From the slums of Shaolin…

Cary Campbell is a jazz studies student at Capilano University. Our recent podcast on rebranding and identity led to this piece on the power of analogy and metaphor, as evidenced by the Wu-tang Clan.

“From the slums of Shaolin, the Wu tang Sword strikes again…”

As information becomes increasingly disseminated in the internet age judgments come fast, and stereotypes prevail. One of the roles of art is to challenge these preconceived judgments. Understandably the blurring of one’s actual reality with some symbolic version of that reality is a powerful artistic medium. As Umberto Eco explains in The Open Work, in this alternate allegorical world “the symbolic becomes a communicative channel for the indefinite, open to constantly shifting responses and interpretative stances.” Post-modernist literature is concerned with this ethereal world of ambiguity- this “parallel worlds” idea has become a sort of literary sub-genre. Modern writers such as Hakuri Murakami and Umberto Eco have explored this in depth in novels such as Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna. They come from a lineage that pays homage to Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Dodgson’s Alice in Wonderland. Oftentimes these surrealist metaphorical realities in all their imaginativeness can offer a more vivid perspective on the empirical worlds they are describing.

Photo courtesy of Wu-tang Corp

Photo courtesy of Wu-tang Corp

In the world of hip hop this is what the Wu-tang Clan has done. In their debut album “Enter the 36 Chambers”, these nine men present two parallel worlds. One in which the Clan are young rappers from the ghettos of Staten Island, battling against rival rappers, confronting drug and gang violence, and dealing with the everyday struggles of ghetto life. In the other world, they are Wu-tang sword masters trained in the ancient arts of Kung Fu and Chess Boxing and engaged in constant turf battles in the ancient land of Shaolin. These worlds become so intertwined that the Wu-tang rap style becomes inseparable from the Wu-tang School of martial arts. To quote from GZA’s watershed album “Liquid Swords: “Rappers say they’re invincible, but when I swing my sword they’re all chopable”.

They rap about growing up in “the slums of Shaolin”, a saying which has become a proud aphorism for the Borough of Staten Island and has become the city’s own alter ego. They rap about the philosophy of martial arts, earning respect, and I think most interestingly they rap about chess. This fascination with chess demonstrates my claim that these symbols are more than just a fun comic comparison; they are inextricably tied up in the message of the clan.

RZA and GZA have been active in the world of Chess for more than 20 years. RZA is the holder of the Hip Hop Chess Federation belt and has participated in organizations that promote the game amongst inner city youth. He explains in numerous interviews that kids in underprivileged neighborhoods develop a mentality in the streets to be reactionary and hotheaded; chess requires them to be more strategic, tactical and ultimately more introspective. RZA explains in an interview with the New York Times that chess teaches kids the mindset they need: “The way you have to think in chess is good for everyday thinking, really… Especially for brothers in the urban community who never take that second look, never take that second thought.”

This type of alter ego is far more developed than the majority of rap identities that riddle popular hip hop. For example, Eminem may pretend to be Slim Shady but besides a name change, what is the separation from his personal identity? He still raps about his wife, his kids, other rappers, his personal life… The world of Shaolin is more powerful than this. It brings listeners to question the nature of the place and situations they describe perhaps more thoughtfully and attentively then without such a metaphor.


To hear some other perspectives on identity and reinvention, check out the Terry Podcast # 24: Rebranding. 

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