Work + Life
Blending hip hop and chess to inspire youngsters
From blending hip hop and chess to inspire youngsters, to sharing the experiences of one African American child walking through the Public Educational system, award winning author and lecturer, Adisa Banjoko’s story is truly an American Dream. Prepare to be inspired.
So you were recently named the West Coast editor of NewsOne.com. How did that come about?
I’m gonna tell you its all about being lucky (laughs). Really the truth is my background in journalism is kind of lengthy. I was actually one of the first journalists for The Source way back when it really mattered. And a lot of these other hip hop publications. And luckily one of the main directors at News One is someone who has been a friend and mentor of mine for a long time. His name is Dan Charnas, author of “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop,” about the business of hip hop. And he and I have been friends for some time. We have been soldiers in the same game of journalism for a while and he needed someone on the west coast to do some things and he asked me. He said, “Hey I think this is right up your alley. And I didn’t hesitate.
I know that’s right. So where were you educated?
That’s what I like to call a “beautiful tragedy.” I actually dropped out of high school in 1988, and I got my GED in 1989. And outside of my paralegal certificate I have never really been to college. I took a few courses at Lane College and a few others at a junior college in the area.
I am a completely autodidactic student. I read the autobiography of Malcolm X while I was studying for my GED and it completely changed my perspective on the importance of an education. And from that point forward I became addicted to reading. I read like it was my job. I would get up, have breakfast and read and then have lunch and read some more. And so because of that I have had the privilege over the years, of lecturing at Harvard, Brown, UC Berkley, UCLA, Dickenson in Pennsylvania. That was one of my favorite talks. I have been very lucky. I don’t take my blessings lightly.
What did you read?
Mainly I was reading theology and philosophy, Plato, Socrates, Ta Ho Tep, Bhuddism, Confuscius, Daoism, things like that. And then I read a lot of the scholars of that time. So from like 1989 – 1995 I was really dedicated. I was reading John Henrik Clark, Dr. Ben, Ivan Van Sertima, Runoko Rhashidi extensively. “Notes for an African World Revolution” and books like that which were incredibly detailed and accurately so about the history of black people and their travels and tragedies through out the world and their triumphs.
Peter Jennings, my favorite newsman ever, was the same; no college and a high school diploma but self taught.
I didn’t know that. I also read a ton of Marcus Garvey. I took myself to a lot of Universities and hang out there and do my reading. Because I had this low self-esteem issue because I had dropped out. So I didn’t believe I was college material. And so to this day, I’ll be at like a Public Enemy concert and someone will come up and introduce me as alumni to their friends. They will think that I graduated from San Francisco State or UC Berkley, when I haven’t really graduated.
I love you’re story…It just denotes further the fact that we are living in the information age. An age where you can get on an iphone and access classes at Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Stanford and all of the great universities for free.
The crossroad of my life is this. When you can lecture at universities that would laugh at your transcript on paper it messes with you. I had to speak one time at Brown. I was lucky enough to get invited to speak at a conference at Brown University where I was the only non-Ph.D speaker that day. We were half way to Brown when I realized that I left all of my notes back in Boston. I had to rewrite my entire speech in the car on scrap paper. Got out of the car and we were late. They were calling me and I walked in to someone saying, “Are you Adisa? You’re on right now.” I almost completely lost my lunch. All of these Ph.D’s were sitting in the front row and I walked out there and gave one of the best talks of my life.
I feel lucky but that pressure has made it. But also I have kids, I have been married for 16 years to a beautiful black woman and we have children. And my children are intimidatingly smart. And so I cannot tell them to go to college if I haven’t done it. So I have to over come some personal fears to make that happen. Because I have deep psychological trauma from coming out of the American Public School system. I don’t consider myself a product of it, in a traditional manner. I consider myself a victim or a survivor of the American School system. I’m traumatized by the system. I learned outside of the box. The fact that I was capable of learning, at this stage isn’t even questionable, but I still question myself at the end of the day. So there is deep conflict.
So how did you get into chess?
I founded the hip hop chess federation in 2006. But I have been studying the connections between hip hop, chess and the martial arts since the 80’s. I write a book and was promoting it while preparing for volume II “West Side Rebellion.” and I went to go speak at a juvenile hall about journalism and life choices. And none of the kids cared about journalism they just wanted to know if I had met Snoop and all of these other rappers. And I had a chess board in my back pack. So I told them, “I don’t want to talk about rappers all day so who up in here can play chess?” And 85% of the room raised their hands. And I was blown away.
So I said, “Okay I have a better question. Who in here is the BEST? Like do not keep your hand up if you don’t believe you can crush every person in this room!” And only 5% of the hands went down. So I pulled out the board and said, “We’re about to play right now. Whoever wins gets a book.” Kids starting playing. These two black kids were going. And there is a white kid sitting behind them and he says, “Hey, don’t move your knight.” And the black kid [he was addressing] said, “Man, shut up white boy! I know what I’m doing!” He moved his knight, got smashed and lost the game. And everybody changed their respect for the white kid instantly. Like his personal stock went up immediately.
