If anybody came out to GZA’s lecture on “Consciousness, Creativity, Music, & the Origin of the Universe” that packed Leacock 132 last Saturday eagerly awaiting the Wu-Tang Clan founding member to explain advanced scientific principles to the audience, then they may have gone home feeling disappointed and unfulfilled. This, however, would be a shame, because in spite of the esoteric knowledge he lacked, GZA still managed to justify to McGill why fellow musicians and fans have affectionately referred to him as “the Genius” throughout his career.
GZA isn’t a scientist—it would be pretty remarkable if he had amassed a significant amount of academic knowledge while making music in one of the greatest rap groups of all time—and he wasn’t trying to be one when he spoke to the crowded lecture hall. Rather, his scientific genius comes from an acute awareness of the role that science plays in our everyday lives, and an appreciation for the discipline as something that can and should be accessible to people from all walks of life.
“Music has always had a direct influence over my life,” GZA explained. “Stevie Wonder once said, ‘Music is a world in itself and a [universal] language we understand.’”
Much of the lecture—which integrated various short rap verses intermittently—and the ensuing question period centred around the role of science on GZA’s personal and musical journeys, and his feeling that music can be an incredibly useful tool for relating and communicating scientific thought. In fact, GZA is currently in the process of working on a concept album called Dark Matter that will tell the story of a journey through time and space and represent the way in which dark matter affects the motion of the universe gravitationally by applying it to the lyrical motion of his music.
One of GZA’s first encounters with science took the form of a game of chess with his cousin when he was nine years old. While he would not touch the game for over another 10 years, GZA never forgot the rules.
“When I began playing seriously as an adult, I learned the tactics and principles,” GZA explained. “[These included] the time, force, and space of chess. Time, as the amount of moves; space, as the squares you control; and force, your military—your army.”
Through employing these strategies, GZA became more intrigued with the science behind the game of chess. Playing in East New York, Brooklyn, and Washington Square Park—where he reached as many as 78 games per Sunday—GZA began to consider mathematical principles like algorithms and probability while strategizing his play.
Discovering the nuances of the game, however, did not just improve GZA’s performance. The artist began to apply the same strategies he used in chess to situations in his life. His thinking shifted to a more scientific perspective, where he tried to approach scenarios from all angles and question the status quo—similar to how scientists interrogate their own experimental problems.
“The active thinking and philosophy stimulated my creative mind to consider all the possibilities and search for more,” GZA said.
This open and creative mindset helped spark the program Science Genius, which is an urban science initiative developed by the Genius himself and Christopher Emdin from Columbia University’s Teachers College.
GZA developed Science Genius to get more students interested and comfortable with scientific topics. While he knew he was not a science teacher, GZA also recognized that as a musician, he could walk into a classroom and provide students with a model to learn. Seizing the opportunity to spread his passion to an impressionable audience, GZA travelled with Emdin to 10 New York high schools to run the program. With GZA, students developed scientific raps about different topics, acquiring an acute understanding through music and lyricism.
“As we read citations and rhymes, one of the things that I try to [impart] to the classrooms is that the rhyme must be clear, eloquent, and clever,” GZA said. “I challenge students to make sense of complex information by maintaining high standards of serious lyricism.”
Even though it was clear by the time the question period came around that GZA wasn’t qualified to answer technical scientific questions, he had a strong answer when asked to tackle the most important question that the universe has for us: “What is the meaning of life to you?”
“Life is being relevant, it’s living, [and] breathing,” began GZA. “[The point of] life is to evolve, develop, grow, and raise yourself.”
Perhaps Darwin wouldn’t have equated evolution to “being relevant,” but then again, GZA didn’t come to quote famous scientists—he came to promote the value of basic scientific awareness and literacy even if one is doing something on the opposite end of the occupational spectrum—like making music. That being said, GZA still offered some parting words of wisdom that anyone looking to survive with the fittest in today’s world should take to heart.
“Don’t be the other 99 and imitate, be the one that originates.”
It doesn’t take a genius to understand these words, but when they come from a successful, intelligent, and inquisitive individual like the Genius, they truly resonate.