RZA on the sacred art of protecting Black stories

RZA shares how he uses television, film, and strategy to preserve the legacies of himself and the Wu-Tang Clan.

The North Face

When the Wu-Tang Clan burst onto the scene in the early 1990s, they were like nothing the world had ever seen. A crew of 9 of the deadliest MCs in New York City, embracing an aesthetic that merged pro-Black ideology, kung-fu flicks, and street hip-hop before expanding into fashion and video games, the Wu-Tang Clan reinvented the idea of rap superstars. They continued to innovate in 2014, countering the digital commodification of music with Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, an album whose singular ornate copy was sold at an auction for $2 million to disgraced hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli. (Shkreli was later convicted of fraud, and the album was sold in another auction by the U.S. government.)

RZA has spent substantial time in recent years preserving the rich history that Wu-Tang created. The producer/rapper has diversified his career to work in TV and film, and he’s used those as vehicles to help tell the Wu-Tang Clan’s story. In 2019 he worked with journalist and filmmaker Sacha Jenkins to release Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, a Showtime docuseries that told the story of the group’s career. This year saw the second season of Wu-Tang: An American Saga, a Hulu series that takes the approach of a television drama to narrate the crew’s rise. And in October 2021, RZA donned the North Face jacket he wore to Wu-Tang Forever sessions in the late 90s as part of the company’s It’s More Than A Jacket initiative, a crowdsourced archive of North Face’s history that was done in collaboration with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

RZA’s approach is shrewd, not only in terms of business, but in terms of retaining ownership of a narrative: Black people’s contributions are often lost or mischaracterized by white historians who are either invested in stealing those stories for themselves, or have so little involvement in the cultures themselves that despite good intentions, they’re not the right ones to retell them. RZA sat down with Mic to discuss his approach to preserving the Wu-Tang legacy, and ownership of Black stories.

This story has been edited for clarity and length.

You wore this North Face jacket around the time of Wu-Tang Forever, and you ran it back for your first solo album. I generally see the Wu-Tang Forever era as the time when Wu-Tang truly took over: you had the rare double rap album, Wu Wear, and I'm pretty sure that you guys were working on the video game around then, too. What was your biggest challenge around that period of your career?

I wore it during the recording of Wu-Tang Forever. Even the photo shoots — there's a single cover for the song we made called "It's Yourz." On that cover, it has the entire Wu-Tang Clan, and there I am with that jacket on again. And then, when I went on to make my Bobby Digital album, I wore it a lot — and that's kind of when I first got those pointy rings — and there's photos of me in that jacket wearing my pointy rings.

I think some of the biggest challenges was: how do you not lose yourself to stardom? We had the number one album in various countries. Probably one of the first hip-hop groups to have Times Square banners hanging in midtown Manhattan, million dollar videos, things like that. It was hard to stay grounded. I think some of my New York vibe and swag kept me grounded. Usually the money sends you right to the shiny suits, but once again, you see me with The North Face on, keeping it rugged still. I got a little lost, as everybody do, but I don't think I ever went out of the galaxy.

Over the years, you've had a unique way of preserving history, both with the Wu and for yourself. I know that recently you've been asked more about the floods at your studios in Staten Island in the mid-90s, where you guys lost an estimated 500 beats and had to recreate so much music from scratch. How much of that experience impacted your perception of preserving history?

When I tried to protect myself from the flood on my third location, can you believe that the water came from the top? [laughs] I was like, "Okay, I gotta figure out this water wisdom. What am I doing wrong here?" Anyway, that's a whole other hour conversation. But I would say that, even more than the loss of something to preserve, I think it's important that while we're living, we're preserving what we've been through. Life can be considered a map, and a good map draw is when you leave a clear path to that location.

I strive to leave a clear path and clear footprints. One, for my family — if nobody at all, I hope my sons and my daughters, and my cousins, and brothers and sisters, and nieces and nephews all could see that there's somebody in the family who navigated this world successfully, to where the basic 12 jewels of life are obtainable and maintainable. And then second, to all the fans and the people out there. Those 12 jewels are important to me.

