In 1992, nine young men rose above poverty, systemic racism and the drug-dealing battleground of Staten Island, New York, to create the Wu-Tang Clan. 30 years on, they remain one of the most important music groups in history, and their story is finally being told on screen.
Siddiq Saunderson stars as original member Dennis Coles – who would become the group’s iconic MC Ghostface Killah – in the critically-acclaimed Hulu series ‘Wu-Tang: An American Saga’, which returns to the streaming platform with a second season next month.
Like their music, the series – executive produced by original group members RZA and Method Man, with Ghostface among the consulting producers – features the drugs and guns that were part of their tough lives growing up amid the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s in New York. But, more importantly, the new season also covers how talent, intelligence and unity gave them the ammunition they needed to better themselves and improve their lives, and encourage other young Black men and women to do the same.
“I think Wu-Tang is one of the most influential music groups, not just rap groups, but music groups, of all time,” says Siddiq, 24, from his home in Brooklyn, New York.
“Before them, there wasn’t a group quite like this, where there nine members who really had their own style, their own way of writing, that came together and formed this real brotherhood.
“Yeah, there are some songs that are about drugs and guns, that was a product of their environment. But they were also incorporating kung-fu into their music, and these themes of loyalty, brotherhood, and honor. That is the most important thing they were pushing, and what their legacy is about.
“And it’s a success story. Being a Black man in America, there are so many things that you’re up against, so many things that you have to face, no matter what financial background, culture or neighborhood you come from. So their legacy is being this group of young Black men that faced a lot of adversity, but were still able to make it and become this international phenomenon. And I think that’s really beautiful, because it’s really inspiring for so many generations, and will continue to be inspiring for generations to come.”
Influenced by martial arts and Eastern philosophy, the group were promoting mindfulness long before it was the mainstream pursuit it is today. Their interest in kung-fu went far deeper than their name and samples. RZA, the group’s de facto leader, studied Chan Buddhism and trained with a Shaolin Temple monk while still in his 20s. He said Wu-Tang’s mission was, “To open up the minds of the youth, and become aware of our people, our situation, our community, martial arts, knowledge of self, and all the things that we put into those songs.” He added, “If MC Hammer sells 10 million records, that don’t mean nothing. That’s just 10 million people that are dancing. When Wu-Tang sells a million records, that’s a million people that has woke up. That’s a big difference. And that was our goal.”
Wu-Tang would go on to sell more than 40 million records, combining their sales as a group and solo artists, after pioneering an unusual record deal that allowed each member to negotiate their own individual, lucrative deals alongside their group’s contract. But as a welcome tonic to the money-fueled excess sometimes visible on the surface of hip-hop culture, they remained dedicated to digging deeper, and encouraging their fans to do the same. RZA released books including the philosophical ‘The Tao of Wu’ to enlighten and inspire fans, and still hosts meditation sessions on the Wu-Tang website to this day. Most of the group are vegan. And RZA and Ghostface – whose friendship as young men was crucial to the formation of Wu-Tang, and covered in detail in the first season of the Hulu series – are among the group’s devout Muslims. Siddiq, also a Muslim, was able to share conversations about spirituality and more with the original Wu-Tang members as they advised the cast on set, an insightful experience for a young actor in his first lead role.
“All of them in their own right, but specifically RZA, was able to introduce pop culture to meditation, and taking care of the body, and that’s what makes them so unique,” says Siddiq. “These are things that they really live by. I remember the month of Ramadan happened while I was on set, so I was fasting and speaking to Ghostface and RZA about that. These are men that really live up to what they talk about, and have had this opportunity to really develop and grow as men, as well as artists.”
Like the men whose story he is telling on screen, Siddiq is also a man of purpose, focused on his spiritual and physical well-being. He’s a regular in the gym, and says, “taking care of my body, in turn, helps me take care of my mental state.” And fasting is an important part of his regimen. “I grew up Muslim, and one of the pillars of Islam is fasting for Ramadan,” he explains. “I’ve done it pretty much every year since I was 14 or 15 years old. Ramadan for me is always a great reset, to cleanse, give thanks to God, and get back to the basics of who we are and what we’re really here to do on this earth. I’ve had moments where I didn’t know if I wanted to do it, when I’m working long hours on set, there can be a lot of excuses. But it’s a blessing to be fasting with all this other stuff going on, and now I know I’m capable of it, it’s something I plan to do for the rest of my career.”
