Words: Bambu de Pistola
Photos: Estevan Oriol

Bambu de Pistola has been part of many groups throughout his life, as a gang member, a marine, a rapper, an activist, a Pilipino-American, and a dad. While he’s become critical of some of his past allegiances, Bambu sees that those experiences helped him grow as an artist, an organizer, and a man.

It was one of those hazy summer days in Los Angeles where you could taste the smog. I spent the better half of that week preparing myself for the physical pain I knew was coming my way, but when it started, none of the preparation helped. Izzy, my cousin’s best friend, hit me first, and that was the only punch I remember. I closed my eyes and swung until I was in the fetal position. This was my initiation into one of the oldest Pilipino gangs in Los Angeles. I was 12.

Frankie, or Frankenstein, was 17 when he was murdered. Rudy was 17 when he was poisoned in a nightclub. Ghost was 16 when we buried him. My cousins. I was 15 when Ghost died and by then my affection for the neighborhood had begun to wither. We were too small to compete with the Black and Latino gangs that surrounded us and too far from any reinforcements to wage winnable wars. I knew my number was coming up, if not next.

Age 16. After a six-month house arrest stint following stays at Los Padrinos and Central Juvenile Halls, my court date arrived. I ended up having my armed-robbery case dismissed with a strong suggestion from the judge that I consider the United States military. I did six years, replacing my neighborhood gang with the biggest gang in the world, the US Marine Corps.

From a very structured street-gang life to an even more structured military life, I was never really allowed to think independently. Someone else was always telling me what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. So when I had the opportunity to reflect on my upbringing, the recurring theme was that I’d never had my own sense of identity. What was I passionate about? What were my ideals and values? I knew I loved hip-hop. I also knew that I’d been lied to throughout my childhood: religion, public-school education, and even the “protecting” of my neighborhood in the gang and the “protecting” of my country in the military.

I’ve since set out to try and affect social change that will counter these lies through music and organizing within my community. I began to record heavily before my departure from the military. Most of my early work reflected my want for cultural identity, but none of it had any real substance. It wasn’t until I actually began to organize in the Pilipino community with Kabataang maka-Bayan (KmB), Pro-People Youth, did I actually start to focus my music. I began studying the basic problems and the National Democratic movement in the Philippines, eventually linking the issues locally here in Los Angeles with those in the Philippines and beyond. Of course all the work and study was going to bleed into my music, but I must stress that music alone does not generate the change our communities need; only doing work through organizing can accomplish that.

One can easily say that I’ve been organized my whole life. I was an active member of an organization of poor youth of color in South Los Angeles. I transitioned into the most organized assembly of trained killers in the world. Now, still carrying the tools of my upbringing, I spend my days educating and mobilizing youth into an organization that aims to capsize a system that is in place to oppress us. A rollercoaster indeed and one that I wouldn’t trade for shit.

My story is not unique. I am the son of immigrant parents who grew up with other immigrants, refugees, and stolen people in a city where the youth’s goals reflect the greater culture: profit over people. I organize for those who share this with me and I make music to aid in that work.

When I was 12 all I wanted to do was belong. I was willing to do anything to be down, regardless of the pain I endured or the people I hurt under the false pretense that they were enemies. Decades later, all I want is to let those young people know that they already belong and that the group they belong to has one common enemy…and it ain’t our own folks. I am now part of a “gang” that is actively fighting a winnable war, and the end result will truly benefit the masses.

That first punch from Izzy began this domino effect and the experiences have made me who I am today: a recording artist, an organizer, and a dad. And again, I wouldn’t trade it for shit. Serve the people.