The Chinese Connection: Hip-Hop and Martial Arts

The HHCF’s fusion of Hip-Hop, chess and martial arts has always been about the blending of art, science and subcultures. A lot of people laughed at us in the beginning. But after hosting the biggest opening exhibit at the World Chess Hall of Fame this October with RZA, our impact was undeniable. In the streets, juvenile halls and colleges, our method is working and the demand is growing across the planet.

 

As our organization got on the radar of various news and education outlets, our calls to promote STEAM over STEM began to gain a following. My obsession with these three arts and sports were built on a previous foundation.

The two most influential people on my approach to writing are Dr. John Henrik Clarke and Joseph Campbell. Dr. Clarke was great at being able to say in a sentence, what many folks need paragraphs to write. Joseph Campbell taught “perennial philosophies.” It is defined as “a perspective in the philosophy of religion which views each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, universal truth on which foundation all religious knowledge and doctrine has grown.” While my work to date has not been as concise as Clarke or expansive as Campbell, this is my ultimate intent. The goal of this piece is meant to show how the Asian Kung-fu Cinema impacted African-American culture deeper than other minority groups.

Bruce Lee’s logo for his innovative art, Jeet Kune Do

August 17th 1973, Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon opened in NYC. On November 12th 1973 a gang leader from The Bronx unified the street arts of rap, DJ’ing, graffiti and various forms of dance as Hip-Hop. He founded the Universal Zulu Nation that year to preserve and maintain the subculture on a global scale. A year before, Brooklyn’s Bobby Fischer beat Russia's Boris Spassky in a game of global importance. In September, a new film called Pawn Sacrifice will drop about that chess match and everything that was at stake culturally and politically. These three moments of the early 1970’s impacted American chess, martial arts and Hip-Hop in ways none of us understood at the time. Today we are still discovering its impact. Unveiling these connections are still a beautiful work in progress.


 

he original logo of Mixmaster Mike (of the Beastie Boys) was based on Bruce Lee’s logo for Jeet Kune Do

While exciting entertainment to many, for African American males, Asian Kung-Fu Cinema opened a new door to the Black mind and spirit. Having had our warrior culture removed from us during the transatlantic slave trade though our experience in America, these films gave Black people new ideas and a new ways to reclaim what had been lost 400 years before. Outside of Bruce Lee’s movies films like Shogun Assassin, 36 Chambers of Shaolin, Master of the Flying Guillotine, Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang, and Drunken Master had immense impact. The David Carradine show Kung-Fu (while riddled with many racist elements) also gave weekly wisdom in prime time to those who were smart enough to pay attention.

It is hard to say how many of the African-American’s embracing these films really understood the cultural differences between Chinese and Japanese culture. Obviously on some level this surface understanding could lead to huge generalizations. On the other, this lack of cultural clarity created a space where all of it was taken in, accepted and appreciated. Those that were sincere, took the time to learn the truth. Over time those numbers grew.  


 

Though many of the movies by Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers were not of the highest production quality, the wisdom shared was on point. Despite whatever flaws may have been in the overdubbed voices or the corny outfits at times, these films became an obsession in Black America. It appears the ancient wisdom, the discipline and the quest for universal truth all filled a hollow space in many African American hearts, minds and bodies. It is hard to imagine the rise in Blacks practicing Buddhism, the number of Blacks doing yoga and all of the Taoist references in Hip-Hop without Kung-Fu films. It is also hard to envision the rise of the vegan movement in Black America without the rise of Kung-Fu films. These movies changed minds, bodies and spirits. Rappers, DJ’s, Bboys and graffiti writers were all affected and reflected the wisdom in their artistic expression.
 

I don’t think anyone at the time, knew what a benefit these movies would be to Black America. It’s hard to say if Black America itself knew what was taking place and why they were drawn to the films so deeply.
 

RZA, actor and rapper of the iconic Wu-Tang Clan explained the NY scene in the early 1970’s “In Manhattan on 42nd street they had movies. They had a whole slew of shows. We would watch them every weekend. That was around the age of nine. By the time I was twelve or thirteen I started getting fascinated. I would go into Chinatown buying everything. Kung-fu books, slippers [the flat black shoes made famous by Bruce Lee). You name it, I was on a mission.”

 

RZA of Wu-Tang Clan AKA The Man With The Iron Fist with Adisa Banjoko

Reflecting on the impact of the films he says “The good thing for me was growing up in America, there wasn’t much history, outside of the 400 years that I was taught. The only thing they told us back to was Greek mythology, the colonial days, or cowboys and Indians. But I had a chance to watch the martial arts films.  You get to see stuff from the Tang Dynasty, Sung Dynasty, you are seeing 1500 years of history. It kinda opened my mind to a whole new world.... It kinda changed my whole philosophy on life. I started buying books on Buddhism and Taoism. Plus I was studying Christianity, and Islam at the same time. It all translated into my music.”

In the early era of Hip-Hop the teens and young adults gave themselves titles like Grandmaster Flash, Grandmaster D and so on. It is still unclear if these were names that were inspired more by Kung-Fu films, or chess, but something new was happening. Rap crews named themselves the Wu-Tang Clan and DJ’s like Mixmaster Ice (of U.T.F.O. towering on stage above the rappers in a ninja outfit. It was all very hard to ignore, and hypnotic to almost anyone who saw it. Other Hip-Hop artists out there notable for showing an influence of martial arts philosophy and culture include Andre Nickatina, Jeru The Damaja, Afu-Ra, DJ Q-Bert and Beastie Boys DJ Mixmaster Mike.

 

Rap crew U.T.F.O. with Mixmaster Ice in front rocking a ninja suit, 1985.

Chess, first and foremost in many people's minds is about strategy. The word strategy comes from the Latin root word strategos meaning “leader of the army”.

The logo for revolutionary rap group dead prez is the I-Ching. The I-Ching (The Book of Changes)  is an ancient divination text going back to 1000 BC. It is  a book of various symbols that have rich meaning and various interpretations. The Dead Prez logo is of  hexagram, shi, meaning “Leader” or “the army”. Each hexagram is composed of “inner” and “outer” trigrams. The inner trigram represents water and the outer represents earth.

This idea of being grounded like earth, but flow like water was made popular in America by Bruce Lee. Within the world of jiu-jitsu, they have positions known as closed guards and open guards. In chess, there are positional developments known as open and closed games. In both arts, one must be clear about the differences and understand the importance of how and where to be strong and how and where to flow. These are continuous themes within martial arts and chess.

In part two, we will look more into this relationship between Hip-Hop and martial arts.  We have much more to explore.


Adisa Banjoko is Founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation (HHCF). The HHCF is the world's first non-profit 501(c)3 to promote music, chess and martial arts to teach nonviolence at-risk youth. RZA is the organization's HHCF Chess Champion and Director of Outreach. For more information visit www.hiphopchess.com .