Hip-Hop Fridays: Chess, Hip-Hop Merged To Help Youth by Barbara Grady

If rapper GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan devoted an entire album "Grandmasters" to chess themes, and chess International Grandmaster Maurice Ashley is a hip-hop fan, there's gotta be some connection.

That connection between hip-hop music and the game of chess is what local hip hop author, father and youth mentor Adisa Banjoko of Fremont is counting on to influence hundreds of Oakland and San Francisco youth.

His Hip-Hop Chess Federation has organized a chess tournament for Oct. 13 when famous rappers such as RZA, GZA and DJ Q-Bert as well as chess champions such as Josh Waitzkin will square off across 64-square boards. So too will teams of teenagers from Oakland and San Francisco who stand to win scholarship money if they win.

"We use chess and the lines of hip hop to invite children to express their intelligence," Banjoko said in a recent interview, waxing about the philosophy behind the federation.

"How do young people choose what they want to be? How do they find their own sense of dignity? What I am trying to do is use the soft power of the rappers and blend it with the good sense and traditions that come out of chess patience, working out a way to get around obstacles, mutual respect for someone who you know is trying to defeat you," Banjoko said.

The October 13 Chess Kings Invitational Tournament, to be held at the San Francisco Design Center starting at 1 p.m., is the federation's third chess contest for kids but arguably the one with the biggest names behind it. Rakaa of Dilated Peoples will be the emcee, hip hop artists Paris, T-K.A.S.H. and Big Rich will attend and eight-time National Chess Champion Waitzkin, subject of the movie, "Searching for Bobby Fischer" will speak and distribute his book "The Art of Learning." The Commonwealth Club is broadcasting speeches.

Wearing a T-shirt with the letters HHCF (Hip Hop Chess Federation) across the front, Banjoko sat at a chess table and alternated between listening to his 6-year-old daughter whisper in his ear, responding to the jokes of fellow HHCF supporters and answering questions on a recent afternoon in Emeryville. Four hip hop artist friends took turns at the game. His son played chess with his mother at a nearby table.

"Nobody ever tried to help me to be the best at what I can do. I've done lectures at Harvard, Brown, Dickinson, on Islamic history, hip-hop culture, race and religious issues. I've done lectures at universities that I can't get into. That's enraging," said Banjoko, whose writing about hip hop is captured in his Lyrical Swords Web site. "I need to make sure that other kids like me kids that are a little hard to get them to sit down but have skills understand all the options they have. And nothing helps you see all your options like chess."

Banjoko and HHCF co-founder Leo Libiran regard it as their mission to turn kids who find meaning in hip hop music onto chess. They founded the Hip Hop Chess Federation last winter with this mission in mind.

"If they see rappers playing chess, that will have a huge impact on their psychology. See, you can extend values of self-worth and values of having a plan for your life," Banjoko said.

Libiran is an artist who does the cover art for much of Banjoko's writing.

"To me this the next logical evolution of hip hop," Libiran said. He said today's culture focuses on the negative lyrics of some rap and gives scant attention to the positive, such as songs by Talib Kweli, Wu-Tang and DJ Q Bert. "It can help kids learn about life strategies."

Teenagers from Oakland's Unity High School and the Youth Uprising community center will play for scholarship money, as will teams from San Francisco's O'Connell High School and YouthSpeaks poetry workshop.

Ubisoft, the video game company whose top selling games include the Chessmaster series is underwriting the event.

"The thing that appeals to us is the Hip Hop Chess Federation is working in the same kind of direction as us to ensure that chess is accessible but also making it cool," said Sam Saliba, Ubisoft group brand manager.

In case the metaphors about goal planning get lost, the afternoon will include a panel discussing "Life Strategies" led by Waitzkin, RZA, and others.

Each kid in attendance will get a copy of Waitzkin's "Art of Learning."

Tickets, at $7 for youth, are available at www.hiphopchessfederation.org with some tickets free for qualifying youth. All proceeds will go to scholarships for the winners of the teenage tournament.

This article first appeared at: http://www.insidebayarea.com/

Cedric Muhammad

Friday, October 5, 2007