You may have seen Hollywood films with fight scenes that borrow from Shaolin Kung Fu or Tai Chi martial arts disciplines or you may have seen music videos that feature hip-hop dance styles such as “krumping,” “voguing,” or “locking.” It’s less likely you’ve seen these movement techniques married together.
“Hip-Hop Kung Fu” is a dance and music performance that explores the reciprocal influences of Asian culture — particularly martial arts — on hip-hop, and of hip-hop on Asian culture.
Emilio “Buddha Stretch” Austin, Jr., the show’s choreographer and director, handpicked an international ensemble of dancers, drummers and martial artists to appear in his show. For the last 20-plus years, Stretch has served as an international ambassador of sorts for hip-hop dance, regularly traveling to Asia to teach his moves. According to Stretch, his dancefloor diplomacy is working. There are now “more hip-hop dance studios in Japan, per capita, than anywhere else in the world,” Stretch said. “The Japanese have built their own hip-hop subculture. This is their version of rebellious rock and roll [youth] culture.”
But the influence works both ways. Stretch, who started dancing in 1982, says that the “1960s and ’70s kung fu flicks and [Chinese-American martial artist and actor] Bruce Lee played a big part in the beginning of hip-hop and its growth in our culture. Hip-hop dancing shares themes with martial arts movies: you have hero versus villain and fighting staged to music,” both of which became tropes in hip-hop dance.
Emilio “Buddha Stretch” Austin engages in a “locking” dance battle with a rival dancer. Stretch says that battle scenes choreographed to music are prevalent in both hip-hop dancing and martial arts films.
These themes are also prevalent in other aspects of hip-hop culture, such as the music of Wu-Tang Clan — a genre-defining rap group (several members of Wu Tang refer to their home borough of Staten Island as “Shaolin”) — and NYC-based films like Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999), starring Forest Whitaker, which borrows heavily from the “Wild West” aesthetic of martial arts movies.
Tuesday’s event is a free, open dress rehearsal and conversation with the artists at Casita Maria in the Bronx. Wednesday’s event, also free, is the world premiere performance, plus a question-and-answer session after the show, at Asia Society in Manhattan.
“Hip-Hop Kung Fu” is co-presented by Dancing in the Streets, Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education, and the Asia Society as part of HIP HOP GENERATION NEXT: From the South Bronx to East Asia, a citywide series that explores the trajectory of hip-hop culture from its South Bronx origins to Korea and Japan.