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Enter the '36th Chamber' with Wu-Tang's RZA in Miami

Robert Diggs was an impressionable 12-year-old growing up in the racial dissonance of Staten Island in the late 1970s — mother on welfare, father gone, stepfather in jail, role models elusive, reminders of his powerlessness plentiful — when he first saw the kung-fu classic “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.”

A fast-paced 1978 film filled with gravity-defying action, Buddhist philosophy, politics and comedic goofiness, the plot followed San Te, the leader of a group of students rebelling against the oppressive Manchu government, and his martial-arts training at the Shaolin Temple.

In San Te’s journey from novice to disciplined and spiritually enlightened warrior, young Diggs saw a path out of his immediate circumstances.

“As a kid, you don’t think these things exist anywhere outside of your own world. Especially through young students, who decide to band together to make a change because the government was being oppressive,” he says.

Nearly 40 years later, Diggs, now better known as RZA, founder of hip-hop icons the Wu-Tang Clan, still can recite what San Te learned on entering the 36th and final chamber in his training at the temple.

“I’ll never forget hearing these particular words: ‘Without wisdom there is no gain,’ ” he says. “I thought, ‘That’s pretty profound.’ After getting beyond the kung-fu and the social dynamic of the movie, I heard the Buddhist philosophy. For me, it was an enlightening experience.”

On Friday, April 20, RZA will perform a live score for a screening of “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” at the Anderson, the old-school lounge in Miami. Originally scheduled for Lemon City Studios, the show is part of the III Points Festival’s 420-themed gathering called III Joints. Other performers include Odd Future crew member Earl Sweatshirt, DJ Earl, Paperwater, Space Invaders Soundsystem and many others.

Bracketed by DJ decks, synthesizers and drum machines and accompanied by Staten Island buddies Jon “DJ Skane” Lugo and Tom Shannon, RZA will perform a score that mixes new sounds and snippets of classic Wu-Tang tracks, including music from his group’s 1993 debut album, which paid tribute to the film, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).”

The concert is part of a five-show tour with other stops in Los Angeles, Denver, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

The influence of “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” has found its way onto RZA’s bookshelf, which includes “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu and ”The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, and his own film work. In 2012, he directed, acted in and co-wrote the screenplay for the martial-arts action flick “The Man With the Iron Fists,” co-starring Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu.

“Buddha was about ending suffering, of personal life, and the suffering of the world,” RZA says. “His main thematic goal was freedom of all sentient beings. Everything wants to be free. Even if it’s a fly trying to get out your window, he’s trying to be free. Everything wants to express its life.”

RZA allows that solutions to suffering in the world are not so simple. It’s one of the reasons he finds the massive box-office success of the Marvel movie “Black Panther” so compelling. The debate about the relationship between wealthy black communities and impoverished ones, in the United States and around the world, is delivered with such sensitivity by filmmaker Ryan Coogler that RZA’s 18-year-old daughter told him her sympathies were with Black Panther’s enemy, Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan.

The Killmonger character is introduced in an Oakland neighborhood that resembled the one experienced by both RZA and Oakland native Coogler. RZA believes Coogler has a goal to be part of the solution to what’s destroying these communities, reflected in the last scenes of the film with the opening of a school.

“He came out of that place, and he probably read those comic books as a kid,” RZA says. “And now, he gets to make a movie version of it that actually resonates right back to his home, that can potentially bring some kind of education and inspiration back to his community, where drugs and crack and pimpin’ and all that destroyed generations of that community.”

It’s a philosophy the Wu-Tang Clan has followed since they donated the first computers to P.S. 57, their Staten Island alma mater, RZA says. Other philanthropic projects include several music studios from New York to Los Angeles, where underprivileged young people can have another outlet for their energy.

“Music got me off the streets. Look at Wu-Tang — you’re talking about seven felons,” he says, laughing. “I’ve got Bloods and Crips in my studio. They got to fight some days, but at least they was off the street and had a chance to see something different. Now, they’re back in their neighborhood trying to keep that spirit alive. That is definitely part of the Wu.”

The III Joints festival will begin 4 p.m. Friday, April 20, and continue to 4 a.m. Saturday, April 21, at the Anderson, 709 NE 79th St., in Miami. Admission is 18 and older. General-admission tickets cost $35 at IIIPoints.com.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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