Today we're talking about clothing, which is a jewel of life. You gotta have clothing to cover yourself in the atmosphere, and that clothing is mental, physical, and spiritual. So, I strive to leave footprints through preserving history. I still got an SB 1200. I still got an ASR. In fact, if you come to my studio, you're liable to see 30, 40 years worth of equipment. When you come into the basement, you're gonna see a Studer two-way 24-track sitting there like a piece of furniture. That cost 50 Gs to buy that shit back in the day, and that was used to make music. But that's my family able to see the history and the travel. It took that giant thing to do what this small $2,000 laptop could do. But without that giant thing, we never would have this small thing.

So many Black artists' stories have been lost to gatekeepers who are outsiders of the culture. But to me, your career has been an interesting case study of how to keep that story in the right people’s hands. Do you have a moment in your career where you can distinctly remember your story being misrepresented?

To be honest, when you translate the story, there’s always going to be some error. That's just life. Our conversation may be an hour, but it may take only 10 minutes to read the article. That's just something we gotta be conscious of. First time I was aware of that was when I wrote my first book, The Wu-Tang Manual. I proofread it and I corrected it so many times. Then it finally came out, and it had errors in it. And I'm alive. Imagine the history that's wrong for somebody a hundred years ago, 200 years ago, 400 years ago, a thousand years ago, 4,000 years ago. It's hard to take someone's life and put it in a thousand pages.

You brought up something very interesting about the Black history of it all, and who tells our story. Sadly, there's been so many stereotypes about what we can't do, our intelligence level, our enunciation of words, our vocabulary and understanding of our lexicon. Our white American counterparts, they get the position to tell our stories because maybe some people feel that they are more qualified. I had a great talk with a good white brother executive recently, and I said, the problem that we have in America is that maybe their argument was good in the 40s. Maybe the literacy level of Black America or Latin America was, if it was 10 million (Americans total), maybe only 2 million of us could read. But in the 60s, that changed. In the 70s, that changed. In the 90s, it changed. Now we're here, the 2020s. You can't think of what you saw then as able to be applied now. There are great filmmakers. I mean, you look at the Black Panther film, it actually set a new pace for Marvel films, 'cause it put an emotional story in it that overshadowed the beautiful action that was also great. And here's a young Black director. He wasn't even 50 years old, it's a young dude who talks fast and just has a great brain. The point I'm saying is that the talent pool has increased. So, we gotta accept that change and accept that growth, and allow those stories to be told by people who have cultural context, and yet also the American intellectualism that we didn't have generations ago.

...That's why on the documentary (Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men), I had Sacha Jenkins do it. Even though I was in partnership with some other, so-called bigger producers and bigger productions, I decided to go with Sacha Jenkins. My wife actually helped me make that decision. I presented Sacha's argument which was, "We should be telling our own stories." Not just Blacks telling Black stories, but he meant hip-hop as well. My wife said, "He's a hundred percent correct." So, these other guys who would’ve been wining and dining me, and had a rough draft deal on the table, we’re gonna tell them 'no.' I'm gonna go ahead and roll with Sacha and this company.

The documentary was to capture the story as best we can in the reality of it, and then the TV series was to dramatize it. The third tier of the plan, which I'm in progress of, is an ODB movie biopic. Like the five-year Wu-Tang plan, this was a five-year media plan that I concocted, I meditated on, and I'm striving to live out. So far, it's working well.

Many people who are in the position to create a show like Wu-Tang: An American Saga would say, "I'm gonna be the one to tell my story, and that's it." But you have actors portraying you and your crew, you have a writer's room — so many other people who you're relying on to tell your story. How did you learn the balance of what to hold onto tightly, versus what to let go and to leave to the people you're working with?

I fortunately have not had that problem. I was blessed with the opportunity to learn as I go in Hollywood. I entered as a composer, and I was around some of the best directors and actors in the business. I was on sets with Forest Whitaker, Uma Thurman, Wesley Snipes, Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington. So by the time I directed my first film, I had a whole other capacity of understanding. I'm actually directing A-list Hollywood people as a director and as a writer. Most creative people that want to leave one field for another don't understand the process. It was actually my understanding of the process that made me say, "This is not a movie. This is a series. This is a saga." We always said, "Wu-Tang: the saga continues." So, I'm gonna take our own dialect and our own words and bring it to life. But it ain't just our side; it's an American saga. So in the writer's room, I have a microcosm of America. Wu-Tang itself is a collaboration of great artists — Method Man, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard — collaborating to make one friendly product. In my writer's room, I'm looking at it the same way.

