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Worlds Collide: Hip-Hop And Chess At The World Chess Hall Of Fame

Benjamin Kaplan

For the next six months chess and hip-hop will live under the same roof here in St. Louis. "Living Like Kings: The Collision of Chess and Hip Hop Culture" is an ever-evolving exhibit examining the relationship between the two art forms. Hip-Hop Chess Federationfounder Adisa Banjoko, 44, thinks hip-hop and chess share a common noble truth.

“The spirit of competition in hip-hop and in chess is what helps us figure out who we are,” Banjoko said.

Competition is just one theme introduced by the exhibit’s centerpiece, a video installation by St. Louis Artist Benjamin Kaplan The video, like the rest of the exhibit, aims to draw a line from chess through history, culture, religion to hip-hop, highlighting the cultural similarities between these two arts. To gain perspective on that through line, Kaplan visited Banjoko in the Bay Area. They spent the visit “talking about jazz and hip-hop and eating Thai food,” according to Kaplan.

The pair say they walked more than 10 miles in a day, visiting different spots in San Francisco, South Hayward, Oakland and Menlo Park, but as Banjoko clarifies: “not like the Silicon Valley side, the get-shot side of Menlo Park.”

Kaplan’s interest in the project started with a preteen and teenage interest in hip-hop. He sees the current project as a way to express respect for a culture.

“For me this was an opportunity to pay homage to these heroes of mine and this philosophy and ideology that has inspired me throughout my life,” said Kaplan, 43.

Left, Jerger Chess Clock. Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame, gift of John Donaldson. Right, Living Like Kings film stills, 2014. Courtesy of of Benjamin Kaplan.
Credit Provided by the World Chess Hall of Fame
Left, Jerger Chess Clock. Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame, gift of John Donaldson. Right, Living Like Kings film stills, 2014. Courtesy of of Benjamin Kaplan.

His visit with Banjoko was supplemented with a diet of hip-hop movies, records and books. Later Banjoko helped line up interviews with RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, Grandmaster Maurice Ashley, Dr. Daaim Shabazz and Grandmaster Jennifer Shahade.

“Everybody comes to it with a different perspective, with a different point of entry,” Kaplan said.

The audio from these interviews are interwoven with expressionistic imagery, still photos of hip-hop performances, digital text manipulation and graphics to complete Kaplan’s 27-minute video.

“It you’re looking to have an experience that’s very linear and very traditional you’re coming to the wrong place,” Kaplan said of his work.  Yet he stressed that his project’s backbone is narrative. And that narrative was largely the product of his conversations with Banjoko.

“I can tell you all this history about the Moors and all this stuff on chess, and what Afrika Bambaataa did, and what Bobby Fischer did,” said Banjoko. “I can’t say that visually. But Ben can and he did. “

Shannon Bailey, 37, the show’s chief curator, helped develop the project and place it in relation to work by Adrian O Walker, Peat “EYEZ” Wollaeger, Daniel Burnett and Christopher Burch, Ruben Aguirre, Ben Pierce, Stan Chisholm, and Nice & Lucx. She’s says the World Chess Hall of Fame had wanted to work with Banjoko since its opening.

“We’re very lucky that we don’t just have to look at one specific avenue of chess, we can look at every cultural aspect of it, all different types of history, all different types of people,” Bailey said. “It just makes sense to kind of look at this intersection between two cultures because people don’t.”

According to Bailey, the Hall of Fame is trying to upset the expectations of what chess-player hip-hop fans look like while highlighting a sport the institution says is just as fun as it is intellectual.

“I think people have a very specific idea of what a chess player is, stereotypically, and the same thing with hip-hop culture. What we’re showing is that there is a complete blend of that,” said Bailey.

The exhibit runs through April 26, 2015. Admission is $5.