By Allison Kugel
As the leader of the legendary multi-platinum selling rap group, The Wu-Tang Clan, RZA, or Bobby, as he is known to close friends and colleagues, had a particular way of putting beats to razor-sharp lyrics that made you feel part of a song’s creative process. Fans feel RZA’s music, both from Wu-Tang and his solo and collaborative efforts, on a cellular level.
An urban-bred intellectual who expresses through a mic or camera lens, RZA is considered prophetic to his community and perhaps a unicorn to mainstream culture. With a penchant for Eastern philosophy as is evident in the name Wu-Tang Clan and lyrical nods to Shaolin Kung Fu, RZA shared, “One thing I’m looking forward to doing in the near future… I’ve never been to India, and I have to check that one-off,” referring to the top item on his bucket list. I recommended he connect with Indian author and yogi Jaggi Vasudev, also known as Sadhguru when he makes the trip. RZA is so well-read and well-versed, it felt novel, giving him someone and something beyond his scope to Google.
As a film director, RZA paints complex portraits with colorful, multi-faceted characters that inspire engagement and empathy. His latest directorial effort, the allegorical Cut Throat City (streaming on Netflix), features an all-star cast and examines the lives of people living in New Orleans’ economically depressed Lower Ninth Ward in the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. The historically disastrous storm broke through poorly constructed levees, flooding out the city’s most vulnerable residents and leaving them with little hope or help from FEMA. Much like our current pandemic, Katrina shone a light on shameful racial and economic inequities. Though the film’s story is a sobering one and the lead character’s decisions are morally ambiguous, he insists the film portrays “a story of redemption,” with parallels to his own life.
“No one [in this film] is completely bad, and no one is completely good. They were all flawed. It exemplified their humanity, and it comes down to a choice. The theme of [Cut Throat City] examines the importance of dreams against a backdrop of survival.”
Reflecting on his early days in the spotlight, RZA denounces some of his youthful bravado as he recites a trademark Wu-Tang lyric for me, “Wu-Yang Clan ain’t nuthing ta f*ck wit,” and laughs out loud at an ego-driven existence that took center stage early on. It’s now tempered, he says, by a need to serve something greater than himself. Throughout our conversation, RZA’s words are prophetic, culturally provocative, and spiritually centered. We talked about a life lived outside the matrix of material trappings, a topic initiated by him and encouraged by me.
Allison Kugel: Do you believe anything is possible, or that circumstances dictate our destiny?
RZA: Wow, that’s a strong question. I think that persistence overcomes resistance. Therefore, every possibility is actually expressed in our children’s wishes. The things we wish for as young minds and things we thrive in our spirits for, I think they make that which seems impossible possible. The whole Greek study of Icarus and the idea of men flying… that seems like it would be magic or some other thing. We fly every day now in many different variations of flight, for example, flights that leave our basic atmosphere and travel across the whole world. So, what seems impossible, I think positivity and possibilities are probably boundless.
Allison Kugel: What lessons can be learned from poverty, and what lessons can be learned from wealth?
RZA: Poverty and wealth are two very different circumstances, but those are physical circumstance. I think we have to be conscious to not have the physical circumstance truly shake our spiritual and our personality. I grew up in poverty, but I was never unhappy. Joy and love were in our household. My mother was a single mother, but joy and love made up for the lack of food and shelter. The point I make in saying that is, of course, in a capitalist society, our freedoms are compartmentalized. Therefore, you could be physically free and not spiritually free. You can be spiritually and physically free, and not economically free. Since economic freedom is a requirement for proper food, clothing, and shelter, it can become something that transcends the physical, and bleeds into the spiritual. If life was simple, everything we want is already provided for us by the planet. It’s just that when you are dealing with certain [economic] systems, they take control over us. Even in some religious traditions they have ways of controlling what is naturally ours.
Allison Kugel: I’m assuming you spent time in New Orleans prior to directing Cut Throat City?
RZA: I traveled there many times and spent three weeks studying the city. This film wasn’t just about these four guys in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was the fact that this was a story about what happens when your aspirations turn into desperation. That I know, that I’ve felt, and that I’ve lived. In this film, Blink (the film’s lead character) was a nerd, in all reality. He was an academic and went to college. He had a talent, you know?
Allison Kugel: That is what is so heartbreaking about this story. Here is a guy who went to Tulane University, who has extraordinary talent for drawing and storytelling, and it’s wasted talent. It’s a squandered life. But then, at the end of the film, there are two different endings. Explain that…
RZA: A lot of people have been tweeting about that and asking what’s going on. The artist in me left it up for interpretation. If you go back and look at the film closely, you’ll see that there is an egg in there that should answer the questions. Maybe people missed it, but the reason why I did that is because, in life, very few of us get second chances. But, what happens if you give a man a second chance? I, myself, am a second chance-er. When I read this story, I felt the character Blink all in my system. I felt his pain. Then I realized I actually was an artist and a smart guy who got caught up in gangs and the streets, and ended up facing eight years in jail, but I won my trial. When I won my trial, I changed my life. I focused on studying and making myself better, looking at my creativity, and I formed The Wu-Tang Clan. I became a success story because I was given a second chance.
Allison Kugel: Sometimes a single decision can change everything…
RZA: And I wasn’t bad. A lot of people are not bad, they just made a bad decision. [I wish] the criminal justice system could look at it that way. Most of the guys in the Wu were the same. We were all arrested felons or something like that, and we had a second chance. I wanted to express that in this film. In the original screenplay, though, I have to be honest, he dies. But as a director, I get to tell the story, and I get to shape it. I wanted to shape it with optimism. I said, “I’m going to leave some optimism there and let the people who watch it decide, which pill would they take?” In the film, the detective tells him, “A pen will get you further than a gun.” I’m living proof. It was a pen that got me further than anytime I was trying to do something foolish with a gun.
Allison Kugel: What do you want people to take away from the film, Cut Throat City beyond being entertained?
RZA: I would like to think the people who see these four main characters in the film as criminals can now understand that they are a victim of circumstance. If we can walk away and understand that some people in bad situations are victims of circumstances, we can prevent them. I don’t know if that makes sense to you.
Allison Kugel: Here is the question I ask everybody. What do you think you came into this world to learn, and what do you think you came here to teach in this lifetime?
RZA: Wow, that is a beautiful question. What did I come to learn? One thing I am learning is humility. Even though I may appear, on the surface, to have it, it was something that I think I lacked. I was pretty conceited, really coming up. If you listen to my old music, I acted like, “I’m the greatest, and everybody else is beneath me (laughs).”
Allison Kugel: Well, you were in your twenties, right?
RZA: Yes. Exactly. But it’s good to understand that there is a universe out there. You can be a sun, but there’s other suns. But I do think what I’m destined to teach, if anything, is that you can be a living example of your own ideas. Through my art, I’ll be able to inspire, and that’s the best thing. I think I was brought here to inspire. I was born to inspire.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture columnist and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.