Fans of hip hop music may be surprised to discover that kung fu movies had a big influence on the development of the genre in New York in the 1970s and early 1980s – and even influenced the wider street art scene.
“All the guys who were part of the original hip hop and graffiti scene used to watch kung fu movies,” says Tom Vick, the organiser of Kung Fu Wildstyle, an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington DC. “Admission prices for kung fu films were cheap, and they would watch them in cinemas in Times Square. The films had a lot of energy, and everyone got into them. Even some breakdancing moves were directly influenced by martial arts moves.”
The Smithsonian is presenting the Kung Fu Wildstyle exhibition – which originally showed in Hong Kong before travelling to Shanghai and New York – as part of a program surrounding the new National Museum of African American Art and Culture, which opened in Washington last September. “We’re doing a year-long celebration with the other Smithsonian institutions to welcome the new museum,” says Vick. “We thought this would be great way to make a connection between African American and Asian culture, because of the intertwined history of kung fu and early hip hop, and street art.”
The show features the artwork of Fab 5 Freddy (real name Fred Braithwaite), one of New York’s original graffiti artists, and MC Yan, a Hong Kong hip hop artist and graffiti artist. Freddy’s artwork depicts Bruce Lee, who was a major influence on the nascent hip hop culture of the 1970s. Yan merges the idea of graffiti with the style of Chinese painting. “Fab 5 Freddy’s idea was to take the principles of hip hop sampling and apply them to art,” says Vick. “There’s a repetition in the images, a kind of layering – it’s a kind of visual equivalent of hip hop in a painting. MC Yan does a similar thing. His paintings are multiple-panel assemblages made with magic markers and spray paint, so his work is connected to street-art materials.”
Freddy and Yan originally met over the internet and became friends due to an interest in art and hip hop, as well as a shared admiration for Bruce Lee. Freddy was intrigued by Yan’s interest in African American music. “Yan came out of an underground scene that was inspired by urban New York,” says Vick. “He restructured what he saw, and applied it to his own culture and the political scene in Hong Kong. Fab found it interesting, because Yan’s culture had originally influenced Fab himself. It had kind of come full circle.”
The major connector between the two cultures he adds, is Bruce Lee, an iconic figure in both Hong Kong and African American culture. “Lee became a symbol of oppressed people everywhere. They related to the way he fought back against authority in his films. He was certainly a cool martial arts guy, but he was more than that – he was a political figure. The hip hop community and graffiti artists responded to that, as those ideas are deeply embedded in hip hop and graffiti art.”
The Kung Fu Wildstyle exhibition also features an event with Shaolin Jazz, a DJ group that mixes a live soundtrack of hip hop, soul and funk to accompany classic kung fu movies. “This shows how the two cultures have evolved together over the years,” notes Vick.
Hip hop group Wu Tang Clan, who debuted in the 1990s, are an example of how the relationship between African American music and kung fu developed, he adds. “Wu Tang Clan based their whole mythos on the idea of brotherhood that they got from kung fu movies. The idea of clans that defend themselves, defend each other, and have codes of honour was directly lifted from kung fu movies. Martial arts was was not just a physical influence, it was a philosophical one, too.”