Kendrick Lamar has been touring the world in support of his Grammy award winning album DAMN., and anyone who’s been paying any attention will have seen that the rapper has been performing in front of a rather strange backdrop of short clips. The clips, which depict Kendrick Lamar as his martial arts alter ego Kung Fu Kenny, culminate in him finding what he describes as “the glow.”
When stitched together, the tour clips turn into a short film which has been dubbed The Damn Legend of Kung Fu Kenny, which you can watch below. In it, Kendrick Lamar aka Kung Fu Kenny is a promising martial artist that is looking to master his skills. He ultimately does so by finding the glow – in a woman’s vagina no less.
Although a lot has been written about it, not much has been officially communicated about the actual origins of the Kung Fu Kenny act. Some speculate that the name was inspired by Don Cheadle’s character of the same name in Rush Hour 2. This piece by The Fader goes into detail about how Kendrick Lamar admitted to as much.
Lamar first invited his alter ego into the limelight during his “DNA.” music video featuring none other than – you guessed it – Don Cheadle. In the visuals Kung Fu Kenny is given free reign, rapping and simultaneously showing off his combat skills.
Since then, Kung Fu Kenny has grown in stature, serving as influence for a pair of Kendrick Lamar x Nike Cortez sneakers and ultimately taking over the ‘DAMN.’ Tour with the above short movie.
While there’s no reason to doubt that the name was taken from Rush Hour 2, there’s also more to Kung Fu Kenny’s journey than meets the eye.
The plot of The DAMN Legend of Kung Fu Kenny and the journey itself are almost certainly based on a cult martial arts movie called The Last Dragon, the trailer for which you can watch below.
In the movie, a character named Leroy Green aka Bruce Leroy is on a quest to become as great a martial artist as his idol Bruce Lee. Living in New York City, Leroy’s master tells him he has reached the final level of martial arts accomplishment known as “The Last Dragon.”
Those who reach this level are said to be able to discover and harness the power of “the glow,” a mystical power that gives whoever controls it transcendent skill. Once Bruce Leroy has found the glow, he has reached his full potential as a martial artist.
For Kung Fu Kenny, finding the glow means mastering the art of rap and hip-hop. When Lamar’s alter ego finally finds the glow – in a woman’s vagina no less – it signifies that the rapper has reached his full potential as an artist and is at the top of his game.
Lamar’s short film ends with the words “Kung Fu Kenny Found the Mothafuckin’ Glow Hoe,” signifying that he believes he is one of the biggest hip hop acts around right now. He’s telling his audience he’s a master at his craft and that his artistry is second to none.
Basically, Kung Fu Kenny is the Bruce Leroy of hip-hop and the DAMN. tour is his journey. The hunt for the elusive glow is a clear reflection of Kendrick Lamar’s career so far, during which he has strived to become the best in his chosen field. And so, in turn, each of the short, pre-recorded clips are simultaneously a glimpse into Kenny’s quest, as well as Kendrick’s because – really – they are one and the same.
While the inspiration is now more or less clear, the motivation behind parodying The Last Dragon still paints a murky picture. The film was dubbed a critical disappointment upon its release in 1985, however, thanks to a passionate fanbase, became a financial success and, later, a cult classic.
As a cult classic set in New York and featuring a predominantly black cast, it makes sense for this movie’s plot to be the inspiration for Kung Fu Kenny’s quest. Hip hop and martial arts have a long and storied history, with more than a few notable songs clearly inspired by Asian culture.
Wu-Tang Clan is the first that jumps to mind. The group’s 1993 album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was named after the 1978 film The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin. Naturally, when the rap group split up its members carried that influence over to their individual careers. RZA and GZA both released songs that either directly referenced fighting techniques in the title or spit bars like RZA’s “we use tai chi to deflect off our enemy” from his 2003 track “Chi Kung.”
Going into more detail is Adisa Banjoko, founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation and author of the book Bobby, Bruce & the Bronx: The Secrets of Hip-Hop Chess. According to him, the connection between black youth and martial arts is as clear as day.
“People often forget that hip-hop was born out of the ashes of the civil rights movement, and so much of that was tied to a reclamation of black male dignity,” he says. “These films—Bruce Lee movies in particular, and a lot of the Shaw Brothers films—often dealt with one man going against an organization, or one man going against an unjust state. Because so much of this was done with just the hands, it was also a tool of the poor. You didn’t have to be rich to have these skills. You just had to be disciplined and be willing to work, and you could have it.
“That was one of the main reasons that the martial arts resonated with African-American males who, people conveniently forget, had all of their warrior traditions literally beaten out of them on slave plantations and in sharecropper/Jim Crow America. So these films were supremely inspirational to masses of black males who felt culturally robbed of their warrior spirit, and inspirational on a philosophical perspective, because of the responsibility that having the skills demanded.”
Another reason Kendrick Lamar might have chosen The Last Dragon as a reference is the fact that the movie was produced by Berry Gordy, best known as the founder of the famous Motown record label. Given that fact, it’s clear that the movie, billed as a martial arts film meets Motown musical, had a strong connection to the music industry from the get go.
Regardless of the motivations behind creating his alter ego and sending him on a journey in search of the glow, Kendrick Lamar’s Kung Fu Kenny shares a lot of similarities with Bruce Leroy of The Last Dragon.
What do you think, does Kung Fu Kenny’s quest have more to do with Bruce Leroy’s than previously thought? Let us know what you think in the comments.
Next, check out 10 of hip-hop’s best “rapcronyms” explained here.
- Photography: Alexandre Moors / Good Company