- From Kung Fu to Hip Hop: Globalization, Revolution and Popular Culture
The title of M. T. Kato’s critical text From Kung Fu to Hip Hop is not a self-diagnosis of its own sweeping account of popular culture in the post-contemporary world. Rather, this text interweaves a series of conceptual strands between Kung Fu and Hip Hop aesthetics, reading, seeing, and hearing them as simultaneously radical and popular contestations to the hegemonic forces of global capital.
This mode of critique does, of course, seem contradictory. How can something that is “popular,” i.e., commercially congruous with a certain consensus, be “radical” or “revolutionary,” i.e., commercially viable yet incongruous with the logic of global capital? This possibility is Kato’s foundation for the text, beautifully allegorized in the introduction, telling the story behind a now famous quotation from the anarchist and activist Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution,” which allows Kato to draw conceptual intersections between the aesthetics of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do or the music of Lauren Hill and the Zapatista movement, the “Battle of Seattle,” or struggles against Japanese imperialism.
Undoubtedly, Kato’s greatest strength lies in a passionate knowledge of the life, work, and philosophy of Bruce Lee; in fact, at least half of the book could rest on its own as a critical work on Bruce Lee. Chapters 3 and 4, “Mutiny in the Global Village: Bruce Lee Meets Jimi Hendrix” and “Enter the Dragon, Power, and Subversion in the World of Transnational Capital,” are riveting analyses of Lee’s Enter the Dragon in terms of the intersections of filmic, Hollywood “set” narrative and the real, underworld, factory “set” of Hong Kong that, as Kato illustrates, instantiates symbolic resistance on the part of Lee and certain Hong Kong factory workers. Chapter 2, “Burning Asia: Bruce Lee’s Kinetic Narrative of Decolonization,” is a more general attempt to understand Lee’s Kung Fu aesthetics in Fist of Fury and The Way of the Dragon as allegorical of Chinese resistances against Japanese imperialism, or, as Kato puts it, a “kinetic ontology of freedom on the social level.”
By consequence, Hip Hop aesthetics often take second role, despite the title’s suggestion. Nevertheless, Kato’s theoretical and historical accounts of the transformations (and transformative powers) of both cultural fields and sophisticated and rich. It is perhaps most remarkable that this is a first book from a political scientist and activist, rather than a Ph.D. from comparative literature or film studies. Kato is also utilizing a critical savvy that spans from Jameson to Sontag to Guatarri without becoming immersed in debates between theoretical schools of thought.
The most concrete connection between Kung Fu and Hip Hop, as illustrated by Kato, is in the body, or, in the 1970s when Lee’s films [End Page 371] became popular among New York City youth and, intersecting with the birth of Hip Hop, inspired new modes of dancing. Furthermore, Kato illustrates that Lee’s Jeet Kune Do was a bricolage of classical martial arts styles and street fighting, a concept that became integral to the birth of Hip Hop with its earliest DJs and MCs flipping past catalogues of traditional musical forms like jazz or classical, improvising a new mix, a new beat, a new sound. As Kato suggests, both Jeet Kune Do and Hip Hop are both radical in the sense that they generate open-ended systems.
But the elaboration of this connection is sparser than the title might suggest. While Kato’s understanding of Enter the Dragon or Fist of Fury is rigorous in analyzing them as filmic media, Kato’s understanding of Hip Hop aesthetics often rests on secondary generalizations about Hip Hop aesthetics and fails to provide rigorous, parallel analysis of Hip Hop music in terms of musical media or musical form, at least compared with the analyses of Bruce Lee.
For better or for worse, the text attempts to end as an open-ended system with a...