Who Is The Black Taoist?
By Duane Gallop
So there he was, standing there. Part of him really wanted to believe that this man (who could open up so many doors for him) actually knew what he was talking about. After a short while however, it became obvious that he didn't.
The man tried to talk about the sacred and awesome art of defending oneself, the art of hit without being hit, being there one minute and not being there the next. The man wanted Novell Bell to agree with his fighting style. After all, the man was a producer and this was something akin to an audition. Novell however, could no more hold his peace than he could fly. So, risking everything he wanted, he told the man that his style wouldn't actually help him in a street fight. And what good is being proficient in any martial art if you couldn't defend yourself when it mattered?
The producer then tried to demonstrate his style on Novell. Novell, instincts taking over, tossed him against the wall; thus, proving his point. He won the job and found himself on Black Entertainment Television's "The Iron Ring" shortly thereafter. This is how it was with him – this is how it still is. The drive is still to be perfect, but not for perfection's sake. It's to be the best fighting machine he could be and show others how to do that too. It's all about defending yourself.
Everything began in Jamaica, Queens, where 15-year-old Novell Bell was introduced to an Islamic religious sect known as the "Five Percenters" by his father, a Muslim. A Five Percenter known as "Justice" who specialized in slap boxing took him under his wing.
"They introduced me to a man named Rudy," Novell said. "He was called Sifu Rudy ("sifu" is another word for "teacher"). Justice introduced me to him."
They marveled about Rudy, the Five Percenters did. This nerdy looking African-American man knew many of the Chinese arts and kept himself in such great shape that he seemingly never caught a cold.
"He started to explain the Chinese arts to me," Novell said. "The first thing he did was demonstrate the Hsing Yi Chuan style."
That was in 1982 and from that, he began to learn Baguazhang and eventually the ubiquitous Tai Chi. He enjoyed everything except Tai Chi, which he said was "too slow." The years went on and toward the end of his tenure in Forest Hills High School Novell met a Chinese man known simply as "Wu." Wu introduced Novell to the mythical and almost legendary Shaolin Arts, specializing in a style known as the "Praying Mantis."
By now it was 1983 and Novell was anxious to put his fighting into action. But fighting on the streets was neither intelligent nor productive. It was then that he found himself in tournaments. A funny thing happened there: For the first time since he began his training, Novell found himself unprepared.
"I was afraid," he admitted. "I realized that I didn't have that much knowledge of Kung Fu."
He also didn’t realize the "politics" of the tournaments. He saw people winning fights and yet losing matches because they didn't kick enough. Confused (wasn't defending yourself the point?) he didn't allow himself to become disillusioned. Instead he stuck to his mantra: it's all about defending yourself.
Case in point: Novell saw a so-called Grand Master hanging out at a Brooklyn McDonald's after a tournament one day. He got into an argument with someone on the line.
"And this Brooklyn cat just chocked him out!" Novell recalled. "The Grand Master got chocked out! That woke me up! A lot of stories about Kung Fu and Karate are false. Some teachers want to demonstrate, but they want you to tell you which hand to swing with. No one on the streets is going to tell you which hand they're going to swing with!"
Sticking to his mantra, Novell realized he needed to train with other people and learn even more styles than he already knew. From 1985 to 1990, he had a lot of teachers. He spared with men fresh out of prison on Brooklyn’s Liberty Avenue, "because they had a 'kill or be killed' mentality when they fought." He spared with boxers, "because they kept me fresh." And he only trained with mixed martial arts teachers who actually fought people. He trained for years with no gloves, no mouthpieces and no cup. He trained for the ultimate in self-defense.
"A lot of teachers have never even fought!" he said. "How can they know what they're teaching is going to work? The objective of martial arts is to get in close and finish your opponent."
Novell spent three years in China, learningYin-style Baguazhang. He also taught – alternating between disgust for his student's lack of commitment and joy at their potential.
"A lot of people are not willing to put in the time to practice," he said.
Still, Novell's name was getting around. People knew who he was.
One of those people was Kamar Hunter; a friend of Novell's who introduced him to the executives at BET (Black Entertainment Television). There, Novell met the well-known producer Warrington Hudlin, who had an idea for a show he called, "The Iron Ring." After demonstrating his freestyle techniques (unrehearsed) on a few producers and so-called experts, Novell was asked to star in the new series.
"They told me that they liked my personality," he said. "So they made me a coach."
"The Iron Ring" only lasted one season. Like the Kung Fu tournaments, a lot of "politics" arose and the doors that Novell thought would open instead remained closed. But the experience has given him a new perspective, in which Novell is now looking beyond the scope of just teaching.
"I would love to get into movies," he said. "But people still ask me to teach. So until Hollywood comes knocking on my door, I’ll continue to train in Harlem, those individuals that are willing to learn the fine art of Baguazhang"