This Journalist Who Was Encouraged By Eazy-E Releases A Book Comparing Hip-Hop & Chess

From the Wu-Tang Clan to Wale, Fresh to Dilated Peoples, Hip-Hop’s music, film, and lifestyle maintain strong ties to chess. The 64 squares relate to many aspects of life. Northern California veteran author, speaker, scholar, and music journalist Adisa “The Bishop” Banjoko has made a career out tying Hip-Hop, chess, and martial arts together for self-improvement, awareness, and non-violence. With involvement from RZA, Rakaa, and others, Banjoko founded the Hip-Hop Chess Federation. His latest text, Bobby, Bruce & Bam: The Secrets of Hip Hop Chess was published one week ago. The title pays respect to Bobby Fischer, Bruce Lee, and Afrika Bambaataa. 

In the book, the author thanks Eazy-E in the opening acknowledgements. The Bay Area author met the N.W.A. founder as a teen, reporting for his high school. The would-be Compton, California mogul urged the other to push on with his gift, something that has lasted nearly 30 years since. The new text also chronicles working with RZA in St. Louis, Missouri following the murder of Michael Brown. Another chapter recalls time with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s Bizzy Bone.


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For Ambrosia For Heads, the author shared an excerpt on his challenge and commitment to promoting multi-culturalism with a sport and game that is often misunderstood:

In March of 2013 I was able to present at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on the fusion of Hip-Hop, Chess and Martial  Arts.

When I was done, a Latino student came up to me and said that he really enjoyed Hip-Hop and martial arts. However, he felt deeply that at the end of the day, chess was ‘a white man’s game.’ Feeling that the art belonged to old white men, he felt puzzled, if not embarrassed to his own growing interests.

I hear this perspective often from Black and Brown kids, and from all over the country. I believe it is a false barrier on many levels. It is false because chess really is a game of the world. Nobody can claim a monopoly on how it developed, who made innovations that matter most, etc. This makes chess a great game for not only including, but unifying Black and Brown kids. Sadly, many of them don’t have a cultural frame of reference for themselves and so they dismiss chess—if not belittle it.

This is a huge reason that I push the history of rappers celebrating and applying the teachings of chess so much. Not just because it’s true, but because it gives teenagers and young adults a Black and Brown cultural reference that feels authentic.

So many times I have to tell the young men (young men like the student at Harvard) about how chess has its roots in India, about how it came into Africa via the Arabs (through trading and military campaigns). I explain how the Africans from the North West coast brought the game with them when they conquered Spain in 700. How those Muslims became arguably the cornerstone of what became the European renaissance.

David Shenk’s The Immortal Game and Marilyn Yalom’s Birth of the Chess Queen show how were it not for dedicated African and Arab Muslim scholarship and preservation of the game, the rest of the world may never have known it existed.

Soon European Jews and Christians learned the game. Over time, the role of the queen developed primarily because of the political freedom women experienced in politics and war. European queens gradually became more active in managing the kingdoms. The queen was not part of the game of chess in the beginning. It was the king and his general or Vizer.

The chess piece was not very powerful in the beginning. But over time, you see her piece rise in power on the board almost exactly in step with the queens of Europe taking more leadership on in the areas they ruled.

This is a huge thing for young girls to know. I mention this to young women as often as I can. They need to be reminded of their leadership potential. They need to see how they can change even a super ‘manly’ game like chess and end up being the strongest piece on the board.

So Hindus created it, Muslim Arabs and Africans innovated it, European Christians and Jews innovated it even more. China falls in love with the game. The game comes to America, we all start to play here. This is one of the few true games the entire planet plays.

In the summer of 2014 I made some posters for our Live The Game chess camps in San Jose. Our camp is on the East side of San Jose (a/k/a Shark City). They have a massive problem with gang violence and teen homicides these days.

I made posters of Jose Raul Capablanca, the Cuban. Then I made posters of rap lyrics connected to chess with photos of Jay Z, Tupac, and Lauryn Hill. Today, I’m going to go make some posters of Latina champions in chess. That is something I need to study more thoroughly to stay connected to young ladies. Yesterday I put these posters by the window where the chess tables are and we got more new kids to come in and learn to play that we had all last week.

They may not know about Moorish Spain or Benjamin Franklin’s first writings on ‘The Morals of Chess.’ They may not know about Capablanca, how Fidel Castro and Che were players.

But just starting them off with Hip-Hop references gives kids a contemporary glance at an ancient game that can truly change their academic ability and cultural connectivity to their immediate community and the world around them.

Chess like many things has often been re-framed culturally to reflect the white male perspective and history with the game. The simple truth is that I don’t do any of what I do to uproot white men from the game or deny any authentic influence and achievements they have with the game. But their perspective and history is not the only perspective or history that matters. This hijacking of the truth by a small minority of powerful white men has led to much misinformation in America and around the world.

Look at the manipulation of maps as an industry. Africa (the largest continent on the planet) is deliberately shrunk down and made to look small, while North America are made to look  huge. Google a map of the earth as it really is and get your mind blown. Why is that? Who needs Africa to look smaller than it is? Why are we lying about the nature of Europe’s geographic state and teaching this lie as a standard globally? This consistent need to make things Black, Yellow, Brown and Red (to use terms I was taught) influence is not an accident.

Cultural truth, is one of the most important truths anyone can have. I never lie about the connections between Hip-Hop and chess, or martial arts and music—whatever. Cultural authenticity is one of the most important things we can have as individuals and groups.

The African Islamic introduction of the game to European lands matter. The Jewish and Christian impact on the game deeply matters. The women of the world who love and master this game matter. Black and Latino kids matter.

We will never be able to attract kids from non-white backgrounds to the game of kings by force-feeding them black-and-white photos of white men in suits, sporting monocles. Let’s choose instead to teach them a history of chess that starts where they are. So if I have to tell them about Tupac, Capablanca, RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan or Latino rappers like Conejo (even if his lyrics are not the most positive overall), I will do it. Because at least then we start with something they can relate to. If they are white I talk about Magnus Carlsen. If they are Indian I tell them about Anand. If they are Black I tell them about Maurice Ashley. If they are girls I tell them about Jen Shahade and Phiona Mutesi. I tell them about people in the neighborhood they live in who love the game. It gets them inspired.

The kids must know what whatever they are, and wherever they are, that people who look like them, pray like them and eat like them play chess and have a great place in it. They need to know that they can have a great place in it to and once learning have kind of a duty to pass that wisdom on.


Bobby, Bruce & Bam: The Secrets of Hip Hop Chess.

#BonusBeat: A 2016 Adisa Banjoko verbal essay on the true meaning of “enemies”:

Related: Wale Says Life is a Chess Match. Are You a King or a Pawn? (Audio)