HIP HOP'S AFRIKAN MARTIAL ARTS ROOTS by Balogun Ojetade
Opposing groups of young men and women somersault, spin on their heads and bump chests with each other, driven by a pounding, booming drum beat and rhythmic chanting.
To most people nowadays, the above passage evokes images of urban youth breakdancing to music spun by a D.J. as an M.C. (the hip-hop term for a person who performs rap songs) deftly delivers rhyming lyrics on the microphone.
However, the passage could just as accurately describe a gathering of warriors in a forest in ancient Africa.
IN THE BEGINNING
The Yoruba people of West Africa believe that the Creator, Olodumare, sent knowledge, wisdom and understanding to Ikole Aiye (Earth) in the form of the arts – music, dance, poetry, visual arts and, of course, martial arts – in order to make the world and the heavens less enigmatic to man.
Olodumare appointed Ogun – the Spirit of Iron and War and patron of all warriors and hunters – as “overseer” of the world of craft, song and poetry, as well as the martial arts.
African martial artists who are initiates within Egbe Ogun – the “Society of Warriors” – are also practitioners of Ijala, the supreme lyrical form of Yoruba poetic art.
While chanting Ijala – or “war poetry” – warriors pound their chests, strike menacing poses and display strength and bravado as they swagger around opposing Ijala artists. The movement of the Ijala practitioners, as well as the delivery of their chants is nearly identical to the way an M.C. would deliver his lyrics during a rap “battle” – a mock fight, in which rappers attempt to defeat each other through the use of their lyrics. The one who wins is usually the M.C. who most excites the audience.
Just as M.C.s engage in rap battles as a peaceful alternative to physical violence, so too do Ijala artists battle with their poetry in lieu of physical warfare.
Among the Yoruba of Southwest Nigeria, the word “Ijala”, on one level, means “warrior”. “Ijala is a contraction of the word “ija”, which means “to fight” and “ala”, which means “White Cloth”. The symbol of the white cloth is associated with Obatala, which means “King of the White Cloth”. Obatala is regarded by the Yoruba as the Spirit of Peace, Patience, Intelligence, Laughter and Morality. One of the functions of Obatala is to maintain ethical standards within society. The word Ijala suggests that the essence of the warrior is aligned with moral principles and the ideals that are at the foundation of spiritual transformation.
Research into the structure, content and delivery of Ijala poems provides indisputable evidence that these poems are the source of today’s rap and the hip-hop movement.
Let’s look at two Ijala poems and compare them to today’s lyrics in hip-hop:
Ijala Poem 1
I now ask: where is Ogun to be found?
Ogun is found where there is a fight.
Ogun is found where there is harsh rebuke.
Ogun is found where there are torrents of blood.
Torrents of blood, the sight of which nearly strangles one,
Like the waters of River Aago in flood.
Ijala Poem 2
It is the spirit Ogun that I worship,
But the country bumpkins worship mere trees.
Those who are not wise,
Those whose mental development was arrested in childhood,
Absolute nincompoops, they are.
Complete morons, thorough simpletons they are to challenge Ogun.
Children’s heads will lie scattered on the ground,
Adults’ heads will lie scattered about like African bread-fruits,
On the day Ogun is challenged.
Now, let’s look at lyrics from “Dangerous Mindz”, by the hip-hop group Gravediggaz:
You're trapped in the black drama, you hear the laughter
seconds after that you fade out, you're played out, you're laid out
Your heart nearly gave out, you're lucky that you made out
with just a few scars when the beating ends
The streets let ya breathe again
But evil men, will soon be on the receiving end
of Universal Law, I'm callin on the meek and the poor
To fight back and never forfeit the day you have to go to war
With forces that are armed upon the seven continental borders
A mental fortress is essential to absorb this
My sword hits the human orb until it orbits
In the art of war kids see Grym Reap be morbid
Notice that both Ijala poetry and hip-hop lyrics paint a graphic and violent picture. Both deal with war, of which Ogun is the controlling spirit and essence, however note how they both value intelligence and the powers of cognition, of which Obatala is the controlling spirit and essence, as evidenced throughout Ijala Poem 2, which insults the intelligence of those who challenge Ogun and by the following line from Dangerous Mindz: “A mental fortress is essential to absorb this.” Both Ijala Poem 2 and “Dangerous Mindz” also speak of decapitation, which ultimately results in the loss of one’s intelligence and powers of cognition: Children’s heads will lie scattered on the ground, Adults’ heads will lie scattered about like African bread-fruits, On the day Ogun is challenged. – Ijala Poem 2; My sword hits the human orb until it orbits, In the art of war kids see Grym Reap be morbid – “Dangerous Mindz”.
