There is a large Filipino community in the Bay Area that organizes and fights for better workers’ rights and educating youth of color. There are groups within this community that address these issues through hip-hop.

Kiwi Illafonte, 40, is a Bay Area political rapper who talks about social issues in his music.

“Social change is at the center of my universe,” Illafonte said.

Originally from Los Angeles, Illafonte came to the Bay Area purely out of adoration. For the past 13 years, Oakland has been his home. He started out as a youth educator at the League of Filipino Students in Los Angeles, where they connected their Filipino history to current social issues they experience in the United States.

“My move to the Bay Area came at a good time because I felt like the community really embraced me as an artist and as an activist,” Illafonte said.

According to Illafonte, he was unsure of his Filipino identity in his youth. He grew up in a predominantly Black community and strongly identified with the Black community through music.

Illafonte grew up in gang culture in Los Angeles, witnessing the 1992 Los Angeles riots firsthand and experiencing police brutality. His political work was sparked by other conscious rappers, like well-renowned rap group Public Enemy, whose songs address political issues and question the system and law enforcement.

“I think that even though I am Filipino, those things also resonated with my own experience growing up,” Illafonte said, “I didn’t understand racism back then like I do now, but I understood that I was really angry about it.”

As Illafonte built a following in Los Angeles, he started to hear more about another Filipino rapper in the area, Bambu. The two used to be in a rap group together called Native Guns. Their work emerged in line with the West Coast underground hip-hop scene in the early 1990’s. The duo gained a following in both Los Angeles and San Francisco and continued to tour around the U.S., Canada, and the Philippines, performing in night clubs and other small venues.

Their work together aimed to educate and uplift youth of color in the United States by evaluating the injustices that exist in the system. They also draw connections between social issues in the U.S. and in the Philippines, addressing migration issues, racism, and the Filipino diaspora.

The album, Barrel Men, echoes their radical political perspective that earned them a spot next to more famous political rappers like Dead Prez and the Coup. They are now a part of a sub-genre known as raptivism, which is social activism through rap music.

While Native Guns is not currently performing together today, Illafonte said that they are still closely involved with each other. For the past three years, Illafonte has been working with his band, Bandung 55. While he is the main songwriter, he opens up the creative process to his band members, composed of seven Filipino activists and organizers.

Acccording to Illafonte, Bandung 55’s sound can best be described as a rock, reggae and rap fusion.

Illafonte’s keyboardist, Armael Malinis, 35, started out as a youth organizer in the Bay Area. He co-founded Anakbayan East Bay in 2007, a Filipino youth organization that aims to engage, organize and mobilize Filipino youth as well as connect their own struggles to those in the Philippines.

Malinis’ activism work is inspired by living and experiencing the oppression of immigrants. He moved here with his parents from the Philippines when he was five years old and lived in a household in Vallejo with several other immigrant families. Filipino identity plays a major role in his politics.

“I came in as an organizer first, then as a cultural worker,” Malinis said. “My lens is around using the notion of mass moving and building power, and participating in mass movements.”

He is a self-taught keyboardist. According to Malnisi, he started taking it his music more seriously after they put a band together and recruited Illafonte, whose work he had been a fan of for years.

“I’ve always been a fan of political hip-hop,” Malinis said. “That definitely influenced my taste in the music that I put out there.”

Bandung 55 is currently working on their latest album and expects to release it next year.

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