Mar 18, 2008 - 10:10 PM
(Photo by Kirstina Sangsahachart)
Los Angeles emcee and activist Bambu makes music to motivate people to organize. (Photo by Kirstina Sangsahachart)
This month’s Youth Media Blog-a-Thon topic is violence. Oh Dang! caught up with Bambu, a former gang member turned emcee and activist, to discuss violence in his community and in the media. He currently counsels at-risk youth in L.A. while providing the soundtrack to the revolution. After gaining acclaim with the now-defunct Filipino hip hop duo Native Guns, he refocused his energy on his solo career. Last year's ...i scream bars for the children... found the emcee at his most introspective, describing his past while continuing to rifle politically-charged lyrics to organize the people.
Oh Dang!: You’re a former gangbanger. In a previous interview, you talked about going to jail for armed robbery as a juvenile and dropping out of school. You even detail a lot of your criminal past on "Life in Rewind." What led you down that path? And what role did your community play in your choosing that life?
Listen to "Life In Rewind"
Bambu: My community played a very big role in the life that chose me. I did what I felt was the "norm." I grew up with older family members and neighbors who survived through crime. This was the way it was. There was no true separation between good and bad. Survival was your gauge of morality.
OD!: How old were you when you first got involved in that life?
B: I've been around it since I was eight or nine, but didn't truly involve myself until 12, or 13.
OD!: What motivated you to make a change? Was there a particular event in your life that triggered that?
B: Friends, family members being murdered; friends going away to prison to do big numbers. And, there was really no need for me to live in that world anymore. My mother had left. My father had moved on and gotten a well enough job to support the family. And, in all honesty, I was just tired of waking [up] worrying about what kind of shit I was going to get into that day. There are some who are built for that. I wasn't. I was built to question and challenge the circumstances that put my people in the life.
OD!: When did you turn to activism? And can you describe the work you've done in your community?
B: It began with me just questioning our place in the world—poverty, crime, the way we were being depicted on television. I questioned everything. From there it evolved into finding a way to actually create change, finding ways to create impact in our community. As far as the work I've done, for the majority of my time as an adult, I've played more of a support role for the folks doing the real work. Making music, trying to motivate the organizers to continue and to give them an aid in organizing youth through hip hop. As a member of Kabataang maka-Bayan, I feel I've created an even more dynamic impact. The organization has helped me structure the work and focus the work, and has also given me stronger inspiration to continue.
OD!: How much of your former life influences your music? In "Pull It Back," you use pulling the trigger as a metaphor for taking action in your community against oppressors.
Listen to "Pull It Back"
B: I wouldn't use the word “influence.” That life is embedded in me. I mean, from the age of eight I was being taught this code and this method of survival, so I approach everything the same way as an adult. Though it may not be criminal in nature, the ethics are the same and the methods are the same. We need to get free. So, that's my replacement for "survival." We need to get free by any means. My gang is replaced by my people as a whole—all struggling and oppressed people worldwide—so therefore my battles are as big, as magnified, and the need to prevail is heightened. So, with my music, I have to approach it in the same fashion. I write every rap like it’s my last.
OD!: What about the bonus track ("Next Time") where you say you're still counting the days 'til someone who murdered a friend of yours is released from prison so you can seek vengeance? What are listeners to make of that? Is that just entertainment, or an example of the "code" embedded in you?
Listen to "Next Time"
B: It was really me "getting out the frustration." Some of that was made up and just me being creative with my writing and with the beat that was given to me. That's why it was a bonus track. But, yes, that goes back to that life. You take from me. I take from you. Over the top, of course! That song was really a struggle for me. I wanted it on the album as a fan of hip hop because I thought it was a cool rap song, but as far as what I'm trying to put out there it probably wouldn't be at the top of my catalog.
Violence is violence. I support the people's right to armed struggle, self defense. I understand the root of violence in our culture and I in no way condone the taking of lives for nothing more than petty beef. This is where my personal beliefs start to fuck with me, because if someone tried to hurt anyone close to me, instinctively, I don't want them breathing anymore. By nature, it may be wrong, but that's my honest feeling. I'm going off topic...
In closing, on the topic of violence, we must remember that the target, the focus of the work shouldn't rely solely on the community. There are bigger things at work here. We are merely a subculture. We live in a nation that force feeds us glorified-violence through every possible media outlet: through the nightly news reports on the murderous pursuit of America's interests, through corporate pushed rap music, through the "action adventure" shows on television. All that shit! So how can we not expect this frenzy of violent media to NOT create a subculture of violence?
As an organizer and a youth counselor here in Los Angeles, dealing with youth that are at high risk, living in neighborhoods that breed gangs, I see the cycle at work. In the 1990s we saw gang violence jump to record heights in Los Angeles. Remember what was happening in the early 90s? We were still feeling Reagan's "crack" economy in our communities, Bush Sr. was gearing up to claim stake in the Middle East, the "war on drugs" was doubling the population in prisons. We're right back there again. So, that spike in gang violence that we saw in the 90s is now mirrored, if not worsened, today. So the work needs to be done within our communities as well as on a global scale as humans. We need to end violence from the top and help it trickle down to the bottom. We have become numb and desensitized to violence so, we need to break out of that and cherish life.
For more info on Bambu, visit www.bambu.la and his blog, Bambu's Rants. Look out for a collaborative album with Do Dat of the Attik this summer as well as a new mixtape and full-length later this year.
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Zoneil Maharaj is editor-in-chief of Oh Dang!
Kirstina Sangsahachart is a freelance photographer and contributor to Oh Dang!