Q&A with Hip Hop Chess Federation founder on partnership with East Bay schools
on April 11, 2014
What do hip-hop music and chess have in common? The answer is simple according to Adisa Banjoko, the founder of the Hip Hop Chess Federation (HHCF), a non-profit organization that combines music, chess and martial arts to help young people promote nonviolence in their communities.
The art of rap and the game of chess are extremely competitive and difficult to master. In a game of chess, two people battle each other by making strategic moves on a board that has 64 squares. In a rap battle, two artists seek to display mental superiority, using similar survival strategies to a chess player, except that they duel with the wittiest rhymes to win.
Although Banjoko’s traveled all over the country organizing community outreach events, the Bay Area holds a special place in his heart. Banjoko once lived in Oakland and was a part of the ‘90s Bay Area hip-hop music scene. Currently, he is teaching chess and life strategies to students at Encinal High School in Alameda through a partnership with his friend John Fuentes, who oversees the after-school high school program for Bay Area Community Resources (BACR). From now to the end of this school year, Fuentes’ goal is to have Banjoko teach chess at several Oakland high schools as well.
In an interview with Oakland North, Banjoko talked about his love for hip-hop music, chess, and his hopes for healing Oakland from the violence that long has plagued the city.
Oakland North: If you could describe The Hip Hop Chess Federation in one word, what would it be?
Adisa Banjoko: Dynamic. We are dynamic because by fusing the art of logic and the logic inside the art, we are inspiring young people towards self-discovery — knowing themselves truly — and self mastery. That is something that America needs. We are doing it with a very unlikely group of methods.
ON: How many years have you been running the HHCF and why did you create it?
AB: The Hip Hop Chess Federation was founded in 2006. Basically, I created it because I realized that through the history of rap music, the art of rap has celebrated chess more than any other form of music. I used it because I went to give a speech on journalism at a juvenile hall in San Francisco. I was one of the first West Coast writers for The Source magazine and Vibe magazine. What I learned at the juvenile hall was that most of the kids didn’t care about journalism. They only wanted to know whether or not I met Snoop Dogg or this rapper and that rapper.
So … I asked them if they knew how to play chess. Out of all of the kids in the room (there were probably about 75 of them), almost all of them knew how to play chess. In that moment when they raised their hands, I heard all of the rap lyrics that deal with chess just come down on my cranium at one time. I was like, there is something to this. This is something big. I saw white kids who weren’t getting any respect in the hall get respect through chess. I saw kids who were grossly out of shape, like obese kids that got laughed at, get respect because they won. I realized at that point that there was something very real and very serious about hip-hop and chess.
I started researching who exactly does play chess and how long have they been playing chess. These were things that I already had a personal fascination with since I heard Public Enemy say the line, “No matter what the name, we’re all the same pieces in one big chess game,” from the song “Rebel Without A Pause.” This was back when I was a teenager in the ‘80s…
As I went on to be a journalist in hip-hop, any time I would meet rappers I would often ask them after the interview if they play chess, and the truth was, a lot of them did. But it was about creating the formula. So I had to figure out the purpose. The purpose became nonviolence.
In my youth, I was a very militant dude. Anybody that knows me from the Bay knows that. I used to write for the Black Panther paper “The Commemorator.” It actually gave me my writing start. I had to change a lot to come to a place of nonviolence. My love for nonviolence came through martial arts, specifically, in training Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That path of martial arts helped me transcend in how I saw race, in how I saw power, in how I saw violence. I knew that the world needed to reengage the path of nonviolence that Dr. King, that Nelson Mandela, and that so many nameless blacks and Latinos and whites and Jews here in America had used as a way to thrive and teach humanity. I knew that the organization had to have that element.
ON: How did the idea for you to partner with BACR develop?
AB: John Fuentes is actually a very well-versed dude on hip-hop. One of my problems as an organization is a lot of educators are still afraid of rap music. Even more are afraid of martial arts. So when you say that we teach chess, music, and martial arts to promote unity, strategy and nonviolence, it confuses people. It quite honestly scares a lot of the educators because they already feel like violence is at an all-time high in their schools. However, John Fuentes understands hip-hop better than many people. He also understands the role of martial arts in promoting nonviolence.
Like, for instance, even though we instinctually think that people who like martial arts like to fight, the truth is that Shaolin Monks are Buddhists and they never fight. Nobody thinks about how it is because of their training that they stay at peace. So John Fuentes and I hooked up. He asked me to come speak at an event and the kids loved it. So I thought, how do I teach this beyond just saying, “Jay-Z plays chess, the Wu-Tang Clan play chess, Tupac talked about chess, or Drake and Lil’ Wayne talk about chess.” Then what? I had to build that and then I reached out to him and we started working together. So I’m very, very excited. Being someone who lived in Oakland, who genuinely loves Oakland, and is horrified by the violence and in the hatred towards women that comes from hip-hop, I want to come into Oakland and help heal Oakland through hip-hop. That is my goal.
ON: What was the selection process like when choosing where to begin teaching chess?
