Adisa Banjoko Merges Hip-Hop, Chess, and Martial Arts to Empower Youth

Adisa Banjoko Merges Hip-Hop, Chess, and Martial Arts to Empower Youth

You have to wonder what the person who thought of combining peanut butter and jelly was thinking when they did so. Did they know that many years later, it would be a winning combination that is still enjoyed today?

Maybe journalist/author Adisa Banjoko has the same thought process. Well, of course, not in terms of combining food, but in blending not two, but three passions that intertwine in his world. Each one can be and has been uplifting, not only to him, but to a legion of people who, in some form or fashion, has incorporated it into their every day lives.

Years ago, it may have seemed unlikely that hip hop, martial arts and chess would be a merger, but then again, why not? To some, the principles, logic and technique in each one, typically makes the participant better balanced. The art form and annals of each, has a substantial history that lessons can and are learned from. Think of the influence of the Wu-Tang Clan when it comes to all three.

Banjoko uses the love of all three to justify turning his passions into an unlikely business that helps him to give back and contribute to the educating and guiding that the youth of today and tomorrow needs in order to help grow the culture of Hip Hop, chess and martial arts. In 2006, you founded the Hip-Hop Chess Federation, could you tell us what the HHCF is about and the purpose for you starting it?

Adisa Banjoko: The Hip-Hop Chess Federation (HHCF) is the worlds first nonprofit to fuse music, chess and martial arts to promote unity, strategy and nonviolence. My father taught me chess when I was about 4. I always loved it. I’m not a chess master, not even close. But I always learned a lot about life, patience, winning and losing with dignitiy, long and short term goal planning etc. When Hip-Hop hit, I remember artists like EPMD, X-Clan, Public Enemy and others mentioning chess in some of their raps. I never stopped documenting it, it was my private obsession.

I was one of the first west coast writers for The Source. Often when I’d talk to rappers after an interview I’d ask them if they played chess. More than 90% said yes. Then the Wu-Tang Clan exploded onto the scene, they perfected the fusion of chess and Hip-Hop. But still you had other rappers like 50 Cent and Jay Z mentioning it.

After a certain point I realized I had to organize the study and expression of chess in music and its fusion to the path of martial arts. All three lead us to self mastery at the highest level.

We also throw celebrity chess tournaments that have incuded the participation of RZA and GZA from Wu-Tang Clan, Dilated Peoples, Asheru from Boondocks, MMA Fighter Ralek Gracie as well as chess masters Josh Waitzkin, Daniel Naroditsky, and Emory Tate. All of our events are family friendly and if there are any folks who would like to donate to our program or sponsors woul would like to work with us, they can email me directly at

You’re also an author and journalist, what made you make the choice to start writing?

My mother is a beautiful woman. She taught me how to read at a young age. I always loved reading. I still do. She gave birth to my love of reading. My father helped refine it, suggesting many books along the way. I was flunking out of high school and my counselor Mr. King said “Look, you are blowing it in everything but English. You’re gonna be a writer. I think you could be good at it.”

I said “Mr. King, I love reading but I can’t write. Plus I hate all the school sports. I don’t want to write about football or wrestling.”

He said “Write whatever you want.”

I said “Can I write about rap? The only thing I love is Hip-Hop.”

He said “Sure.”

The previous weekend my dad took me to the record store. I bought Eazy E’s Boyz In The Hood and Public Enemy, Rebel Without A Pause. Ruthless Records’ (Eazy’s label) had their phone number printed on the center of the wax. I called him and pretended to be a big reporter. He was not yet a hit, I think this was the week the single dropped. He let me interview him.

From the minute he got on the phone with me, I became a journalist. Mr. King opened the door and Eazy E gave me the shot. That was the  first story I ever wrote and I never stopped. Since then I wrote two books of my own Lyrical Swords Vol. 1 : Hip-Hop and Politics in the Mix, and Lyrical Swords Vol. 2: Westside Rebellion as well as contributed to many other books. But everything I do today with the pen, I owe to my parents, Mr. King, and Eazy E.

What would you say is a necessity to have as a journalist?

Honestly, I think being a journalist is pretty easy. Being a great journalist is hard. You have to observe the way people move. The things they say. The things they don’t say. Then you have to tell that story in a way people will remember. You have to capture reality and put it on paper.

The best movie I ever saw in my life to this day is Biloxi Blues. It was a movie about a guy who was in the military and his struggle to be a writer. I love that movie so much. More than Malcolm X (and love me some Malcolm). But the fight to write the truth as we see it and know it in our hearts, thats the hardest part.

Thats why we can blink and read so many blogs, tweets, posts, links, clips, etc. But we see very little compelling writing. Writing that keeps us up at night. That makes us look at the world different. That makes us look at ourselves different. That is what I hope to do one day. Not to be well known. Not to be famous. But just to die knowing I told the truth as I saw it, and I meant every word. Thats my prayer as a writer.

Your focus with HHCF is music, chess and martial arts, what made you decide to take an interest in those and collectively include them in the organization?

Well, I realized that because of Bruce Lee, and the kung-fu movie explosion of the 1970’s that many people in the rap world were deeply infuenced by Buddhism, Taosim, and Eastern Philosophy in general. Because Black men had their warrior culture stripped from them during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade they found a new manhood within the martial arts.

DJ’s used kung-fu flick clips in their battles. Those movies gave Black and White Americans a new viewpoint beyond the Judeo-Christian and Islamic framework we had known. This was somethign we both needed so we could see beyond race. Martial arts forces you to transcend your race. Thats what kung-fu did for Bruce Lee. Its what boxing did for Muhammad Ali. Its what jiu jitsu did for Carlos and Helio Gracie.

Today our children (I mean Black but in truth American children) are some of the most out of shape, uncoordinated cowards this country has every produced. I don’t say that out of anger, I say it our of fear. Fear for our collective future.

It is my hope that the HHCF can inspire a new kind of balance between mental and physical fitness. That is what these young boys need right now. They are picking up guns because they forgot how to knuckle up. So much of what Craig’s dad told him in the movie Friday was real.

We need to rebuild the ideas of womanhood and manhood. We need to remove the blinders from the eyes of our children (all children are our children) and help them see their options. That is what chess does. We need to let them embrace whatever medium of art they love and share their soul without fear. Thats Hip-Hop. We need to give them the physical tools to speak the truth without fear of being attacked. Thats martial arts.

Our events stay packed. The demand for our progam is growing. We are finalizing negotiations with the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis this May. I’m scheduled to be speaking at Harvard March 1st about how these three tools can lead kids to self discovery and self mastery. It’s an exciting time.

In your more than 15 years of journalism, you have been honored a few times, what are some of your most important achievements and do you have any plans on pursuing others?

I think speaking at Harvard at the Harvard Hip-Hop Archive on a panel with Africa Bambaataa was my most overwhelming moment. The night before a friend I flew out with had gotten sick. I went to go get him some medicine. All the stores were closed. I got lost and wandered onto the campus and I saw the statue of John Harvard. I looked at the dates inscribed on it. It was founded in 1636. I stood there for a moment and it was like my insides went hollow. I got cold. I wondered, where were my ancestors in 1636? Were they in a ship crying? Were they on a plantation working? I started talking to myself “No matter what they were doing , I’m pretty sure they died being scared for their offspring. And now, I stand here, a high school drop out  with a GED who read on his own to a point where he is now about to address Harvard? This is unreal.” I almost started to cry.

The only other thing might be when Rakaa Irsicience from Dilated Peoples invited me to talk on his track Eyes Wide and talk about chess and life. That was a deep honor. Before Dilated existed Rakaa and Evidence saw me speak at a Zulu Nation meeting in LA a few days after the Rodney King uprising. So, for him to invite me on the track was a bit shocking. He’s been a consistent supporter of HHCF.

