At the juvenile detention center, the teenagers recognize RZA. While most of them are not as familiar with his musical legacy, they know him from his television and film roles. “Oh, man, we just watched The Man with the Iron Fists!” one of them yells. “You were in the one with Denzel, you were in American Gangster,” says another. “How rich are you, how many cars?”
RZA humbly satisfies some of their curiosities before delving into his testimony—telling of the ways in which chess, martial arts, and hip-hop helped him sharpen his decision-making skills and carve a path of success.
“See, in the beginning, I saw my Wu-Tang brothers as chess pieces,” RZA says. “I knew all their strengths and they let me be their Abbot. I calculated moves and made nine millionaires. Like ya'll, I made some bad choices growing up, but that's in the past.” He pauses. “You all got to understand something,” he says, moving closer. “You can't get any of those moments back but if you spend your time wisely, you can earn more time."
What RZA sees before him are a few dozen youth in revolt. They've been let down, abused, some of them abandoned and left to fend for themselves. And as a result, many live in a constant state of hopelessness and depression, acting out through violent crimes and perpetuating a cycle of negative behavior. But the more RZA speaks, the more engaged and comfortable they appear, taking mental notes from a man who's overcome what they're now facing. They believe him.
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At the World Chess Hall of Fame, a sizable crowd is gathered for the evening's event. The Living Like Kings exhibition, which boasts “The Unexpected Collision of Chess and Hip-Hop Culture,” is just underway and RZA is the honored guest. In attendance are artisans, local and national media, and tastemakers united by a common appreciation for creativity and the city of St. Louis. Through all the recent turmoil for which the area has become synonymous, much of the community has turned to gatherings like this to share in some positivity. The exhibition, which runs until April 26, 2015, features a 25-minute multimedia film piece by Benjamin Kaplan, a Street Beautification photography series by Adrian O. Walker, and select murals curated by artist Daniel Burnett.
RZA makes his rounds, posing for pictures and charming both young and old with his wisdom and wit. And while he may be famous and enormously accomplished, he's also just a human being among other human beings. Still, his words, all words, matter. So as heated protests continue just blocks away, as residents grapple with what's to come, and as the question of whose role it is to serve and protect who grows blurrier by the day, the hip-hop blasting within these four walls is very necessary. The kings and queens are ready to advance.
Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR, Esquire, and VIBE. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove