From Gangs to Glory: Bambu's Political Hip-Hop for the People

Between music and fatherhood, Oakland rapper Bambu stays involved with community organizing.(Photo: Jenn Vela)

Party Worker, the fifth album from Filipino-American rapper Bambu, comes at a crucial, tense time in America.

Addressing everything from worker rights and immigration to the military and prison industrial complex, police brutality and gentrification, the former Native Guns MC draws politically charged lyrics from his personal experiences as a veteran, father and community organizer. Musically, Party Worker also links to Bambu's Filipino roots, with references to revolutionary leader Andrés Bonifacio and sampling of traditional Philippine kulintang on the track "Welcome to the Party."

One song from the album, “Minimum Wage,” is particularly timely, as several cities around the nation this month moved toward increasing workers' pay -- including Oakland, which raised the local minimum wage to $12.25.

“Right off the top, I don't think that it's enough," says Bambu, who lives in Oakland. "I think that it's caught up to 1982”

In Bambu's worldview, one issue has tributaries into so many other issues. On the minimum wage, he continues: “ As far as sustainability for even a bachelor, immediately I have to piggyback that onto gentrification because we're talking about raising the minimum wage for people that live in communities where it barely gets them by, along with other government-assistance programs. Couple that with people taking advantage of low rents and making the cost of living higher in those areas, minimum wage just doesn't work; it's this never-ending cycle. It's great that it's acknowledged that there is a need because of this economic disparity between the classes at this point, but I don't think anyone could raise it enough that it will truly blur that economic inequality.”

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“Minimum Wage” is also personal, and speaks to Bambu's work as an independent artist. Though Party Worker was produced with funds raised through Kickstarter (the campaign nearly doubled its original goal), Beat Rock Music, the label he works with, operates under the model of a co-op instead of the traditional hierarchical business structure.

“It's an artist collective,” Bambu says. “If one person does well, that's more resources for everyone else at the label.”

With a co-op essence in mind, Party Worker offers a taste of humor; dispersed throughout the album are audio clips of hilarious -- and completely accurate -- portrayals of check-ins and group processing during community meetings; “if you're vegan, I don't know what to tell you, just pick the pork out” says one group member in an announcement.

Party Worker is supposed to take place in a grassroots group of people organizing around the lost art of MCing; that was the whole point,” he says. “While most of my music has that 'social justice, get you out there' [message], this was more about me being able to stretch myself out as an MC. As an MC, as an artist, I don't believe in art for art's sake. You have to reflect the work you're doing or the environment that you're in and/or around, and it has to make some sort of social commentary. While “Minimum Wage” is about me stretching myself lyrically, rapping over beats that I grew up on, taking it back to the hip-hop MC essence, I still inject a bunch of social-justice rhetoric, for lack of a better word. Only because that’s what I'm around, that’s what I do.”

Bambu certainly walks his talk. The artist, raised in Watts, organizes around issues like Asian youth leadership, community reform and empowerment, and offers time and design services to nonprofits. He also hopes to open a community center in his hometown of Los Angeles, where groups sharing political ideologies can hold meetings, classes and other services.

Throughout the greater subculture of hip-hop, Bambu is also straightforward about gender equality, something fans can glimpse in songs like “Moms” (One Rifle Per Family, 2012) and Party Worker’s “Labor of a Girl,” a collaboration with his wife, rapper Rocky Rivera.

Why call out sexism as an artist? “Because I am a man. I am the one who benefits from male privilege, obviously,” Bambu says. “My species has single-handedly oppressed women on a grandiose scale. Even as a man of color -- because it's so hard being a man of color and the things we have to deal with -- we tend to forget that it's twice as hard to be a woman of color. From that perspective, I definitely want to focus on speaking to the youth, which is not something that is 'cool' in our very patriarchal society. To challenge that is not a cool thing to do.”

Bambu's youth organizing and addressing issues of inequality is fueled, too, from his personal experiences as a young man. For a time, he was in a gang. At age sixteen, still in high school, Bambu served time for armed robbery. Once he was released from juvenile detention, he found himself with no high-school diploma and no job, and joined the Marine Corps.

“The military really fed who I was, which was young, testosterone-driven, looking for some kind of organization,” he says. “I stress to people: gangs are just organized black and brown youth in communities. The unfortunate thing is that every subculture mirrors the greater culture, which is profit over people, using violence to resolve disputes.”

After his time in the military, Bambu applied his aptitude for organization with community organizing and making music. Today, he strives to find balance between performing, recording, and activism while being a father, something he says has been challenging in the social climate of police violence within communities of color and the active Black Lives Matter movement in Oakland, where his son attends first grade.

“You have to figure out if you still embrace certain values enough to be challenged by your child,” he says. “But I always say, 'I'm a dad first, I'm an organizer second and I happen to be an MC third,' you know?”

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