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Tom Vick is the curator of film at the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution. He is the author of Asian Cinema: A Field Guide and Time and Place are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki. In 2011 he oversaw The Hip-Hop/Kung Fu Connection series of events exploring the relationship between hip-hop music and martial arts movies. 

After Kendrick Lamar began his headlining set at Coachella with a short film featuring his new alter ego, Kung Fu Kenny, his fans went on a scavenger hunt for his origins. We now know that Kenny – and the outfit Lamar wore during his performance – is in part an homage to a character played by Don Cheadle in Rush Hour 2, but in a larger sense, Lamar’s threading of martial arts movie aesthetics throughout his performance is the latest example of the fascinating, intertwined history of hip-hop and kung fu, a connection that goes back to the very origins of the music.

By the time hip-hop emerged in the 70s in New York, kung fu movies were firmly entrenched in American pop culture. They first gained a foothold in the cheap movie theatres around Times Square because, in those economically depressed times, the easiest way to keep the theatres running was for their owners to buy up inexpensive packages of Hong Kong action movies and run them basically 24 hours a day. The fad eventually went mainstream with the likes of Carl Douglas’ 1974 hit single Kung Fu Fighting and the popular television show Kung Fu, starring David Carradine as a martial arts master wandering the Old West. 

Like all fads, the kung fu craze eventually died out, but no one bothered to tell the breakdancers, graffiti artists and rappers in the South Bronx. Many breakdance moves, for instance, were inspired by the acrobatics of kung fu fight scenes, and the tradition of dance and rap crews battling each other in tests of their skills owes much to the storylines of many classic kung fu movies, in which rival clans battle each other, with the superior fighters winning out in the end. 

But the connection goes deeper than mere pop culture references, which is perhaps one reason why kung fu has remained such a large part of hip-hop’s history. It may be hard to imagine now, when action heroes come in all races and genders, but for kids growing up in the 70s, there were very few mainstream stars who weren’t white men. One of those few was Bruce Lee. Unlike, for instance, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, who spent the Dirty Harry and Death Wish franchises shooting and beating stereotypical criminals-of-colour, Lee was a minority himself, who often in his films fought against authority and oppression. In the wake of the civil rights era, this aspect of Lee’s persona was not lost on the early members of the hip hop community, and – along with his astounding athletic prowess and onscreen charisma – accounts for his continued popularity. This is something that I can attest to firsthand, having curated an exhibition of Bruce Lee-inspired paintings by Fab 5 Freddy, one of the hip-hop world’s originators, and MC Yan, a Hong Kong-based artist inspired by that world. Visitors to the show have ranged from little kids to senior citizens, and many of them have displayed a remarkable familiarity with and love for Lee, despite the fact that he died over 40 years ago.

Through kung fu movies, many members of the burgeoning hip-hop movement also developed an interest in martial arts, not only as a means of self-defence and exercise, but as a way of disciplining the mind, and as a model for growing their art form through a combination of apprenticeship and competition. The dance and rap battles modelled on kung fu fights weren’t just tests of skills. They also allowed artists to learn from one another’s innovations. Just as many kung fu movies tell the story of young apprentices learning from their masters, hip-hop developed a tradition of rappers mentoring one another.

This strain of hip-hop culture reached its apotheosis, of course, with the Wu Tang Clan, who formed their entire worldview based on kung fu and martial arts precedents. By the time they came along, kung fu movies had migrated from Times Square theatres to New York’s channel 5 television station and its wildly popular Saturday Drive in Movie, which often featured kung fu films, and was apparently watched religiously by virtually every teenager who grew up in the city at the time. For the members of the Wu Tang Clan, the brotherhood depicted among Shaolin monks facing legions of enemies resonated with them as they banded together to survive in the dangerous housing projects where they grew up, while the gleefully sampled sounds and plots of the films became the raw material for their songs.

In light of this history, the Rush Hour films themselves start to look like Hollywood’s attempt to cash in on the linked popularity of kung fu and hip hop culture, uniting as they do Hong Kong’s biggest star at the time, Jackie Chan, and one of Hollywood’s biggest African-American stars, Chris Tucker. Don Cheadle’s character, Kenny, who runs a Chinese restaurant as a front for a counterfeiting operation, speaks Cantonese, and learned martial arts from a master in Crenshaw (a largely African-American neighbourhood in LA) who is the brother of Chan’s character’s Beijing-based master. I can see why Kendrick Lamar would be drawn to him – he is, after all, an affectionate parody of a fairly ubiquitous type found in many American cities: the African-American martial arts master. In this he provides another link to the early days of the hip hop/kung fu connection. Jim Kelly, who starred alongside Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, and Bobby Samuels, who worked in Hong Kong movies for several years, both started out as competitive martial artists and emerged from the community of African-American owned martial arts studios that began sprouting up in the 70s and continue to thrive today. 

The three Kung Fu Kenny short films that peppered Lamar’s set echoed the familiar arc of many a martial arts movie: the young apprentice learns his skills, goes out into the world, fights his challengers and emerges as a master. It’s not much of a stretch to see a similar arc in Lamar’s own career, from his humble origins in Compton to headlining Coachella and being hailed by many as the greatest rapper in the world. So is Kung Fu Kenny more than an eccentric tribute to a minor character in a movie almost twenty years old, or a metaphor for Kendrick Lamar’s rise to stardom? Whatever he turns out to be, he continues a rich tradition of dialogue between African-American and Asian pop culture. 

Find out more about Freer | Slacker’s Kung Fu Wildstyle series here