One Filipino-American emcee is articulating a different message of hip-hop, using it as a vehicle to organize and mobilize his communities for social change.
“We’re not against rap. We’re not against rappers. But we are against those thugs …” Those were the words uttered by Reverend Calvin Butts and immortalized by rappers Bone Thugs-N-Harmony in their debut-hit single, “Thuggish Ruggish Bone.” Butts, in 1993, led a campaign against what he called “vile, ugly, low, abusive and rough music,” notoriously declaring to crush rap CDs by steamrolling them to smithereens in symbolic protest. Today, Al Sharpton shouts for the the censorship of rap music, while Lil Wayne and T.I. are hauled off to jail. The perception of hip-hop today hasn’t changed much. And aptly so, given the the music’s frequent glamorization of drugs, crime and misogyny. One Filipino-American emcee, however, is articulating a different message, using that oft-damned music as a vehicle to organize and mobilize his communities for social change.
“My friends say I turn into kind of an asshole before a show.”
Five minutes before he takes the stage, I’m sitting in a smoky green room at the legendary Slims Club in San Francisco with Filipino-American hip-hop artist Bambu, known for his political and controversial rhymes that comment on everything from the policies of Philippines’ President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to redefining the American standard of beauty (“especially when she’s been told her beauty’s second to the white/now it’s white women/collagen/fake lips/fake tits/now we overlook a sister because a white girl’s thick?!”).
The rapper sits quietly in the austere backstage area, empty except for a few backpacks and a bucket of Coronas, and of course the gaggle of friends – his posse – buzzing around aimlessly and wandering in and out. There’s his onstage deejay, Chinese-American DJ Phatrick, emcee Kiwi Illafonte of their former group Native Guns and a handful of chicks in torn fishnets who look like Asian versions of Rihanna.
Like most people with a convoluted and biography-worthy history, the artist has picked up a few aliases along the way. “Bambu” is derived from his days battling in a group called Bamboo Brigade, “Buck Taylor” comes from his penchant for Chuck Taylor’s and Jonah is simply for those who know him best. But with a story that includes domestic violence between his immigrant parents, witnessing the point-blank murder of his cousin Frankie (who lives on as “Frankenstein” in his raps), a bout of homelessness as a young teenager, and a stint in prison for armed robbery, you’d think the 32-year-old has already lived nine lives.
“PEOPLE EXPECT ME TO SAY HIP-HOP IS GOING TO CHANGE THE WORLD, AND THE FIRST THING I’D SAY IS, ‘FUCK HIP-HOP.’ THERE ARE BIGGER ISSUES AT HAND.”
If that last series of events reminds you of something you’ve heard about rappers on MTV, the similarities probably end there. Sitting down with the artist outside a coffee shop in LA a few weeks after his performance at Slims, Bambu is amazingly thoughtful, articulate and well-informed, and even a bit of a romantic. A “conscious” rapper, his music is not meant merely to create head-bobbing entertainment for the masses and increase the digits on his bank statements. Instead, his lyrics are designed to resonate with oppressed ethnic communities and elicit change through the organization of its members.
“People expect me to say that hip-hop is going to change the world,” the artist says. “And the first thing I’d say is, ‘Fuck hip-hop.’ There are bigger issues at hand. There are so many other things we could be focusing on and you want to worry about the so-called four elements of hip-hop? At that point it turns into art for art’s sake and loses its meaning. Art should reflect society, reality.”
And throughout his career, his music has done just that, beginning with his own. As a homeless teenager in Watts, the rapper fell in love with a black girl who he would eventually marry. Her family took him in off the streets and it was the girl’s father who first encouraged Bambu to seek out his cultural identity.
“Being young, the militant black struggle was so cool and I was like, ‘Do I have one of those?’ And eventually I found the [ethnic community] through African culture, through hip-hop and through the martial arts,” he explains.
The marriage didn’t last, but the lessons he learned from his black father figure had. While serving for more than six years as an infantry soldier and later as a medic in the Marine Corps in Kosovo, Yemen and Okinawa, he continued to read about his Asian roots, refined his production and rap techniques with fellow soldiers during their time off, and developed his own voice, which the rapper says can be heard on his first album with Kiwi and DJ Phatrick as part of The Native Guns.
One of Bambu’s most well-known concept videos, created by Kid Heroes Productions and Xylophone Films for his song “Crooks and Rooks,” is hugely autobiographical. It depicts a young Jonah delivering drugs for his gang, carried in a tennis ball lodged within the spokes of his bike. Later we see the adult artist driving young Filipino kids to school. “I never made it to the next level of the gang, of that world,” he says. “I stayed there as delivery boy and then transitioned from transporting something that destroys the community to transporting something that enriches it.”
In his upcoming video for “Old Man Raps,” Bambu explores the fears he harbors for his son, now 2 years old. “The fantasy narrative is about me with my son in a hypothetical future where he grows up and follows in my footsteps, because I’m such a strict dad trying so hard to keep him out of that life,” he says.
While he draws on experiences from his own life and community’s struggles, Bambu acknowledges that others in the industry preach a different message. He thinks the perception of hip-hop has become skewed, and has lost its original purpose of voicing the concerns of an oppressed community.
“Now we glorify and romanticize things in the community like drug dealing,” he says. “One unfortunate thing about hip-hop today is that it makes us look like animals. We’re throwing money at women and beating the shit out of them, shooting guns at each other. We look like monkeys. It’s fucked up to see, especially coming from the community.”
And though he’s from LA, he’s referring to a larger sense of community that spans the United States. Earlier this year the artist played to a sold out audience at Next Door in Honolulu’s Chinatown. “Before I went to Hawai‘i I did a lot of studying about Hawaiian sovereignty issues and incorporated that into my show. I wanted to get the message across that your struggles are the same as my struggles,” he said. He even spoke at workshops at the Ethics Department of the University of Hawai‘i, a school that he says he would consider attending, on the importance of youth organization and involvement.
He doesn’t just talk about organizing. Back in California, Bambu is a longtime leader of the Kabataang Maka-Bayan Pro-People Youth, a progressive youth and student organization, whose aim is to “raise the social consciousness of the youth to organize and mobilize in response to issues affecting our local communities, the oppressed people of the Philippines and other pro-people issues around the world.” An organizer for Peoples Corps, he also teaches a program called “Ready, Aim, Speak” at Locke High School in Watts.
To the upset of his fans, Bambu has decided it’s nearly time to leave the music world. Though he says he’ll continue to “leak music to the Internet,” the artist will release only one more full-length album, a collaboration with Sabzi, the producer for both Common Market and Blue Scholars. While his album titles to date have been framed with an ellipsis on either side, the title of his final album will tellingly end with a period. He will continue his work with the community of course, and is planning to open a martial arts and community center.
He says, “At the end of the day I really want people to organize. I think that what I do through the subculture of hip-hop is just raise awareness. And that never really creates real change. I think artists fool themselves when they say they just want to create positive music. It might create the climate for some kind of change. But until you actually go out and organize, that awareness is wasted. I would love for people to go out and study for themselves. That’s the whole point of my music – for people to take the next step.”
Bambu “Crooks & Rooks” Music Video (Uncensored Short Film Version directed by Patricio Ginelsa) from Kid Heroes on Vimeo.
Bambu will join PNOY Apparel November 12 at Fresh Cafe to help put a shirt on poverty. With live performances by Bambu, Geo of Blue Scholars, Seph1, Mic3 and Creed Chameleon. For more information click HERE.