The 2010 anime Katanagatari follows the adventures of the military strategist Togame and her companion Yasuri Shichika, the last surviving member of a warrior clan whose bodies are so highly trained that they are swords in and of themselves. The two travel across medieval Japan looking for twelve legendary swords and discover what it means to belong to both a wider historic legacy and to each other. Also: how to impale fools with your bare hands. Lupe Fiasco has been embarking on a similar quest lately, posing in full samurai gear and showing off his swordsmanship on Instagram. None of this should be extremely surprising for long time fans of the rapper. He's studied martial arts for years and is partial towards the realms of the arcanely nerdy as the multiple video game and anime references in his lyrics show.
We know Lupe takes this seriously, and we do too, so we rang up Raab Rashi, the owner of Sword Class NYC and a real-life sword master, to find out how far Lupe is on his journey to master the blade. Much like the protagonists of Katanagatari or any other good story with swords, we ended up learning more than we ever expected.
Noisey: Tell us a bit about what you do.
Raab Rashi: I'm the owner of a sword school in Harlem. We're called Sword Class NYC or Seitokan, which means "the school of the heavenly sword." I've been studying kendo and iaido for about 15 years.
What made you want to pick up the sword and become a master?
What made me want to start is the same thing that makes a lot of people start, which is pop culture. We don't really have a lot of room for swords in our everyday life these days. They're pretty antiquated. Our exposure to them comes almost exclusively through pop culture. When you see things like Star Wars or [the 1981 film] Excalibur, movies about knights and samurai, it really awakens something in you. I had the fortune to have a fantastic teacher within walking distance of where I was living at the time so I just decided to check it out one day. As for becoming a master… it's just like anything else. You do it and you get better. You can be a master and not necessarily a teacher and you can be a teacher and not be a master. But I really enjoy teaching so when I got my fourth dan, which is considered the equivalent of a master's rank, I decided that wanted to teach full-time.
What form is Lupe practicing with his katana?
I'm not sure exactly what form. It does look like a variation of seitei-gata, which is a form of iaido. Iaido, first of all, is a catch-all term that means "cutting from the draw," drawing the sword out from the scabbard then cutting. Traditionally, seitei-gata draws from the seiza or kneeling position and he is doing it from the standing position. There are a few forms that do start from the standing position, including Nakamura-ryu and Toyama-ryu. But I'm not sure what particular school this is from.
What level of expertise do you think Lupe is at?
So I'm looking at his descriptions and he says that he has a black belt in kendo and iaido. I'm always cautious using the term "black belt" because in both kendo and iaido, there is no "black belt" rank. We use the dan and kyu systems. Kyu means you are still a beginner and dan means that you have taken your first step. So when someone has their first dan, I guess the American equivalent to dan would be "black belt." It means you are no longer a danger to yourself and other people and you can perform the techniques correctly and consistently. That doesn't mean you've mastered the techniques, it means that you're beginning to be able to understand them. So when someone says "I have a black belt" to me that means "oh, they've achieved their dan rank." To be a master, you have to be at least fourth dan. Looking at his form, I have to say it's pretty good! There's definitely a lot of room for improvement, just as there is for any rank from the beginner to the highest master. But he definitely has training, and if he says he has his first dan in iaido I would certainly believe it from the video.
What can he do to improve?
Well, I don't want to get too into nitpicking details. That's his teacher's job. But there are certain things that can be fixed off the bat. For instance, bringing the saya [scabbard] to the correct location, the draw and resheathing of the blade, making his cuts a little larger, although some teachers do want smaller cuts. The main thing is the kiai, which is the shouting, making that a little stronger and more focused.
Do you think there's an overlap between rappers and swords?
[laughs] I mean historically in rap there has been. You go straight back to Wu-Tang and they were all into martial arts of all kinds. But there's as much overlap as the artist brings to it. Old martial arts movies and stories, they're very lyrical themselves. I think those presentations lend themselves well to artists in their own mediums.
Are you familiar with Samurai Champloo or Afro Samurai?
Very much. Samurai Champloo is one of my favourites.
What do you like about Samurai Champloo?
It has compelling characters. They're always seeking answers and interestingly, things they find aren't always what they necessarily thought they would be. It's just kind of life. The samurai culture at the time for these people, it was very rigid and structured and they did a very good job in that series of showing what happens when you didn't have that structure but still had to exist in that society.
And Samurai Jack. Are you watching the new episodes?
I haven't watched them but it's on my to-do list [laughs].
Do you think all these shows are encouraging a new wave of kids to learn swordsmanship?
I hope so. It goes in waves but every generation has their media that kind of leads into this. At some point certain things are popular. At one point it was pirates, now it's Game of Thrones with medieval fights. Kill Bill, it was samurai. So there's always ways for people to discover these arts. I always say I don't care what brings a student to my school. I just care that they are here and then want to continue. That's the important part, and that's the hardest part: taking that first step.
Are there some principles in any discipline of swordsmanship that you think would better someone's mental health and well being, as seems to be the case for Lupe?
Absolutely. So, one of the things—especially as an avid New Yorker—we are bombarded at all times with stimuli from every direction. And when you are practicing with the sword, it's you and the sword. You have to focus on just that. Just you and the sword. If you start thinking about other things—like if your partner is angry at you or you have enough money in the bank account—you have lost your focus. And if you have a skilled opponent they will take advantage of that. So you really have to keep your mind on the here and now. Of course, there is also a physical aspect to it, just the act of swinging the sword over and over and moving your body around can be healthy.
Finally, you emphasize "the perfect cut" in the Sword Class NYC site's description of the iaido course. Does Lupe have the perfect cut?
I don't know because I don't think I've found the perfect cut. It's one of those things that you will search your entire life and maybe never find and that's okay. It's the journey that's important. If I had the perfect cut I wouldn't have to study the sword anymore
Wait, so what is the perfect cut? Is it real or is it an idea?
There's this concept in martial arts called shuhari and in the first stage, shu, you are following. Following, following, following. If your sensei tells you to do something, you do it. Most students never pass the first stage. Most students drop before they need practice. The next stage of training is ha, which is "to break." That's when you start discovering what works for you. It's like, "well, this technique works better for me than this technique, I am going to practice this very hard." You start to find your own style within the context of what you have already learned. This is also a very long stage and then many, many, many martial artists never even make it to the last stage, ri and that is "separate." That means you go your own way and then you have your own style that is perhaps separate from what you've already learned and then the cycle starts over once you get another student.
But, again, I don't know. I haven't found it yet. I know that there are people better than me and I can try to be like them. I can try my own way to do things and people can tell me if it's good or not but I'm not sure what the perfect cut is. I know I'm on the path to discovering it.
Phil has always liked swords but now he wants to achieve his perfect self. He's on Twitter.