October 18, 2007
Chess and Smart Choices
Had dinner with a friend last night who is very close with T.I. He's pretty broken up about it. J Smooth pretty much echoed my friend's feelings in his latest vlog: Possible setup, yes; smart guy, definitely; stupid choices, absolutely.
What a contrast to the smart choices I experienced two days earlier in San Francisco at the Hip-Hop Chess Federation's first annual chess invitational, which brought together kids, rappers, chess masters and martial arts champions, culminating in a climactic battle between The RZA and Monk that made this non-chess player a complete believer.
The combination of hip-hop and chess may seem a bit odd, but Bay Area journalist and author Adisa "The Bishop" Banjoko has always been a bit of a forward thinking renaissance man. The basic concept of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation is simple: Chess is a classic game that stimulates the brain and cultivates intuition. As such, it's a near-perfect tonic for inner-city, at-risk kids. Alas, even in well-off neighborhoods, chess is seen as the province of nerds. But what if kids could be mentored in chess and martial arts (respectively, mental and physical sides of the same coin) by their hip-hop idols?
Banjoko's vision became a reality at this weekend's incredibly classy event. Dozens of kids came to compete and rub elbows, literally, at the chess board with rap artists and game ethusiasts Paris, Raaka from Dialated Peoples, Casual from Hieroglyphics, and the Wu Tang's RZA and GZA. Banjoko moderated a panel that featured chess and martial arts master Josh Waitzkin (who inspired the book and movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer"), The RZA, Raaka, jujitsu fighter Ralek Gracie, and Daiim Shabazz of the Chess Drum, who discussed the confluence of their mind-cultivating disciplines to develop foresight and sensitivity.
It's one thing to talk about these esoteric concepts, and it's quite another to feel them viscerally. Waitzkin and Bay Area DJ Kevvy Kev of KZSU-FM expertly emceed the matches between the emcees, with RZA at one point facing off against GZA (RZA won). But the final match was the headcracker. RZA was cornered and outmanned by Monk, and everyone seemed to count RZA out. Monk closed in for his final attack, moving a rook from his king's flank to the center of the board. No one seemed to notice the fatal error except RZA, who calmly moved his own rook from one end of the board to the other and said, "Checkmate."
I kid you not, motherfuckers lost their minds. I haven't heard that kind of cheering since the MC battles of old. And in that moment, in which RZA snatched victory from the jaws of defeat simply by remaining meditative, being aware of everything, and refusing to panic, I learned a great lesson: Always consider the defensive implications of every offensive move you make in life, and vice versa. Now I understand the connections that Banjoko is trying to make with the HHCF. Life skills, son.
With hip-hop perpetually on the ropes in the media, it was refreshing, to say the least, to be at a hip-hop event that trumpeted intelligence over ignorance. Everything was tight. Banjoko brought in Silicon Valley corporate sponsors like Ubisoft, hosted the event at the sparkling San Francisco Design Center, and catered it with Beef Wellinton and crabcakes.
Unfortunately, this was too much for one cynical blogger for Wired Magazine. I think the event proved a little too perfect for homegirl and she blew a headgasket. Apparently, hip-hop non-profits ain't supposed to have crabcakes and corporate sponsors.
Point is, there's a lot of good news in hip-hop. The RZA is teaming with Waitzkin and Bajoko to expand the HHCF. Cold Chillin' founder Tyrone "Fly Ty" Williams and Mr. Magic are pouring their energy into the dynamic Brooklyn Steppers. In Los Angeles, Nick Cannon, DJ Premier, and Paul "DJ P" Stewart are throwing their weight behind the Hip Hop Leaders. All to help kids make the kind of smart choices they need to navigate the treacherous waters of American society.
Alas, if only T.I. had seen the entire chessboard, instead of just the pieces around him.