My personal goal is to start going to college this year. I need my son and daughters to see me do that.

It takes a very influential person to become a motivational speaker, what do you think it takes to motivate people and get them to, not only listen to what you have to say, but want to follow through on the advice you give them?

I think you have to be honest. Not just about the things you did right. You have to be honest about your mistakes. The ways you have blowin it. Times you lost your cool. Times you fell for a trick or tricked your own mind. Tell what you learned from a loss that scarred your soul.

Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Tupac Shakur were men who let you see their humanity- their flaws. I think thats why we love them so much.

What do you contribute to your success in what you do?

My faith and my wifes love. She is a beautiful Black woman.  No one believed in my writing and my visions like she did. She could have died giving birth to our first son. She was so crazy she had two more kids with me. She convinced me I could put my own books out. She would listen to my lectures and critique them with kindness.  She defended me when I was too confused or stupid to defend myself. She has never once turned her back on me or belittled my dreams, even when they were off base. Her organizational skills are the backbone of this organization. After shivering through so many lonely moments, all I’ve had is my faith and my family. So by seeking to honor them always, everything has been kept in order.

You’re currently working with at-risk youth in the Bay area, could you tell us what you are doing and what do you plan to get out of it?

I’ve been working with at-risk youth in the Bay Area for about 6 years now. We’re doing everything from helping kids lose weight (I helped one kid lose more than 100 pounds). For other kids I just play a few games, give them some food or some shoes and just help them survive so they can envision success for themselves. I’ve had many breakthroughs. But I’ve lost some good kids to the streets because HHCF does not have all the resources it needs and honestly, everybody can’t be saved.

But we run summer camps and we hope to spead out more this summer.

What I hope to get out of it, is a mothers smile. The smile of knowing her son or daughter is safe. That they will graduate and go be great.

Some of the kids at one of the schools I work at don’t have any jackets. The San Francisco All Tribes Zulu Nation Chapter had just done a coat drive. Tomorrow they are bringing coats over to the school for the kids. Little stuff like that feels good.

I think in the future, we must learn not only how to give. We have to learn how to give to people most unlike us. Blacks need to give to Whites. Muslims must give to Jews and Christians and athiests. Mexicans must give to Asians. We must teach ourselves to give without expectation, but, learn give because we see the need. There is this illusion that we suffer apart from one another when in truth we are suffering together. So lets now heal togther.

What qualities make for a successful community activist?

I don’t know. I’ve never liked that term. Mainly because too many peple claim it and have not done anything measurable to make their communities safer, smarter, or more peaceful.  Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt was a community activist. Huey Newton, Macolm X and Betty, Dr. King and Coretta, Afrika Bambaataa, Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Angela Davis and Assata Shakur- those guys are activists. I’m not worthy of that title. I have not shed any blood. I have not yet put my life on the line. My words haven not gotten me imprisoned. I just write and speak to kids who need a kind word placed in their head an heart. I smile at kids who live in a cold world. But I’m not special.

Your moniker is ‘The Bishop of Hip Hop’, how did this come about?

It’s my favorite chess piece. Mainly because it can strike from far away and it attacks at an angle your opponent cannot see.

What is in your future plans that you anticipate will grow your legacy?

Right now I’m just trying to export the HHCF philosophies as effectivley and efficiently as I can. We’re meeting with city officials as they try to incorporate our violence prevention methodologies. The HHCF is sponsoring Bay Area rapper T-KASH in the Oakland Marathon next month as he runs for the cause of ending gun violence in that city. Beyond that I have a new podcast and blog with Mike Relm and it covers entertainment, technology and business strategies. I also plan to do more jiu jitsu events to inspire kids toward nonviolence. Oh, I should have a new book out this year. I just need to add some finishing touches. In the end I hope to die knowing I have raised the grade point averages, self esteem and safety level of American children. If anybody wants to reach me they can find me on Twitter @hiphopchess or visit