Bruce Lee

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 .

How Martial Arts Teach Nonviolence


American’s have been fascinated by martial arts since the mid 1970′s to 1980′s.  A Chinese man from San Francisco, California  named Lee Jun-fan would change the entire planet with his films. We came to know him by the name Bruce Lee.

Movies like The Big Boss, Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon altered the U.S. film industry and the minds of American people forever.  His movies brought a new idea to what it meant to fight, and what it meant to be a fighter. Bruce Lee spoke differently, he talked of the importance of self knowledge, and fearless free expression.

These were not things American folks usually accepted with the idea of combat.
Around the same time, the Shaw Brothers began to make their own films like 36 Chambers of Shaolin, Five Deadly Venoms and One-Armed Swordsmen hypnotized the American masses. They instilled a new the idea of what violence, honor, respect, discipline, humility and human character meant.
This fascination with martial arts culture took an even bigger turn when the TV Show Kung-Fu aired. It was not the best TV show ever made. There were many racist undertones in the show from time to time. However, some of the conversations between the original Master Po and his students.

Additionally, these films and TV shows introduced a new idea of how to practice  nonviolence to Americans from all walks of life. These films had an affect music as well. Rap music from artists such as Wu-Tang Clan, Dilated Peoples,Andre Nickatina, Mix Master Mike of the Beastie Boys, One Be Lo and many others have paid much homage to the impact of the movies and the philosophies learned from them.
The work of Bruce Lee, The Shaw Brothers, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and other films of the time helped teach Whites and Blacks alike the power of peace. To seek peace not  just outside ourselves, but more importantly the one we all seek inside ourselves.

Unfortunately the biggest mistake we make in the West is to think that someone who loves to study boxing,  kung-fu, wrestling or jiu-jitsu loves to fight. We think somewhere internally they enjoy hurting other people.
Now take a look at Buddhist monks. They are known globally as one of the most peaceful people on the planet. But they are also known for having a long tradition of cultivating self defense techniques.It is precisely because they have extensive knowledge of how to break bones and choke people, that they choose not to.
Let me be clear. When someone lashes out at a woman and swings wildly at her, it is proof that they’ve lost emotional control.

That act is completely different from the woman being swung on to tactically evade the fist coming at her. If she decides it is necessary to isolate her attackers arm, and  break it so she can be safe- that is nonviolence. She has created no violence in a space where violence was prevalent. Buddhism teaches nonviolence without question. Still Buddhists were taught that to observe injustice going on and do nothing made one worse than “devils.”

Martial arts films are the only movies in existence that consistently show women of clear mind and action fully capable of defending themselves. In America we look at women who can fight as “manly” and unattractive. Martial arts encourage women to learn self defense to cultivate and preserve their beauty and spirit. At the same time, we learn that violence is never to be taken lightly. That seemingly casually aggressive situations can turn deadly fast.

The roots of what motivated the attacker and the response from the woman who was attacked came from two different places. The attack came from rage or a desire for power. The response the woman gave was rooted in self preservation and a desire for peace. Jet Li was recently explaining the meaning of martial arts to CulturePulp :

In Chinese writing, wushu comes from two words: one is “stop” and one is “war.” “Stop-war.” In most action films, people focus on the “war.” Fighting, fighting, fighting. Violence against violence. Nobody talks about the “stop.” [laughs]

Today MMA (mixed martial arts) is taking over the world. The sport proves humanity has evolved to a place where martial artists can test their skills safely and make a great living a it. It is also important to acknowledge that many of the fighters you see in the UFC and Strikeforce

 almost never get caught up with the law. They are often far too focused on their physical and mental well being to run the streets trying to hurt people for the sake of their ego.

Now we see bullying as a long ignored social epidemic. We see crimes against women and young girls as a global cancer. Our children are also horribly out of shape. Teen obesity and disease from poor health are common among our kids. It is not the parents, educators or politicians who are helping America solve this issue. It is a family of martial artists, named the Gracie’s. Two brothers, Rener and Ryron Gracie, created Bullyproof and Women Empowered for children and adult women  in need of realistic ways to protect themselves.  Their cousin Kyra Gracie is respected around the world for her accomplishments. Beyond the self defense techniques, the students are taught about thepsychology of an attacker so they can used “verbal jiu jitsu” to evade a confrontation altogether.

Today we see many of today blockbuster movies for kids like Kung Fu Panda and Jaden Smith’s Karate Kidintroducing young people to the ideas of self discipline, inner peace and learning the power of not fighting. In these ways, the martial arts fused with film and music have helped preserve the legacy of nonviolence laid down in America by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.