Filipino Rapper Bambu Has Some Intense Things to Say About Race in America
The cover of Bambu's latest album, Prey for the Devil
Courtesy of the artist
Filipino-American rapper Bambu de Pistola makes some of today’s favorite artists look like Republicans with rich-rapper problems. Produced by his regular collaborators OJ the Producer and DJ Phatrick, Bam’s eighth solo LP, Prey for the Devil, released on Sept. 11, 2016, is a barrage of racially charged commentary and militant raps.
“At the time that I wrote the album, race was the issue. Race is still the issue,” he says. “And in the microcosm of the hip-hop industry, I too was kind of witnessing all these things happening around race as well.”
At age 12, Bam was already writing rhymes, but the gang culture of his Watts neighborhood came calling. He got jumped into Satanas, an old Filipino set that his cousins had joined. It seemed like a natural progression. Within his small community of Filipino immigrants, young kids organized a form of hierarchy “as a means of survival, of feeding folks,” he says.
Gangs, he explains, are a subculture of “a greater culture,” which is the American culture. “Whenever there’s a conflict, what does America do? They resolve it with violence." Considering that the greater culture’s foundation is the exploitation of forced labor, young gang members created their own version of that. “It doesn’t matter if you gotta sell crack to your auntie. You gotta make money. That’s the only source of power in this country.”
Using his music like a semi-automatic, Bam’s rapid, radical rhetoric chops down police killings, mass incarceration and profit-over-people economics. Featuring Killer Mike, Myka 9, Mark de Clive-Lowe and Do Dat from Golden Age, Prey has no moderate views. The devil’s prey are poor young people of color, trapped in what Bam refers to as the “school-to-prison pipeline system … [or] school-to-military.” The predatory criminal justice system is a slave master, and poor communities are free labor for the prison-industrial complex, or potential soldiers for America's imperialist endeavors.
By the time Bam was 15, several of his cousins had been murdered. Death was tapping at his window. Arrested for armed robbery at 16, after stays at Los Padrinos and Central Juvenile Hall, he was under a six-month house arrest. Bam went through the pipeline. When it spit him out, his case got dismissed with the judge’s “strong suggestion” that he enlist in the military. Joining the Marines was “jumping from one organization to another.” Replacing his strict immigrant parents, gangs and school with the military was a seamless transition.
He was stationed in East Timor, where the natives looked like him. One night he went on leave and returned to base dressed in plainclothes. His fellow soldiers pointed guns at him. “I was told to get down. They thought I was a townie,” he recalls.
It was a situation that paralleled dealing with police in his L.A. neighborhood. On the song “Routine,” featuring his son Kahlil, Bam says what today’s favorite rappers won’t say: “Fuck ah cop.” He repeats it like Paul Mooney in Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled. It’s as if there hasn’t been a raw, unscripted moment in hip-hop culture since Kanye said, “George Bush doesn't care about black people.” From Bam’s perspective, “Fuck Da Police” is more of a mantra than a provocation.
“Whiteface” gets into institutionalized white supremacy. There’re a lot of loaded lines on this track that hit up almost every facet of white privilege versus black (and brown) exclusion. “They want that Chuck Berry swing, but they want Elvis’s face,” Bam raps. It’s a shot at the white appropriation that got saxophone-playing Bill Clinton to the White House.
On the second half of the two-part song “Info Trip,” Bam raps, “Filipino elections is rigged/Only the first names change/Last name same shit/Talking puppets on a string/Live and direct/From here it’s the same thing.” He wrote those lines before the election of the Philippines’ controversial president, Rodrigo Duterte, and the U.S. president-elect, Donald Trump. Prior to Duterte, “The political offices had been held by the same family names for years,” Bam said, which mirrored the American political dynasties of the Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons.
Prey is Bambu’s strongest and most concise work to date, which is no accident given his current mindset. “Ultimately my music is trying to get folks to organize. It’s not to create fans but to create organizers to actually go out there and get the change that they hear me reflecting in songs,” he says.
For Bam, revolution is not a nostalgic idea. It’s gangbanging with pistols pointed in the right direction. “The positive that I take away from [Trump’s election] is we’re about to see some brilliant, strong, militant activists popping out of this four years.”
Bambu's Prey for the Devil is available now via Bandcamp.
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