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What do Bruce Lee, chess, and the Black Lives Matter movement have in common? The answer is, of course, ...
2021-01-07 10:00:00

Black Heart Sutra
The Philosophy of Wu-Tang Clan

Wu-Tang Clan. Illustration by Cyryl Lechowicz
Black Heart Sutra
Black Heart Sutra

What do Bruce Lee, chess, and the Black Lives Matter movement have in common? The answer is, of course, the cult hip hop group, Wu-Tang Clan.

Read in 7 minutes

27 years ago, a revolution swept the sensibilities of hip hop and popular music in general. It began with an album: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). On 9th November 1993, the first fortunate souls around the world were unpacking the CDs and cassette tapes they’d just bought, and inserting them into their stereo systems, boomboxes and Walkmen, hands trembling with anticipation… Wait, no, such solemn grandiloquence is, of course, out of place in this context. Nobody had the right to know that the album they were ripping the foil off with their teeth was a future classic of the genre – a benchmark for the generations to come. Yet it was enough to press ‘play’ to know you were listening to something new, something different. All that had come before simply hadn’t measured up to the new experience.

In the early nineties, the capital of popular music was Seattle. Kurt Cobain was hailed as the king, though unlikely and unwilling, of the music scene, and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder as his successor. The dominant sounds of the era were those of grimy grungy guitars, and the commercially successful varieties of rap music were either MC Hammer-style pop-dance rhymes, or funky, gangsta Los Angeles-style rhythms. Enter the Wu-Tang. The Wu-Tang Clan was made up of nine rappers from New York City’s Staten Island. Their lyrics touched upon the hard realities of living in the ghetto, but the nine spiced them up with references to comic-book heroes, chess, the teachings of the Nation of Islam (the African-American separatist religious movement) and, last but by no means least, Eastern philosophy.

How did those teenagers raised in the Staten Island ghetto come into contact with the teachings of Far Eastern masters? Well, through kung-fu movies, of course. Two hours spent watching martial arts ballet in a dark cinema presented them with a chance to escape, even for a short time, their poverty-ridden every-day reality: the Western world in general, and specifically, the streets of this world’s most dangerous (especially for black teenagers) city, the New York of the seventies and eighties. As the kids they were at the time, they certainly were most hyped for the genre-defining slow-motion fight scenes and duels fought onscreen with swords and nunchakus, but many Eastern teachings, even in their simplified pop version, inevitably seeped into the boys’ receptive young minds.

Bring the ruckus

The first thing you hear when playing Enter the Wu-Tang is not music, it’s not even lyrics performed by any of the nine rappers who make up the Clan. It’s a dialogue sample from a 1981 kung-fu film that was distributed in the US under the title Shaolin and Wu Tang: “Shaolin shadowboxing and the Wu-Tang sword style. If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous.” It’s only after those words have sounded that the beat comes in, and the voice of RZA, the producer and mastermind behind the entire project, calls to “Bring da motherfuckin’ ruckus!”

The ruckus was indeed brought. RZA’s real name is Robert Fitzgerald Diggs. He was born in 1969 in the bad part of Brooklyn, Brownsville. Diggs owes his love for chess and studying to his uncle, with whom he’d spend his summer holidays in North Carolina. Every time young Bobby would return to New York from his uncle’s, however, he felt – and responded to – the call of the streets and that of rap. When Diggs was 16, together with his cousins Russel Jones (known later as Ol’ Dirty Bastard) and Gary Grice (GZA), they formed their first group, called All In Together Now. The other rappers with whom they would later form Wu-Tang Clan were originally part of RZA’s second project, the DMD POSSE. They would later achieve fame under the stage names of Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, U-God and Inspectah Deck.

Diggs’s greatest idol, however, was not one of New York’s biggest rappers or producers. As a teenager, RZA would devour comic books and could list the names of all superheroes from every comic-book universe. Yet none of them measured up, in his opinion, to the one and only Bruce Lee. RZA’s fascination with the larger-than-life martial arts master was no passing puppy love. In 2020, Diggs, now himself hip hop’s honourable senior, released a song titled Be Like Water, a tribute to Bruce Lee. The title itself is a reference to the master’s best-known teaching and quote, one that became the foundational philosophy of his own martial art, Jeet Kune Do, or “the way of the intercepting fist”.

Emptiness is form

The next group RZA would form – after he was cleared of murder charges and acquitted in 1992 – he called the Wu-Tang Clan, after the sword-fighting style of martial arts developed in China’s Wudang Mountains. It was this small mountain range that gave refuge to Shaolin defectors who broke off from the monastic tradition, disappointed with its approach to kung-fu and meditation through the betterment of the physical form. Those renegade monks founded their own temple that they named after the mountains that housed it. Their school of meditation was an ‘internal kung-fu’ that focused on stillness of the body and mind. In the lyrical world created by Diggs and co., Staten Island became the symbolic Shaolin. To paraphrase the man himself: “We are Wu-Tang because our tongue is our sword, but we come from Shaolin. We try to strike a balance between the body and the spirit. Like yin and yang.”

