This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: A journalist, professor and YouTube celebrity walk into a library. They’re followed by a hip-hop enthusiast, website editor and a first-degree black belt. They spend an hour and a half talking about chess, hip hop and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
There’s no joke here: Wednesday afternoon, Adisa Banjoko, journalist and founder of the Hip Hop Chess Federation, led a panel discussion representing the above professions at the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library.
Wednesday marked the halfway point for the United States Chess Federation's U.S. Chess Championships hosted by the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center. It was a rest day in the week and a half long tournament, and the World Chess Hall of Fame -- across the street from the club -- filled in the gap with Live the Game.
Chess, hip hop and the martial arts may seem disparate to some, but Banjoko said their fusion is a recipe for instilling “unity, strategy and nonviolence in American youth.”
Surprisingly to some, the disciplines are a natural trio with shared history. Banjoko points to their boom in the 1970s -- Fischer's 1972 match again World Champion Boris Spassky, the release of Bruce Lee's Chinese Connection in 1972 And the birth of hip hop at CHECK. Since then, Banjoko says they have all entertwined throughout their history.
"In the 40-some odd years that rap music has been around it has championed chess more than any other art form in the world, straight up," Banjoko said.
Hip-hop groups like Wu Tang Clan have built entire songs around samples from kung fu movies and profess a deep love for the game.
Banjoko first realized the power of hip hop and chess in tandem at a juvenile detention center in California. Present to make a speech on journalism, the crowd was inattentive, focused solely on who Banjoko had met in his days as a music reporter for Source magazine.
“The kids in the hall did not care about journalism. It was all ‘have you ever met Snoop Dogg?’” Banjoko said.
"I was crashing and burning: It was one of my worst public speaking disasters ever.”
He had a bag with a board and chess pieces on him, and he asked who knew how to play chess, thinking he “was going to be some mind-bending dude to them.” To his surprise, 85 percent of the students hands shot up. When he asked who thought he was the best, few hands dropped. He offered a book to the winner of an impromptu tournament.
As the students played, he saw old perspectives melt away, as an overweight child gained respect.
“They said ‘Shut up fat boy, you ain’t got no chess skills,’ and I said ‘OK, everyone’s got to play him,’ and he beat everybody. And then I saw his pecking order in the group rise.”
“The whole time I’m looking around the room, I’m hearing Public Enemy, and Wu-Tang clan, and all these lyrics were swarming through my head, and I thought, ‘This is something. I have to do something with this.’”
All in all, the combination of chess, hip hop and jiu jitsu -- logic, art and body -- had its hook in Banjoko, “a kind of balance,” he said.
Since then, he’s been bringing the full package to underserved communities throughout the Bay Area.
Although reactions to his program are often enthusiastic, detractors arise in every field. Banjoko said he's received cold reactions from chess, hip-hop and jiu jitsu fanatics who see the combination as tainting each arts purity.
The point isn’t excellency in any of the three fields, Banjoko said, but using each aspect as a tool to find what Banjoko calls “self-discovery and self-mastery” by opening new perspectives on life, whether the student wants to attend medical school or work with sheet rock.
Prior to their panel at Schlafly, the group had visited Judge Jimmie Edwards’ Innovative Concept Academy, a school for repeat juvenile offenders that has a history with chess. For Banjoko, it was “the most amazing school I’ve ever seen.”
At ICA, chess is a cornerstone of the education. Attending the school means learning how to play chess: Edwards mandated it. The St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center runs chess lessons at the school.
“The first thing that I wanted at our school was chess, I wanted every last one of my children to learn the game chess. While many see the game of chess as an intellectual game, I see it as a life game. Chess is a deliberative game, some would say it’s very cerebral,” Edwards said.
“In the game of chess, if you move too quickly, if you’re impulsive, or you don’t think, you simply lose the game. But in life, if you move too quickly, if you’re impulsive, or you don’t think, you lose your life. So the game of chess at our school teaches life lessons.”
If the Chess Club has made a name for itself as a travelling educational center, the World Chess Hall of Fame has made a name for itself as a center for original and interesting programming of all things chess.
The Hall of Fame has a proper hall of fame, consisting of plaques placed in the stairways and around an art gallery on the third floor. But Bill Smith's Beyond The Humanities, a reflection on chess via scientifically inspired sculptures, takes the mainstage on the first floor.
From September 2012 - February 2013, the Hall of Fame hosted local arts collective Screwed Moves and gave them a free run over the first floor gallery. The group of nine artists transformed the space, painting, stenciling and sketching over the walls over two weeks, open to public observation.
“Let’s figure out how we can use chess, how we can use our natural resources as a city ... how is it chess and cooking, chess and poetry, chess and art? How could this help you, or how can we use this to help our community wide problems: how do we do this together?” asked Susan Barrett, director of the World Chess Hall of Fame.
“We’ll solve all the problems in our community, and then move on to the next one,” Barrett said to laughter. But it was only half a joke.
James Peterson: director of Africana studies and associate professor of English at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University, Peterson founded Hip Hop Scholars, LLC, “a think tank dedicated to researching and developing the educational potential of hip-hop, urban, and youth culture.“
Mike Relm: A youtube sensation and winner of a Webby award -- the Oscars for all things internet -- remix artist Relm is the creator of “The Opera House Masscre,” a jiu jitsu and chess mash up commissioned by the WCHOF that references a 1858 game won by American chess master Paul Morphy over a team of European nobles that took place during an operatic performance in Paris.
Asheru: A hip-hop artist and educator in Washington, D.C., Asheru co-founded Educational Lyrics LLC, or Hip-Hop Educational Literacy Program, in 2005 to promote education via hip-hop lyrics. Asheru pointed to the give and take, the call and reponse, as the heart of hip hop, translating to chess' endless variations in competitive play.
Daaim Shabazz: A chess player, Shabazz founded Chessdrum.net in 2003. A hub of chess information, Shabazz said he hopes to not only "bring chess players of African descent to the world, but chess to people of African descent.
"There are many barriers that we need to strip away, because I see a lot of elitism."
Alan “Gumby” Marques: The first degree black belt in Jiu Jitsu and co-founded On The Mat, a hub for all things Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, is the red-clad fighter in Relm’s video.
"... what keeps people in the martial arts is more about the discovery of the self," Marques said. "A lot of people have compared it to a physical form of chess," pointing to similarites between the opening moves and end play in both games, and that "the mental aspects of jiu jitsu and chess can be very similar."
Banjoko’s top chess lyrics in hip hop brought a bevy of comments, offering a variety of alternative takes on a top 10 list. “The cool thing is, there are so many chess lyrics out there that we can HAVE a debate about the top 10,” Banjoko wrote (VERIFY!). Here are some examples -- versions of the songs can easily be found on youtube:
Wu Tang Clan’s "Weak Spot":
I stay on the 64 squares, while patrolling the center/ Trading space from material, the time zone, I enter / It’s calculated by movement, from pushed pieces / Advancements and development, once the pawn reaches/ To 8th ranked, now heavily armed with a tank
Organized Konfusion’s "The Extinction Agenda"
Nightfall, I stop the rook, then I'm looking for
the original book which contains the words of God
Six hours until dawn, my quest to capture the queen
without being seen by the pawns
Call me Bishop, bishop takes rook, rook takes pawn
pawn takes knight, knight takes queen
Queen takes the original King James version
I'm surgin up when I'm emergin