Co-creator Alex Tse once described the show as "historic fiction." So this is a very real story, but it's also dramatized. I'm imagining you being out somewhere and people see you, and they're asking about the details of this show, thinking everything happened verbatim. How do you decide what's interesting enough as it actually happened, versus what needs to be changed for TV?

Every story, every episode is starting with as is. It's really about assigning the situation to the characters to continue the story and the drama. You know, [the relationship between] Ghost[face Killa] and my sister, it was a secret and it became a reality. I thought it was not right. We talked about it and he was like, "Yo, I love her." And she said, "I love him." In the show, he says that to Divine [instead of me], ‘ but he said it to the family, is the most important part about it. We took that, and we dramatized it into that character so that it didn't confuse the tug of war that he was having with Bobby's character. It's a lot of reality in our show, but we get to play with time. We get to play with characters on who's going to be the one to express the reality. Those are some of the benefits we got in dramatization.

I can imagine a lot of people, if they're going into something like this, their primary mission is — "Yo, I don't want to fuck this story up. I've seen all these people fuck our stories up, I wanna make sure that we don't lose what happened.” But you seem a lot more open to getting other people's experiences, and helping them sort of reflect what happened in your own experiences.

Well, we don't wanna fuck the story up either. Just to be clear. We wanna give you as much detail as we can in these one-hour episodes. Right now, it's the 20 episodes of Wu-Tang: An American Saga. That's just 20 hours. How could 20 hours tell 25 years of history? There's no comparison. But we hope that the spiritual truth is there — and it is there. Some of the major incidents that's gonna make catalysts happen, happens.

I think Ashton [Sanders] does a good job depicting you. But this year, there's been a lot of conversation about Ashton's voice when he's depicting you. I want to get into the creative process around how you guys arrived at that.

Let me jump right on that. The funny thing is, I did an interview recently with Roxanne Shante, on her station. She knew me back then, we had days together. She's like, "I love the guy that's playing Ghost. And the guy that's playing you — he is killing it. Y'all don't know, I know RZA. When RZA started, he used to be building, talking mathematics and all that. He sounded like a kung fu movie." She thinks he sounds exactly like I did.

For me, I had to ask [Sanders] — "That's how you hear me, yo?" He watches like a lot of the old stuff, tapes. He's not looking at me now, and people probably are more familiar with me now. I've been in movies. They're not remembering when they couldn't see me, when I was almost a mystery. I didn't really come out the box until '97 in all reality. But it is interesting to hear everybody's comments on it.

When you are someone in the public eye whose life story has been subject to so much scrutiny and visibility, It can be interesting to see what people choose to keep private to themselves. Did you ever have any difficulty, whether it's back then or now, of trying to figure out what to keep for yourself versus what people can have access to via museums, interviews, or your art?

I think I've done a good job at that, to be honest with you. One thing that I think I should share, no matter what, because it's in the natural duty of life, is knowledge. I don't sell my words, I sell my time, because that's the only thing I can’t get back. But the information, the knowledge, the experiences — which is basically the wisdom — all that should be accessible.

I can honestly say — all praise due to Allah — I'm living a good life. I've seen a crazy struggle, the first half of my life. I'm one of 'em dudes that was 19 people in two bedrooms, about 600 square feet. I know that extreme level of poverty and deprivation, but as I’m talking to you now, I'm in a penthouse looking over at the city. My balcony is 2000 square feet. [laughs] In an American life, that's the goal, the dream. That's something that, as a Black man, has been deprived of our ancestors. Their conditions were even worse than the condition I just described in my childhood. And there's a path out of it. Of course, their struggles ignited the path, and the struggles in the 60s enforced the path. Now we get to live the results of that path. But now that it's possible for us, those who are traveling the paths should leave the footprints. So, certain things should not be taboo if it's going to help others. I've definitely kept my family real private, but if there's something that me and my family is going through that's going to help your family, it may be wise for me to share that so that more families can benefit.