Empire of Funk

The Empire of Funk conference convened last Friday in Humanities Gateway, drawing attendees from across the nation and across generations of Filipino-Americans involved in hip-hop.

Phuc Pham | New University

Phuc Pham | New University

“Hip-hop is integral to Filipino-American culture,” Mark Villegas, a current UC Irvine doctoral candidate in culture and theory, said.

He continued to say that the conversation surrounding Filipinos and hip-hop is one that’s often talked about informally, but seldom acknowledged as a legitimate phenomenon.

Villegas co-edited the “Empire of Funk” anthology along with DJ Kuttin’ Kandi and Roderick N. Labrador, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

One of the conference’s panels focused on the history of regional Filipino-American hip-hop scenes. Sean Slusser, a UC Riverside graduate student, recounted the history of Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, a Historic Filipinotown-based community organization that was formative for Filipino-Americans’ exposure to and experimentation with hip-hop in the greater Los Angeles area. According to Cerritos mayor Mark Pulido, himself a former popping dancer, SIPA’s future is precarious due to a new mayor and having its budget cut.

Bambu, an LA-based rapper and community organizer, was a product of the community that SIPA served. Recalling his experiences as a gangbanger due to marginalization by society at large, as well as ostracization from the broader Filipino-American community, Bambu emphasized the necessity of SIPA as a permanent community space that provided an outlet for Filipino-American youth.

On the mainstream adoption of hip-hop, Bambu said hip-hop wasn’t something that he came to, but rather that it orbited his life at the time when he was involved in gangs.

“I never say I make Filipino hip-hop cuz that’s stupid,” Bambu said, acknowledging its origins as a Black art. On a panel full of academics who he perceived were organizing to preserve hip-hop, Bambu offered the grave notion that the people who really embodied hip-hop, people like himself, are becoming scarce.

“If people who embody hip-hop go away then it [hip-hop] doesn’t mean shit to me,” Bambu said.

DJ Kuttin’ Kandi, who was called back onto the panel by Dr. Robyn Rodriguez after Rodriguez pointed out the underrepresentation of women on it, echoed Bambu’s sentiments regarding the commodification of hip-hop.

“How do we save ourselves from capitalism?” she asked.

Kandi alluded to the lead roles that white actors and actresses play in Hollywood’s portrayal of hip-hop communities, while people of color are relegated to background roles.

Other panels included a discussion with the anthology’s three editors, a discussion about translocal cultural flows facilitated by Christine Balance, assistant professor of Asian American studies, and a discussion on the intersection of Filipino documentary film and hip-hop.

Rounding out the conference was an intimate hip-hop concert in the Dr. White Room of the Cross-Cultural Center. B-Boys Anonymous and Kaba Modern started the show with a dance cipher. Opening acts included Klassy, a 17-year-old female rapper from Los Angeles, and Gingee, a rapper whose beats synthesized drum kits with live Kulintang, traditional Filipino gongs.

Headlining the concert were Bambu and Prometheus Brown, who teamed up as The Bar to perform songs from their latest “Barkada” album, as well as older songs such as “Books” and “Rashida Jones.”