voice, although I, like everybody else, couldn't stand the sound of my voice before. But I really love the sound of my voice, and I knew that I could deliver it in a way that would be deeply impactful. Adding all of the additional voices was super exciting to me. I also created another precedent, which is [that] I had the first explicit and clean audio book ever. No one's ever done that before. That comes from looking for the Parental Advisory sticker on a hip-hop record. I don't want the clean version, I want the explicit version. Of course, who wants to listen to the clean version?
Voicing an audiobook is a bit like being a rapper. Did you ask the Wu-Tang Clan or any other musician friends for advice on your vocal performance?
No, I didn't need to, because I have already been doing public speaking. I've been lecturing. I actually script my lectures, so I would write a script that would be 30 to 45 minutes, and I would read it, and then I would record it. I would listen to it over and over and over again, and each time I would record it, and then I would listen to it, and then I'd come back and I'd tweak it and then I would re-record it. So I would do many different takes, and I got very, very used to the sound of my voice. So I knew that performing it would be really easy for me because like I say in my prologue in the memoir, actually the RZA would say [this], my tongue is my sword. I understand that I have so much power in my voice, and that's both figurative and literal. So no, none of them had to coach me on that.
With that said, did you treat making the audiobook like a performance? Did you write the passages thinking of how they'd be spoken aloud?
The truth is, I wrote this like a book that could be printed, and I believe that what I wrote could still be printed. You could take the manuscript, print it tomorrow, and it would be a New York Times bestseller — I have no doubt about that. But there are certain things editorially that my editor would come back to me and say, "You know, Sophia, this reads well" — let's say it's a play on words, okay. "This reads well, but it doesn't really work spoken." So there was some of that. But other than that, I didn't. I kept it in mind somewhat, but I was really focused on writing the best book that I could, regardless of media.
Can you expand on why Lean In didn't resonate with you as a woman of color? That was certainly a criticism leveled towards it upon its release.
Look, there's stuff in that book that absolutely resonated with me, [like] imposter syndrome. There were a number of things that I thought, "Oh, yeah, I totally get that, and that makes a lot of sense with me." It wasn't until I started to read more about it that I understood what you're talking about. I couldn't really articulate it until somebody else articulated it for me, if that makes sense. Sheryl Sandberg is a is truly a brilliant woman. She is Harvard educated, she went to business school, she's the COO of Facebook. She speaks from a place of tremendous privilege, and there's nothing wrong with that at all. That's not an indictment.
Again, it just doesn't really speak to me. I think the criticism is that it didn't really address any intersection. What does that mean? Yeah, we understand what that means. But what if you're a woman of color, you're a single mother of two as I was, and I don't have an Ivy League degree to lean on. In other words, I don't enjoy the same privilege. In my memoir, it was clear that I acknowledge my privilege. Look, I was raised and still have a middle class safety net. I am college educated. I've never known what it's like to be hungry. I've never been afraid that my children will be homeless. So I was very conscious of that in my writing, but yes, absolutely. Sheryl Sandberg didn't speak to me insofar as my identity, and identity is everything to me. You can hear it in my book, it's a huge part of what motivates me, what drives me, and what I talk about.
What is your advice for young people of color, especially women of color, looking for mentors? One of the throughlines of the audio memoir is your relationships with mentors like record executive Michael Ostin that you've maintained through the years.
Michael Ostin is my mentor and has been for 32 years. And there is no doubt that I am where I am largely because of his mentorship. Now, I want to define mentorship a little bit. Being a mentor to me, it's not simply being an advisor, I don't just give you advice, I actually engage with you and I engage my network on your behalf. That's a big, big deal because I don't have money, and I don't have power, and I don't have fame, but I have people. And I have people in high places so to speak. And I only access those people for myself, my friends and my family and my mentees. Mentorship for women of color is one of my most passionate soapboxes because in talking to my friends, who are predominantly women of color, very few of them have been mentored, and despite that, have had tremendous success and made their way largely on their own. And I just think, "Man, what if she had a Michael Ostin in her life? She'd be running the f—ing world right now." I hope that in me putting my message out there and having it disseminated throughout the world, the more people pick up on it and go, "Oh, I never thought about that before."
I think the big problem for women of color is that they don't even know that this is a possibility. It's never been presented to them as a practice. So it's not just that I'm trying to push people to mentor, I'm also trying to push people to seek mentors. My advice is to find people that you admire, that have done incredible things in the field that you want to be in. The worst that could happen is that you get a "no," but the upside could be tremendous.
So you agree with the phrase "Skinfolk ain't always kinfolk," meaning people of color seeking a mentor don't necessarily need to narrow their search to only people from their same background?
In terms of gender and race, or sexual orientation [of a mentor], it doesn't really matter to me. Would it be great if I had a Korean woman mentor who was a child of immigrants, and that had almost precisely the same experiences as me? Yes, because there would have been a commonality of experience. But the truth of the matter is, the people that hold the power are largely white men in this country. So if you're women of color, and your mentor is a white man, it doesn't matter to me. That's no kind of betrayal to me. That's no selling out. That's aligning yourself with power. And if you're fortunate enough that he like Michael Ostin, who is like family to me, then the experience is incredibly, incredibly rich. Just go ask. That's it. Just start asking, and maybe you get a No, so, who cares? Keep it moving and go on to the next person.
What I will add is that, if you're going to mentor somebody, I would love it if it was a woman of color. I think it would be great, simply because it seems to me that women of color get mentored less than anybody else in this country. And again, this is just from me having conversations, this is not based on any research, but I've had many conversations about it, probably more than most people. So, I would say if you're looking to mentor, please choose a woman of color.
Has working on the Audible Original brought you closer to anyone?
Yeah, I think one of the gifts has been that it has brought me closer to people. It brought me closer to my ex, which was amazing, because there were certain things I didn't remember. I'd call him up and say, "When we went to Shaolin—" and I would ask him questions. It was a really nice way for us to share memories together.
I have bonus content at the end. You know how at the end of a Jackie Chan movie, over the credits they show all the outtakes? I knew that I wanted to do that with my memoir. So at the end of my memoir, I have some stuff that's kind of like outtakes. But then, I have these amazing conversations with some of the guys.
That's so cool.
Yeah no, my conversation with Raekwon and with Ghostface Killah literally made me cry. It was really, really touching, in that, because I'm talking to them about this experience, and now I'm the artist, and I'm on the other side of it. They were like, "Yeah Soph, why are you surprised," and I was like, "You're not surprised?" They're like, "No, we're not surprised at all." And I also asked them, "Why did you guys choose me?" And Rae and Ghost answered that question in a way that's just heartstopping. Yeah so this process, that's what brought me closer. The first time I read that first studio story to Method Man, which is not a sad story, just like him defending me. I literally could not get through it. I was sobbing, I was crying so hard. We're sitting in his hotel room in Boston and he was like, "Come on Soph, you can do it, you can do it." And as I was reading through, it was like, "Uh huh, Yep, that's right. That's right." And it was just so moving. [Wu-Tang Clan] has been so supportive. I've always been on the other side of the table, I've always been taking care of them as the creatives and now they're taking care of me as a creative. It's incredible.
The Baddest Bitch in the Room is available exclusively on Audible starting today. Listen to an exclusive clip above.
This interview has been edited and condensed.