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October 9th 2014 I found myself riding in a limousine with RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan on our way to speak to about 500 kids about chess and nonviolence in Saint Louis. After that we were scheduled to visit a juvenile detention center to do it again. Without having rehearsed a second of what we each planned to say, we were ready.The night before, lighting and thunder trampled the city from above. In the chaos of the night, Vonderitt Myers was killed by an off duty cop. His death stung like rubbing salt into the infected wounds of a city still recovering from the death of Mike Brown. I had been working in the city promoting the idea that music, chess and martial arts could help young people transcend traditional racial and social barriers. Tensions in Saint Louis were really testing my theories. Nevertheless, the kids embraced our ideas and responded well to our ideas.
RZA and I were there to go to the opening of Living Like Kings exhibit at theWorld Chess Hall of Fame. I was an education consultant to the Hall of Fame. It was my job to teach their curating team the connected history betweenchess, rap and martial arts. It was an honor to have the opportunity to do so. When my organization The Hip-Hop Chess Federation threw its first event at the MLK Library in San Jose, CA in 2006- we got kicked out for being a little too big and too noisy. I didn’t mind. Our first few years a lot of people in the chess community laughed at the idea of rap, chess and martial arts having any meaningful connection or practical application. We proved them all wrong. I connected to RZA through Sway and Tech from The Wake Up Show. He and I met at a Q&A at SF Commonwealth Club. We clicked quickly and his support for the organization has meant more than words can convey.
As the limo pushed muddy melted snow along the curb RZA broke out a prototype Boombotix speaker and started to play Ruckus in B Minor. No one had heard anything from th A Better Tomorrow album yet. Something in the song reflected the turmoil that had enveloped city. I kept asking him to replay it. He obliged.
“We got a lot of work done in 8 years” I said with a smile. The Abbott of Wu-Tang was looking at the storm clouds above and nodded. “ True indeed” he said softly. He turned toward me smiling and said “We have a lot more work to do in the next 8- right?”. Something about what he said rattled me under the surface. I think it was the fact that he was right.
In March later the same year I gave a lecture on Hip-Hop, chess and nonviolence at University Wisconsin-Whitewater. At a dinner before the talk I was speaking with a student from Africa. She asked me what I thought the role of the government should be in fixing the situations America was facing. I told her the mistake was to believe that the government properly assessed or could actually do anything about what was happening. Reflecting now, I know the government can do more, but it’s appears bogged down by a deadly mix of apathy and bureaucracy. “If we waited got the government to do something like Hip-Hop Chess, it would take a lot of years to roll out.” I explained. “ It would probably suck too. All the bureaucracy and everybody wanting to take credit for it would hurt the end result.”
The first quote remember from Abraham Lincoln as a child was “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember it or overthrow it.” As a young hard left militant in the 1990’s, I used the quote as a platform for my hard left position on being a revolutionary against the system at that time. I don’t believe America needs a revolution anymore. The entire system does not need to be removed. Uncle Sam needs rehab though, maybe some heart surgery as well. I believe people upset with the status of our schools (public or charter) should set up some desks in a garage or at park benches and teach algebra, english or whatever else is needed. Everybody in the hood knows someone who is really good at these subjects. That is how I believe we help the schools. We also know if these kids (especially hood kids) can convert pounds to kilograms to move drugs, we can redirect that knowledge to serveauthentic entrepreneurship in the community. We don’t need the government’s permission, but we need persistent follow through.
A Buddhist monk named Takuan Soho stated “A book on cooking will not cure our hunger. To feel satisfied we must have actual food. So long as we do not go beyond mere talking we are not true knowers.” Police chiefs talk about more community engagement, accountability and transparency. Nevertheless our sons and daughters and fathers and mothers die with little concern or action from the courts. Left over Civil Rights activists and hot blooded new era revolutionaries rightfully express their anger and frustration at the situation. However, none of their speeches and inspiring raps can serve as scaffolding for full bodied agendas in education and business.
The HHCF was designed to give young minds the ability to see chess notations as life equations. Our approach to using the chessboard as a metaphor for life, has helped thousands of kids gain clarity of purpose and higher emotional mastery. Chess is a proven tool for raising math and reading skills. HHCF helps them identify people and things that truly enrich them as well as those things that distract them from their goals.