On a deeper level, Ijala translates to mean “Warrior skills guided by White Cloth”. This indicates that the Forces in Nature that guide life on Earth form the foundation of the fighting techniques in African martial arts.
In African martial arts, Warriors learn to connect to the inner self (“Ori Inu”). It is through this connection that the student of African martial arts can invoke the Forces in Nature that give added power (ase) to acquired, and inherent, fighting skills.
The integration of ase (power) and iwa rere (balanced character) is the responsibility and goal of every African Warrior. It is said of those who achieve this state of oneness with power and character (Ogun and Obatala): “Ijalagun molu”, or “Those who are possessed by the Spirit of the Warrior never lose”.
It is in achieving oneness of those polarities – ase and iwa rere – Ogun and Obatala – the physical and the spiritual – that the student of African martial arts develops what, to most Westerners, seems magical and hard to believe. It is not uncommon for warriors in Africa to render their opponents unconscious with the spoken word (or “ofo ase”). This has been witnessed, documented and is still integrated into the African martial artist’s training.
The acrobatic, aggressive, fight like movements in breakdancing and its West Coast hip-hop counterpart, Krumping, are nothing new, nor did they come from Capoeira, as many believe. In fact, Capoeira, breakdancing and Krumping flow from the same African source.
The B-Boys who “created” breakdancing were simply rediscovering ritual warrior dances, as seen among the Peuhl of Guinea, the Akamba of Kenya and warriors from Senegal, The Gambia and the Ivory Coast. These ritual warrior dances are identical in structure to breakdancing and include somersaults, back spins, elbow spins and the holding of contorted poses.
The youth who “created” Krumping were also rediscovering ritual warrior dances, as seen among the Nuba of the Sudan and the Wolof of Senegal. In fact, the movements, the circle-formation of the dancers and the trance-like state the dancers undergo in Krumping and in the Bekou Balla Gaye warrior dances of the Wolof Laamb Wrestlers are nearly identical. The Krump Dancers wear face paint, just as the Nuba of the Sudan and many wrestlers throughout the continent of Africa.
Documentation from as early as 1570A.D. shows commentary from the Portuguese on the African skills of evasion, called Sanga in the Ki-Kongo language, or Sanguar in the Ndonga language. The Portuguese witnessed these skills demonstrated by the Imbare (elite warriors similar to the Samurai of Japan), who were able to twist, turn and somersault in order to avoid projectiles (arrows and thrown weapons) as well as swords, knives and clubs.
The great ruler of the Kongo nation – Queen Nzingha – was said to have been able to defeat no less than twenty-five warriors at a time using Sanga.
One Portuguese warrior is documented as saying he witnessed Queen Nzingha apologize after defeating over twenty warriors in a demonstration because “she was not able to defeat them as quickly as in her youth”. Queen Nzingha was in her seventies at the time.
Sanga practitioners were – in addition to being able to twist, leap, somersault and dodge out of harm’s way – skilled in hand-to-hand combat and the use of sticks and other weapons. These martial arts skills brought renown to the Imbare and their public exhibitions amazed and intimidated the Portuguese, Italians, Dutch and , indeed, other Africans.
Of course, all of the skills possessed by Queen Nzingha and the Imbare fall under the umbrella of “wrestling” among Africans, The African concept of wrestling, however, is quite different from the Asian or Western concept of wrestling.
In the African martial arts, to “wrestle” means to put your opponent on his back, belly, or side in order to render him more vulnerable to a finishing technique. This goal can be achieved by any means: strikes, throws, sweeps, joint-locks, or weapon attacks. Thus, if you hit your opponent in the head with a club and he falls from the force of the blow, you have – by African standards – wrestled him.
The phenomenon of people naturally rediscovering their rhythms and rituals is referred to by Africans as “flash of the spirit”. The belief is that whatever our ancestors did comes out of us as flashes of rediscovery and skillful improvisation. With guidance from elders who are skilled in the very things we slowly, but surely rediscover on our own, we can speed up the process of learning and learn more thoroughly. It is like a person who cooks well, but with no formal training. Formal training from a master chef would elevate that person’s cooking into the realm of excellence and mastery.
In conclusion, everything from the movement, to the style of dress, to the attitude lends credence to the fact that the root of hip-hop is the African martial arts and that the African martial arts continue to influence the development of today’s most popular form of creative expression.