AB: The selection process is, do they understand me and want me? One of the things that we’re facing as a country is that the state of American education is crumbling. It is costing our children their lives. This crumbling education system is what has given growth and weight to the school-to-prison pipeline because our children aren’t learning. In HHCF, we teach the three C’s. We teach college, career and crime. We teach that college is good for you and your family. The more education you have, the more money you’ll make. The more money you’ll make, the more you’ll be able to protect your family in a way that is good for them and help expose them to beautiful things.
If you don’t want to go to college, or believe college isn’t for you, then you have to choose a career. We need to prepare our children for the trades of today and not just the trades of the past. My point is that if a child does not go to college or choose a career, then crime is an absolute necessity, not out of a moral problem within them, but through survival. Their stomachs are empty. They need clothes. They will rob and start selling or using dope. Then they end up in jail. In terms of the selection process, all we wanted to know was which teachers, which schools, and which principals understood our mission enough to invite us in. When they invite us in, we do super well by the children and they quickly understand and recognize that we are sincere.
ON: Do you feel that there are enough places in the East Bay where young people can go to play chess?
AB: Yes and no. I think for young people, the game of chess is about hanging out with family or playing on the streets. I know that there is a lot of street chess at a Starbucks near Lake Merritt. I think there is an East Oakland Chess Club. I think that it is not consistently marketed and promoted because it is more of a cultural thing. It is not really a part of our educational system across the board. It is not as available as it should be in Oakland. For me it is not just about chess being available, but that we teach the right things about it. A child can play chess, but if he or she can’t see how it is connected to life, then that is kind of bad. We need to make sure that the kids not only can play chess, but understand the life correlation and the ways in which they can be strategic in their own decisions which will keep them away from drugs, away from violence, and moving forward with personal enrichment.
ON: How did you first get interested in the world of hip-hop?
AB: It’s a funny thing. When I was a youngster, back in 1982, there was a DJ in Daly City named Jesse Carr. Jesse Carr gave a mix tape to my cousin. I never even met Jesse Carr. When I heard the music through my cousin, I was electrified. I was like, “What is this?” My cousin was like, “This is hip-hop.” I asked my parents for a mixer and a reverb and I started DJing in 1983. My father, who was actually really good with stereos and stereo equipment, he taught me how to scratch and mix initially. Then I bought the album “Duck Rock” by Malcolm Mclaren and The World’s Famous Supreme Team – which taught me about the universal Zulu Nation. What most people don’t realize is that the album is actually about 80 percent South African music. It is not like rap. There are only three or four rap songs on there. That album changed my life. I dedicated my life to hip-hop at that point. I started journalism in 1987. I was lucky enough to interview Eazy E. I did one of the first interviews with Eazy E ever (back in 1987). That’s when I became a hip-hop journalist, which at the time didn’t exist.
ON: How do you feel about Bay Area hip-hop music today?
AB: Bay Area hip-hop today is actually very dope. I love Bay Area rap because unlike a lot of other regions, you can hear everything: you can hear super grimy street stuff, you can hear super positive political stuff, and you can hear jazzy musical stuff, whereas, if you just lived in the South or if you just lived on the East Coast, you’d kind of be stuck. The Bay has one of the most diverse spectrums of rap music in the world. Hip-hop is real youth culture. When I was a youngster, it spoke for me. Just like now, young people, it speaks for them. However, it doesn’t all speak for me. I love the hip-hop right now in the Bay. I love to see all of the DJs, the b-boys, and the turfing. I love to see youth culture thrive.
I think sometimes the older cats, they forget that. If the older people don’t get out of the way, how will the young people ever have a chance? Sometimes these older cats try to hold on way too long. They need to just back up and let brothers thrive one time, you know.
ON: What sort of life strategies do you teach?
AB: The main thing we teach is a strategy called “Three PA is greater than one NT.” It looks like a mathematical equation, right? This equation stands for three positive actions are greater than one negative thought. The idea is to do this for 21 days, because it takes 21 days to create a habit. Taking three positive actions against one negative thought consistently, it is just like chess. [In] chess, unlike Scrabble, you don’t get a pass. Life demands that you do something. That’s one thing we teach.
We also talk about the poison pawn. The poison pawn is a situation where your opponent sets up an easy pawn for you to take. However, by going and taking that pawn, you mess up your own ability. You also give your opponent room to become more aggressive and you lose. You lose because you took something very insignificant that cost very little, but then it costs you everything in the end. It costs you very little in the beginning, but everything in the end. So we teach that the poison pawn could be selling or taking dope, the poison pawn could be robbing someone … These things cost you in the end. We have a whole series of these kinds of strategies for these young people … so that they can be capable of independent thinking. This kind of independent thinking keeps people out of gangs. This kind of independent thinking keeps people from choosing violence …
ON: Is there anything that you would like to add?
AB: We are in a very tough time, not just in the city of Oakland, but around the world. It is important that every parent help their child understand the value of chess and independent thinking. It is important that they learn that their body, heart and brain are sacred. They need to know that these things are worth defending. It is our mission to fuse the physical and philosophical arts to help our children live and thrive. Oakland has seen better days. If we can help our children learn to live and thrive, we can surpass those days and continue to do beautiful things for ourselves and for our community.
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