Understand that I love Hip-Hop, because it opened the door to teach me about ancient Egypt, Greece, vegetarian lifestyle perspectives, philosophy and politics. I obviously do not condone or defend artists promoting blatant sexism, drug dealing or violence. Nevertheless, while rappers have been amazing at effectively sharing the legitimate rage in the hearts of the youth, have pretty much proven themselves to be lackluster leaders at best. I can accept that. But then we have to ask why these same rappers are not openly supporting with monetary investment and time the numerous Hip-Hop education organizations. This is something that transcends my organization of course. Hip-Hop Scholars like Dr. James Peterson, Dr. Jeffrey Ogbar, Dr. Imani Perry, Dr. Bettina Love and others should be aligned with artists who see them as allies. Many of the top academics in Hip-Hop are not backed by the artists in spirit or in financial support. There are a lot of fantastic educators and organizations doing the work many rappers seem to be lacking a deeper engagement in.
It takes more than rap music to fix a broken people. I hope the rappers of today can receive my words in the positive spirit they were written in. HHCF has proven that by fusing music, chess and martial arts children can plant the seeds and grow the fruit of peace within their minds. They can be the “true knowers” that Takuan Soho spoke of. This will not only ensure their mind is strong. It will give them something to trust beyond quick money schemes and street violence.
Understand I come from what I proudly call “The School of 88.” From 1988 to 1995 I believe was the best era for rap music that ever existed. It contained the widest spectrum of original beats and lyrics from following generations. It was also arguably the most politically and socially aggressive music the world may have ever seen. The artists of those times were able to force conversations that mainstream media was reluctant to address
Luckily I was one of the first people to interview Eazy E and write about NWA.Tupac Shakur was a friend of mine. His music still inspires me. I still listen to the old Public Enemy and X-Clan and other politically relevant records of the past.The current lyrics of Talib Kweli, Brother Ali, Dilated Peoples and Killer Mike inspire me now. Yet, Black comprehensive collective vision, infrastructure and action is simply not there. This is not the fault of rappers alone, but more than rap will need to happen for the change to be real and sustained.
HHCF was in St. Louis doing nonviolence work prior to Mike Brown’s death. So when I see the some of the protests in St. Louis be swarmed upon by artists and activists all so ready to “show em how to do right”- I get scared for our people. The inglorious work prescribed by Frederick Douglass Booker T. Washington, and Marcus Garvey still remain largely unfinished like unpolished marble statues. Sadly it seems some of our activists entertain false fantasies of being the bloody martyr for freedom in the final hour of “the revolution.” Many have been willing to die for the cause. I understand the idea but I believe the world is in need of those willing to live and open a new door to authentic peace. Few are prepared to do the heavy lifting (planning and funding of entrepreneurship, rebuilding of schools and rebuilding of the family unit). There is no shortcut to true prosperity. The improved math, reading comprehension, and emotional balance is all right there on the 64 squares. The neglect of that kind of work decade after decade has made our responses and outcomes sickeningly predicable.
I support the right for anyone to protest peacefully for a just cause. My concern is that the sustained protests, without a structured plan unfolding alongside it, will eventually lead to impatience. Prolonged exhaustion of patience will give way to new violence. Violence we don’t need.
I am no more a proponent of killer cops, than I am cop killers. Both have no place in our society. Neither are friends to the community at large. Unfortunately, African American’s and cops can hardly hear one another beyond the gunshots at this point. It often feels as if the media prods the opposing sides in the moment- alienating those fighting to hold onto the center. In chess whoever loses control of the center usually loses the game. Right now I don’t feel like anybody is really winning. It appears America is losing its center on all fronts.
Essentially it’s almost been a year since RZA and I visited St. Louis. He asked me to make sure I came back to help the children of that city. HHCF just began training St. Louis juvenile hall staff in our Chess and Life Strategies method for their kids. RZA is still right, and HHCF has thrown down the gauntlet not only by way of chessboards but more importantly by way of elevating the bar of accepting ‘responsibility”. During “The School of 88” a group called Gangstarr had a song titled — “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight”? It was asking about who would be willing to do more than talk to change the America. While we can find some who are unquestionably guilty for creating the circumstances and conditions that have helped to arrest the development of many urban communities and its inhabitants, the ultimate responsibility for correction falls squarely on the shoulders of those most closely connected to the people. HHCF has proven our ability to quickly connect with at-risk youth all all backgrounds. If rappers continue to be non-strategic, in their social or political activities, then all of the elements that help make Hip-Hop a vibrant culture will become like shiny objects to crows; in other words, we will only embrace them because they are shiny not because we fully understand and appreciate their value on a much deeper level. It will certainly take more than rap music to fix a broken people, and more importantly to make our communities and this country better.