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Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010

The RZA’s ‘Tao of Wu’ Explores Faith and Practice

A rapper’s spiritual guide

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When New York rap artist Jay-Z says, “Jesus can’t save you, life starts when the church ends,” he touches on the twofold conundrum of faith and practice that is explored in The Tao of Wu (Riverhead). New York rappers know about sin in their city, and the internal struggles of breaking through. They wear the hard knocks of their lives—violence, drugs, poverty—like a badge of honor.

So imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon the book The Tao of Wu. The author? Founder, producer and rap artist of one of the greatest and grimiest rap groups to push through in the mid-’90s and leave its mark on the world, the platinum-selling Wu-Tang Clan.

 Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in Staten Island, Robert Diggs, better known as the RZA, co-founded the group, and refers to himself as the Abbot of Wu-Tang Clan. He writes about the hardships of growing up in the slums of New York and gaining the 12 Jewels of Life (for obtaining spiritual wealth) based on Islam, in addition to his other faiths: Taoism, Christianity and the Universal Law.

The RZA draws the roadmap to Wu-Tang’s success, and reflects on the recipe of Wu, crediting Staten Island as the magic ingredient that brought his esoteric lyrics and their eclectic style together.

“A nine-man hip-hop crew based on mathematics, chess, comics, and kung-fu flicks wasn’t springing up in the middle of a Manhattan art scene. Only on a remote island can something like King Kong grow to his full capacity,” he writes.

In this half-memoir, half-spiritual guide, the RZA tells his story in seven lessons based on pivotal moments in his life. He begins his story at the roughest point, remembering when he was beaten as a kid for his penny candy money, and goes on to describe living in a two-bedroom apartment, as an adult, with 19 people.

Though his words of enlightenment are undoubtedly provocative and resonate with spiritual truths, in life he maintained the actions of a fool, a mere product of the ghetto—selling drugs, having babies by five or six different women, and abusing drugs and alcohol.

The writing in the book has an easygoing, colloquial style. His candid, authentic voice is unforgettable. The RZA switches from teaching a Zen approach to life to using the N-word and F-bombs in his examples: “Jesus said, ‘Turn the other cheek.’ That’s good advice on many levels. In a street way, it means, if a nigga gonna punch you in the face, you pull back, then come in and fuck him up for real.”

A rags-to-riches story of the mind, the spirit and financial wealth, this book reaches new audiences, teaching the Tao, 12 Jewels and the Christian faith from a street-smarts perspective with a humbled-in-Hollywood reflection. It’s clustered with contradictions and coupled with nuggets of wisdom to chew on or spit out at your discretion. It is described as “a spiritual memoir as the world has never seen before.” You can say that again.