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Wu Tang and a wider world

Driving home from Boston Friday night, I caught much of an interview on Tom Ashbrook’s public radio program, On Point. The interview was with Robert Diggs – the RZA – the founder and leader of Wu Tang Clan, one of the most influential groups in hiphop. RZA was pitching his new book, “The Tao of Wu“, which his publisher describes as “a spiritual memoir”.

For those of you who don’t follow hiphop, Wu Tang revived the fortunes of east coast hiphop in the early 1990s – the center of gravity in the rap world had moved from the outer boroughs of NYC to the West Coast and Dr. Dre’s project – with an astoundingly fine album. “Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers)” featured nine skilled MCs, dark and sinister beats, and wonderfully cheezy samples from Hong Kong kung fu films. It sounded like nothing anyone had heard before, and it sounds remarkably fresh almost two decades later.

Ashbrook asked RZA about his interest in those films, revealing a personal interest in the answer – in the early 1990s, Ashbrook tells his listeners, he was living in Hong Kong, moonlight from his life as a journalist, dubbing kung fu flicks. It’s possible, he tells RZA, that his was the voice in those childhood films. RZA shares a story about a long night on Staten Island with his cousin Russell (Ol’ Dirty Bastard) that ended with the two looking for a safe place to sleep and visiting a local movie theatre that alternated between porn and kung fu flicks. While ODB slept, RZA found himself fascinated by the philosophy expressed in the films.

Explaining the significance of the knug fu flicks to Ashbrook, RZA mentions that his universe, growing up in Staten Island and Brooklyn, was a pretty limited one. Kung fu films offered a picture of life in a different place, a world where people of color were badass:

When we watch TV in those days in America, there wasn’t a lot of channels… TV programming was limited. When you see a martial arts film, you had a chance to see a time in history that wasn’t just what the western world was showing us. And especially as a young black man, you know, most of the black figures you’d see were some kind of slaves, some kind of pimps, not the sort of heroes who would inspire you. But through the martial arts films, I was seeing great heroes that inspired me, in the past, hundreds or thousands of years ago. It gave me another perception of history… It gave me a whole interest in finding out what was going on in that period of time, not only in Asia, what about in Africa, Australia?

It takes some work to find opportunities for intercultural encounter and xenophilia in kung fu films, but it’s clear that RZA was looking for something beyond the intellectual influences he was encountering in his own community. RZA and many of the Wu Tang were involved with The Nation of Gods and Earths, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam sometimes referred to as “the Five Percenters”, which offers a complex, syncretic worldview with emphasis on numerology and other esoterica. He’s subsequently found inspiration in Islam, Christianity, Taoism and in chess. While I found that the snippets of philosophy RZA offered in an hour-long interview alternated between profound and goofy, I’ve got nothing but respect for a mind that found a path from kung fu flicks to religious study via hiphop.

I wasn’t listening to Wu Tang when 36 Chambers first dropped. I was living in Ghana and the local soundtrack was heavy on Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and lots of country music. (Seriously. Surprised me, too.) But as I started travelling around the world, I began noticing that the Wu was everywhere. In Ulaanbaatar, the most common tags weren’t in Cyrillic – they were “Wu Tang” and the Wu symbol.

Ulaanbaatar. There’s a “Wu Tang” on the right side of the middle mural.

I never heard much Wu in Ghana – the lyrics are a little raw for Ghanaian tastes, which tend to run towards versus you can recite on the way to church. But friends took me to a corner of Nima, one of Accra’s rougher neighborhoods, that had been dubbed “Alaksa”. I understood the name immediately – local style dictated that you wear a puffy down coat, as members of the Wu did in most of their publicity photos. Wearing actual down jackets in West Africa is impractical, so shops existed to “convert” winter coats to be Ghana-compatible. Tailors carefully ripped seams on the jackets, removed the down and restuffed the coats with crumpled newspapers, which gave the requisite puffy look but were less insulative. They weren’t cheap – kids were paying almost fifty bucks for a converted coat, and they were selling well.

What’s more incredible: that kung fu flicks turned a middle school dropout into a millionaire artist, or that a musical and stylistic statement from Staten Island would shape culture in Mongolia and Ghana?

(That may be a trick question. There’s a deep Central Asia/hip-hop connection, as exemplified in Joe Sabia’s “Tupac in Kazakhstan” video. Sabia filmed the video – which features a couple dozen Kazakhs reciting lines from Tupac’s “Changes” – while racing in the Mongol rally, an overland race from the UK to Mongolia. Unclear to me how Sabia staged the footage, but it certainly seems like many of the folks Sabia filmed knew and loved the song in question… or perhaps it’s complex revenge on Borat. Unclear.)