Siddiq believes fasting is something that we could all benefit from, regardless of our religious beliefs. “Because it’s not just about not drinking or not taking any food,” he says. “It’s also about praying at the times that you’re supposed to pray. But if you’re not Muslim, you can take that time to meditate, or do whatever it is that gets you to your higher power. And it’s also a time to cut out the excess. You’re not really supposed to be cursing, or partaking in gossip, or anything that will bring your vibrations and energy down to a darker place. These little things have an effect on you over time, especially if there’s no balance in your life. I’m a strong believer that the kind of energy that you put out into the world is the energy that you’ll get back.”
There are some similarities between the time in which the ‘Wu-Tang: An American Saga’ has been streaming on TV, during the Black Lives Matter protests following the police killing of George Floyd last year, and the cultural temperature of the country when Wu-Tang first soared to fame, shortly after the LA riots in 1992 ignited by the death of Rodney King, also at the hands of the police. RZA, played by ‘Moonlight’ star Ashton Sanders in the show, had been trying to get the series off the ground for a decade, and their story now feels as important as ever. The first season, released in 2019, covered the formation of the group, torn between music and crime, and brotherhood and violence. The upcoming season follows them recording and releasing their seminal 1993 debut album ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’ and overcoming some of their rivalries to find fame and success together. And through his craft, now Siddiq hopes to be a positive influence for his contemporaries amid the ongoing racism faced by Black people, by showing the transformative power and hope of the arts.
Wu-Tang: An American Saga season two trailer
As a young man, Siddiq would get the bus from his Brooklyn home to Manhattan first thing in the morning to buy cheap tickets to that evening’s theatre shows, then hang around Broadway all day, soaking up the atmosphere of the theatre capital of the world. “I’ve always been acting and passionate about the arts, not just acting, but dance and directing and photography as well,” says Siddiq, who also stars as Mercutio in a new Romeo and Juliet movie reboot called ‘R#J’. “I’ve always had a lot of artistic outlets. Having something like that, something that I was passionate about, really helped me navigate the waters.”
While in high school, Siddiq attended the Moving Mountains youth organization, founded by ‘The Wire’ star Jamie Hector, which helps to connect inner-city kids with the arts. (Jamie also appeared in four episodes of the first season of ‘Wu-Tang: An American Saga’, and Siddiq says it was “really beautiful to have my mentor on set and supporting me on my first lead role.”) He went on to attend the prestigious acting program at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Currently, he is leading by example, and in the future, he hopes to take an even more hands-on approach to inspiring Black youths to achieve their dreams.
“Everybody has their own role that they play,” he says. “And I think my role, as an artist, is to be very specific about the work I’m creating. Personally, by nature of me being Black and having my successes and sharing those, I think that is a feat. So for me it’s about the ways I choose to represent myself within my career, giving back to the community, talking to and inspiring the Black youth, buying from Black-owned businesses. So there’s a lot of things to do, that little by little will help. And I do think we’re making certain steps. But there are certain things that happen, like a police killing, that remind me that while there’s been some change, there’s still a lot further to go.
“I’m working on a project right now dealing with police brutality. So that is something that I’m trying to put my energy into, because I think it’s a really important story to tell. And even through doing something like the Wu-Tang show, where in the second season you see them having successes and performing together, and coming together as brothers and putting their differences to the side, I think that is also part of the work that I do. I know that eventually one day, and hopefully this will be soon, I plan on having a mentorship program for young Black artists that can help them get ready to go to a school like Carnegie Mellon, or just go and perform and have auditions. To be that bridge, and also to help them to visualize success. Because I had so many mentors growing up, and a lot of them were older Black people, who were able to help me envision the things that I’m currently doing. So I think it’s really important to just give back to the youth and inspire them, and also to stay inspired myself.”
Siddiq is clearly going places, yet remembering where he started. He’s well-traveled, having spent time in Los Angeles, London, Amsterdam and Ethiopia. Yet he spoke to us and was photographed in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he was raised, and still proudly lives.
“My natural habitat,” he says. “Growing up in Brooklyn is not for the faint of heart. It really made me who I am today. I feel like if you’re from Brooklyn, you can make it anywhere. I’ve traveled so many places in the world, and I’ve always found my way. And I think, being a young Black kid from Brooklyn, and dealing with the stuff that I had to deal with growing up, taking the train to school at 10 or 11 years old, and all the things that you see, and all the diversity that exists within the city, and the dangers as well, built me up into the man that I am today, where I can feel comfortable being anywhere in the world, and know that I’ll make my way.”