“Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” - Lao Tzu
The levels of symbolism water carry in its fluid nature are just as infinite as the droplets that together create the ocean. Water is the ultimate metaphor; a formless, borderless substance that in its simplicity allows the creation of all life’s complexities.
In much the same way, hip-hop has, over the generations, become a swirling miasma of diverse contributors, styles and messages. It flows in and out of temporal trends, washing over the world in a tide of influence. It is fluid and often simplistic, yet no aspect of modern culture has been left untouched by its potency.
At the ironic risk of oversimplifying the gist of Eastern thought, much of the teachings of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are rooted deeply in saying volumes in as few words as possible. Eastern philosophies emphasize enjoying the infinite complexities of life through a genuine understanding of its interconnectedness. There is no yin without the yang; as above, so below.
Hip-hop, too, is perpetuated by the art of condensing complex thoughts and messages into their most potent forms possible. Our favorite artists are the ones that can expose perspectives that resonate with us or take us out of our personal experience in a matter of 16 or 32 bars.
These similarities I’m pointing out aren’t by coincidence. Eastern thought has influenced hip-hop since the very beginnings, and the unique perspective it lends to our deepest existential inquiries is becoming more prevalent in the culture with each passing day.
I remember the first time I heard Wu-Tang’s “Bring The Ruckus.” Immediately, I was mesmerized by the kung fu movie samples. It wasn’t until later in my hip-hop studies that I realized these weren’t just any kung fu movies, these were tales of Shaolin masters, a sect of Buddhist martial artists whose first temple was erected by an Indian monk named Buddhabhadra.
The Shaolin way was defined by two disciplines, the Chan (referring to Chan Buddhism, the religion of the surrounding region) and Quan, which refers to the martial arts of Shaolin. In the same way, there is no yin without yang, there is no Quan without Chan. Quan is implied by Chan, and the two were never practiced as singular disciplines.
While the Wu-Tang Clan were my introduction to Eastern thought represented in hip-hop, the three teachings (Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism) had already been bubbling up in the lyrics of artists like N.W.A and A Tribe Called Quest.
“I’m expressing with my full capabilities / And now I’m livin' in correctional facilities / Cause some don’t agree with how I do this / I get straight, meditate like a Buddhist” - N.W.A, “Express Yourself”
Today, the references to Eastern thought in hip-hop have increased exponentially, with entire movements being based on the principles of mindfulness, fluidity, and enlightenment. Joey Bada$$ and his Beast Coast collective, for example, create music steeped in ideas like the third eye (an idea represented in both Hindu and Zen belief structures), astral projection and meditation.
Elsewhere, artists from Kendrick Lamar to KAYTRANADA have referenced core principles of Eastern thought, whether directly in their lyrics or through overarching themes in their music.
“I don’t contemplate, I meditate then off your fucking head” - Kendrick Lamar, “D.N.A.”
“When I be in my own world, the whole world's forgotten / Meditating in silence besides the loud in my pocket” - J.I.D, “LeTrow”
There’s something about the simplicity of the three teachings that resonates with hip-hop culture, and it’s not at all surprising. Hip-hop at its core is rooted in authenticity; this is a no-bullshit culture. Eastern thought trims the fat of existential inquiry and instead places emphasis on a singular truth, a unification of the duality of life that often leaves us desperately treading water in a sea of confusion.
Hip-hop has always been a constantly evolving amalgamation of influences—reggae, funk, disco, blues. All these styles, while still existing individually, managed to converge into one hyper-potent musical culture that continues to send ripples of impact through everyday life. The incorporation of Eastern influence has aligned itself with hip-hop’s inherent authenticity to even further strengthen an already solid foundation of forces.
As hip-hop continues to unify the old with the new on so many levels, the impact of the three teachings on its ability to do so is increasing with each new generation. Hip-hop is fluid, adapting and yet, just like Lao Tzu said of water, nothing can resist it.