What quirk of character leads a person to search for new and different perspectives? John Hummel is an interesting case study. A lapsed Mormon, Hummel decided to spend a year encountering 52 different religions, one a week, and documenting the encounters through audio interviews and blog posts. His visits thus far have included mosques, synagogues, churches, and temples, and he’s interviewed Buddhists, Baptists, Wiccans, Satanists and several flavors of humanists, including Atheists. Not every experience is fully comprehensible to him – many faiths lead long services that involve languages he doesn’t speak – but he’s got a gift for finding moments of beauty in every encounter:

The next day I had a chance to interview Pastor Singh. We spoke of how the Sikh religion started, the beliefs and practices. The entire time, he and his congregation were gracious, making sure my needs were met. When I left, he was still making sure I had anything I needed – water for my trip, a bit of food if I was hungry.

I didn’t, but asked him if there was anything he needed. His eyes twinkled as he patted me on the arm. “All I need if your love, my friend,” he told me.

I was wrong. It’s not the discovery of the unknown that’s the best part. It’s meeting the people.

Hummel now identifies as an atheist, but he’s putting significant work into an exploration of a wide set of religions, attending a service a week and reading at least one text significant or sacred to the people he’s meeting with. His goals are complicated – he’s trying to demonstrate that religions he knows nothing about aren’t evil cults, but groups of people who want to be good and help one another. But there’s another motivation – a fascination with the unknown: “Then I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands, and a lot of curiosity. Like ‘I wonder what the people in that church down the road believe. And what they do to help the community.’ Or ‘That temple looks really keen – I wonder what they do in there?'”

What turns curiosity into action? What convinces a former Mormon to seek out – and hug – Tibetan Buddhists? Or visit a different New York City mosque on each evening of Ramadan? To step out of a kung fu movie and start reading Lao Tzu?

And how do we cultivate lots, lots more of it?

15 thoughts on “Wu Tang and a wider world”

  1. Picking up on a tangent:
    Radiolab had a pretty great episode about Pop music, including on segment which explored why it is that Country music is so popular in places like Ghana.

    The argument goes that even if you can’t understand the words, the music is inherently about loss in just the way it sounds, and the longing for the countryside (it gets popular in places where people are moving in greater numbers to the city) crosses cultures.

    Check out the March 21, 2008 episode, specifically the “Songs that Cross Borders” segment if you want to hear it.

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  5. Great post — (even if you left out my favorite factoid about the 5 Percenters, that “Allah” “means” Arm-Leg-Leg-Arm-Aead). Another great hiphop connection is to Cuba, where Papa Humbertico and others have been passing videos back and forth — here’s a YouTube link to a documentary (that I think was produced outside of Cuba–but you can also find domestic products on the internet) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kdcbaiv2y4&feature=player_embedded
    I would love for someone to find the same kind of home-produced (flash-drive carried?) videos for North Korea — I bet they are out there!

  6. Fantastic! This interview intrigued me also…enough to drop my cell phone in my coffee. Glad to see it stimulated someone else. It’s amazing how Kung Fu films’ were a catalyst for RZA’s life journeys, as ’36 Chambers’ has stimulated the imaginations and the renaissance man-esque behaviors of others around the world…including myself.

  7. Nice post … the part about “down jacket conversions” really brought a smile to my face. It takes a small mental leap, but here goes:

    So I was a peace corps volunteer in Ghana (2000-2002) teaching at the high school Dormaa Ahenkro (we had a brief email correspondence a few months ago: btw, the recent KNUST grad I inquired about found a job :-) and we were putting together a computer lab at the school. When we were looking to buy “new” computers for the lab, I remember reading all types of ads for “tropicalized” computers. They always rubbed me the wrong way, because they were advertised as “something,” but really there was nothing … obviously no “tropicallized” anything, just a pile of used 486’s that were coming our way!

    Anyway, your tailors replacing the down for newspaper, though: that’s some real “tropicalized” coats!

  8. US country music is popular in Belize also — or at least was, a couple of decades ago. Belize is one of the Central American countries where English is spoken, but I have heard that in West Africa, you can find indigenous lyrics to popular American country-western in local languages, that are often not translations of the original.

  9. I used to follow a Russian band called Kukuruza (Russian for “Corn”) that did C&W covers (Willie Nelson’s “I’d Have to be Crazy”) and a weird Leonard Cohen “Bird on a WIre” — but the best were the bluegrass treatments of traditional Russian folk songs — their Iz-za ostrova na strezhen was my favorite version of that song. I don’t know what happened to Kukuruza though — haven’t heard them in a while.

  10. the RZA knows this already, but worth pointing out… the wu-tang clan definitely conveyed the message that people of color were badass. they gave suburban middle- and upper-class kids a look at what smoking crack in the projects of shaolin (staten island) was like. opened my eyes to the fact that genius comes out of everywhere, and a middle school dropout knows a lot more about life and makes a lot fewer excuses than most of the non-colored teenagers i knew at the time.

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