The ancient Chinese philosophical concept of duality, the two primal opposing forces that universally complement each other in everything that exists, is not something that could be found in hip hop lyrics before Wu-Tang Clan. As a matter of fact, it still is not. But on many different occasions, RZA would repeat that the Clan’s mission was to provide young people in American ghettos with knowledge and wisdom. “If MC Hammer sells ten million records, that don’t mean nothing. That’s just ten million people that are dancing. When Wu Tang sells a million records, that’s a million people that has woke up,” the man behind the Clan said after the release of their debut album.

When Ol’ Dirty Bastard died as a result of overdosing on cocaine and painkillers, the remaining Clan members bade their friend farewell with a song. At the end of the number titled Life Changes, one can hear the sound of a traditional Buddhist gong, after which a friend of the group, Shin Yan Ming, the founder of the Manhattan Shaolin temple, recites the Heart Sutra in Mandarin, famously stating that “Form is empty, emptiness is form.”

Think before you move

Ever since the inception of the Clan, modelled in a way after a league of comic-book superheroes, chess has been an important part of its life and philosophy. Diggs’s love for the game of kings is shared by the other members of the group, most strongly by his cousin and one of the most important figures in the Clan, Gary Grice – GZA.

Grice’s fascination with chess shines through especially in the 2005 album collaboration with DJ Muggs titled Grandmasters. Every song on the album is an allusion to the game – some of the titles speak for themselves: Queen’s Gambit, Advanced Pawns, Exploitation of Mistakes. “I played 78 games one time with Masta Killa [the only Clan member who had no prior rap career but his friends insisted he join the group – author note]. We played – I think it might have taken us like 12 hours. All night. Smoking, drinking. Took a nap for about two hours, got back to it,” GZA said in an interview with Vice.

“Chess is a very important element of Wu-Tang. It’s an important element of life. It teaches you how to exist in the world. It teaches you to think multiple moves ahead, to strategize. It teaches you to attack, to defend,” RZA wrote in the Wu-Tang Manual. Elsewhere in the same book, he adds: “It’s a strategic game that helps to calculate life, business, power moves. A good chess player can think three to four moves ahead. If you can do that, you can really manipulate the situation so that you’re winning.”

One other dialogue from the Shaolin and Wu-Tang movie is sampled at the start of another song from Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers): “A game of chess is like a swordfight. You must think first before you move… When it’s properly used, it’s almost invincible.” How many ghetto kids started thinking before making their moves thanks to this album? If even a single would-be gangbanger avoided going to jail or taking part in a gang war after listening to the Clan, it would already be a victory for the latter.

You are God, God is you

Most of the members of the Clan have more or less openly been associated with the Five-Percent Nation, a gnostic offshoot of the Nation of Islam that was very influential with the generation of rappers active in the 1990s. The followers of the movement believe that 85% of the population live in ignorance of the world’s true nature, fed lies by the 10% who know the truth but obfuscate it in order to manipulate the rest. The remaining 5%, i.e. the movement, are not only aware of the truth, but also striving to fight the dominance of the 10% and to enlighten and convert the duped majority.

What is the truth, then? It is that the nature of the Black man is to be God, but the “white devil” has obscured that truth, hidden it from Black people. It is only through self-betterment, both of the physical and mental (or spiritual) kind that one can achieve enlightenment and achieve godhood. The teachings of the Five Percenters are inseparable from the mystical numerological system called the Supreme Mathematics. RZA claims that it was only thanks to this concept that his work became truly exquisite.

A big part of Diggs’s first book, The Tao of Wu, was devoted to the Five-Percent Nation. Tao is the key concept of Taoism, a Chinese philosophical tradition. It’s the natural order of the Universe – a primal guiding principle. RZA writes of the Supreme Mathematics: “If you were poor and black, Mathematics attacked the idea that you were meant to be ignorant, uneducated, blind to the world around you.” In his second book, The Wu-Tang Manual, he says that the ideas of Supreme Mathematics, the road to self-revelation, self-knowledge and self-betterment are identical to the Buddhist doctrine that “every person has an inherent Buddha nature inside.” The Wu-Tang Clan taught this through rap and gave ghetto youths a new sense of identity – that of strong, educated Black people who would not agree to systemic racism and the limitations it imposes on African Americans.

That’s what Ol’ Dirty Bastard meant when he bumrushed the stage at the 1998 Grammy Award ceremony, snatched the microphone and yelled: “Wu-Tang is for the children, we teach the children.” That, too, is why today, at the time of the Black Lives Matter movement and mass protests of the African-American communities, Wu-Tang Clan is undergoing a renaissance and finding new popularity. Listeners tired of mumble rap void of thought or ideology and auto-tuned to a flat babble are in need of radical music for these radical times. That is exactly why one of the BLM anthems is A Better Tomorrow from the Clan’s second album. After all, a better tomorrow is just what BLM is fighting for.

 

Translated from the Polish by Karolina Sofulak

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