Then there was another kid in the back who was a teenager but morbidly obese. And he was like, “I’m the best. I’m the best in this room.” And the room was like, “Man shut up. Nobody said you can play chess fat boy!” You know the whole room wasn’t having it. He ignored it and was like, “I’m the best!” So I said, “He says he is the best let him step up.” And so he sat down and sure enough, he beat every kid who came to that board that day. And I was like, “Watch how they change their perspective of him.”
So I saw the chess board become a tool for transcending race, in terms of the white kid, I saw it become a tool for transcending traditional social pecking orders, because now this over weight kid was good. I have been studying hip hop and chess lyrics on my own privately since1988 and it was now 2006. I already knew the connection between hip hop and martial arts because I studied hip hop extensively and at the time I was already studying Brazilian Jujitsu.
So I knew I had to do something and I founded the hip hop chess federation. And we fuse music, chess and martial arts to promote unity, strategy and non-violence.
And your headquartered between two rival Latin gangs?
I work daily at John O’Connell High School. And it is located in a Latin war zone inside of the mission district. It is a primarily Latino area of San Francisco… that is beautiful and culturally rich with history, but over the last few years the gangs have really taken over and there is a lot of gang violence. If you look it up …you’ll find a lot of random shootings, stabbings, and more. .. A few people have gotten life sentences off of what happened here. And I am black, I am not Latino.
So one of the librarians invited me to talk about my first book here. She wanted me to come back and talk to the students more. We set up a program mentoring kids. And I eventually decided I wanted to work here, with the worst kids in the school and observe from the inside.
Because too much of the discussion of what to do with African American and Latino students is what I call like, coffee house revolutionary talk. We’re going to sit around and have some crumpets and talk about what black and brown people should or shouldn’t be doing based on Dubois, Malcolm X etc. But we are only willing to do it with a very sterile, “hands off” approach.
I wanted to be with the kids who were shooting and getting shot. I wanted to work with the girls who were fighting and getting jumped and understand them. And that is why I came here. It has been an amazing mind blowing, soul changing experience.
So what are you doing there and what does chess have to do with it?
I am a security guard here during the day and I write at night. What I do here with hip hop chess, is obviously being security, I learn who is fighting and why. I usually try and pre-empt it. We have a beautiful security squad here at John O’Connell. And we are able to talk most of these kids out of doing a lot of the things they would normally get into.
In between that time I use different methods that I developed specifically through the hip hop chess federation to help these kids make better choices in life. I do different events, for example, where I bring different rappers out. For instance, during times of high conflict, knowing my limits as an African American male, I have reached out to different hiphop stars in the Latino community and said, “I need you to come out and talk to these kids, in their own language, because they can’t hear it from me. I am not Latino.” So in this particular instance, he spoke to a packed house. There were so many kids that came out, and he changed so many of these kids perspectives and it was just a beautiful thing.
One of the things I did last year was I taught all of the girls in my classes [35 girls per class] about rape prevention. So they just learned rape prevention techniques all day. And I teach methodologies like “three positive actions are greater then one negative thought.” And the basis is that a lot of times you can make yourself depressed thinking about things that bother you rather then taking action against them. And that chess is constantly a game of action where you can measure your progress by looking at what you have done and what hasn’t been done.
So I encouraged the kids to start making a habit of taking three positive actions. Like if they are worried about their homework, then they could go online and find a youtube video dealing with the subject matter they’re studying, or a site online, call a friend, and engage a teacher. And now you have taken three positive actions in that area for that day. And the next day you take three different actions in the same way. And the idea is that once you become consistent in taking three actions it will be easier to do four, five and six. So you will be able to rest better and stress less because you will be able to measure your personal progress. So these are the kinds of things I teach them.
Many times in chess sometimes you have a lot of pieces around the king but they are uncoordinated so you can’t actually achieve your goal. And this is based off of an actual match I have seen. By teaching them to get out of their own way, I help them to achieve what they want to do.
How did chess get to these kids? How did a whole room full of kids in one of the arguably roughest neighborhoods, learn about chess?
This is not a scientific study but I have noticed that most of the kids play chess on the block anyway. They seem to have learned it one of two ways, from an uncle, a father or a brother. If they didn’t learn it there they made life mistakes that placed them in juvenile hall and they learned it in juvenile hall or prison. Now mind you that is not scientific but – Those are the most common stories I hear.
No I asked and you answered. How did the RZA been involved in the hiphop chess federation?
RZA is an awesome dude. The hip hop chess federation was not born out of the Wu Tang Experience. My documentation of chess in hip hop def predates the existence of the Wu Tang but the Wu Tang represents a second wave of chess metaphors being pushed deliberately and consistently in hip hop.
After being around for a few years I was able to work with him and he and some of the others came out and did events, panels and talks for the kids. RZA was awesome because he never charged me to come out or asked me to pay for his participation or anything. We never had any contracts. He was a man of his word.
Sometimes we didn’t have enough money to make an event happen and he would kick in funds to make sure the events happened for these kids. And I challenge other artists in hiphop to match his selflessness. I challenge them to match what RZA and other artists have done for HHCF, but not just for us but for other organizations in their area. Because the quality of him not charging, making his dates on time. Coming out and doing what he said he was going to do has been unmatched.
Written by Danai