live and direct from san francisco, ca
knowledge + independent hustle
live and direct from san francisco, ca
live and direct from san francisco, ca
knowledge + independent hustle
Mornin’ folks, here I have the 2nd installment of Everyday People, my mini-interview series featuring folks in the community. Today I’m interviewing the homie Kiwi, a Filipino MC/educator from Los Angeles but currently based in the Bay Area. Along with Bambu and DJ Phatrick, Kiwi was apart of the highly-influential rap group Native Guns.
1. Who are you, where are you from, and why are you here?
My name is Kiwi Illafonte, I’m a rapper, producer, DJ, writer, graphic designer, educator, and community organizer. I’m from Oakland, CA by way of Los Angeles. I’m here because of my mother.
2. What is one defining experience from your life that helped make you who you are?
There are many. When my homie Russell got killed in the 10th grade. When I first heard BDP’s “Stop the Violence.” The first time I had a gun pointed at me. When my mom had to go with me to the police station cause I got busted tagging. But the one that probably sticks out the most was when I did my first exposure trip to the Philippines in 1998. It was the first time I was experiencing firsthand all the theories and analysis I had been learning about in books and workshops. I learned about how inherent organizing was among the Filipino people, and how powerful people power can be. I returned from that trip committed to that struggle, the movement for National Democracy in the Philippines.
3. Who are some of your biggest influences?
My mother first and foremost. She modeled courage, strength, sacrifice, and resilience to me. Bill Sorro was another huge influence. He was the first real father figure in my life, and in addition to being a fierce champion for housing and tenant rights in San Francisco, he showed me how be a loving revolutionary. I’m also influenced by all the amazing community that I keep close. They are usually the ones with the ideas and thoughts that become my songs or my writings. They are the ones who check me when I say/do dumb shit, who challenge my ideas with their own experiences, and who encourage me to keep working.
4. What are some of the challenges you’re currently facing, and what are you doing to overcome them?
Well, my mother passed away a few months ago, and I’m learning each day that grieving and healing is a protracted process. I’m learning to be easy on myself, to ask for help, to cry my ass off, and to be okay with solitude.
Another challenge that I’m right in the middle of is transitioning out of the non-profit world, which I’ve been stuck in for over a decade. Sometimes when we do things for awhile, we become comfortable in them, and we don’t realize there are other options. Recently I resigned from my current job, am going to travel across the world this summer, and will start taking classes full-time at Laney College. It’s pretty scary, but I’m learning that we figure out ways to survive, and in the end I’ll be just fine.
5. What gives you the inspiration/motivation to push on everyday?
Honestly I feel like the world is jacked up, and I would like to contribute to un-doing the damage that humans have done. I want to live to see true justice and equality. I want to leave behind a better world for our children.
6. (bonus) How does it feel knowing that your music has influenced so many people and to be credited as one of the Filipino pioneers in hip-hop? Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I honestly don’t really put too much stock in my legacy in hip hop. If anything, I feel like I can honor hip hop best by being true to myself and my community, by organizing and fighting for justice and social change, whether that’s through rapping or otherwise. I do recognize that I have a certain position cause of what I’ve done, and I try my best to use that position to raise awareness and uplift my community.
Currently I’m recording and performing with my band Bandung 55 (that name’s going to change eventually). I’m also working on a solo EP and a book.
Check Kiwi out at http://www.illafonte.com/. Photo above by Leo Docuyanan.
About 3 years ago I wrote, filmed, and edited a video about gentrification in SF. I wanted to raise awareness in my own community, nationwide and even internationally about what was going on. I never thought that the problem would have gotten this much worse by 2013. Sometimes I think about this and it almost bring me to tears. I live in Oakland now and I hate coming to SF, it’s expensive just to visit. I get crammed into a sardine can BART train, or pay $6 toll and sit in awful traffic on the Bay Bridge, and I look around and at all these faces and almost never see anyone familiar.
San Francisco is now Babylon. The city culture used to be based on community, on diversity, on peace and happiness like the hippies preached when they came in the 1969 Summer of Love. Of course there was always the gap between the really rich and the really poor neighborhoods, but so many people were able to come together within that gap. They are the ones who helped make this city so wonderful that people from all over the world wanted to live here. But now SF culture is based on greed, selfishness, and hedonism. Whereas before you had hippies, artists and community-minded folks flocking to the Bay Area, now you have people who don’t have seem to have much interests besides following trends, making money, drinking, and running through SF like it’s their own personal playground. This is really symptomatic of the kind of sick American personalities based in ignorance, privilege and entitlement that seem to be predominant in most of the 50 states these days. I don’t want any part of it.
One time another SF native and I were walking near the Embarcadero on a crowded Sunday morning. We looked around and realized that the only other black people in the area besides us were homeless. That’s probably quite proportionate to the general city population- the only neighborhood that hasn’t had a drop in its black population is the Tenderloin and 6th St./SoMa area, where most housing for homeless folks is located. This is all part of the plan: the war on drugs, the epidemic of street violence, the prison industrial complex, the constant cycle of poverty- all of that shit has been working like a charm. People always tell me it’s a class issue, not a race issue, but if you’re black or brown you’re born into those types of conflicts. We inherit them. Our ancestors were exterminated and enslaved and the same tactics used on them are more or less being used on us. If you read comments on news articles or social networks, people act like all the minorities just floated away and are now living on some magical island or something. Actually, I take that back, they don’t really seem to care where we’ve gone at all. They just praise how much safer and cleaner certain neighborhoods have become. Well if the city managed to clean up those neighborhoods, why couldn’t they have done so when they were mostly populated by people of color?
Once I was on 4th and Mission, where graffiti used to be pretty common, and I noticed there wasn’t a single sticker posted or tag on the walls. The streets and gutters were spotless. Now, head on over to BVHP and tell me where you can find the same quality of street cleaning. It’s very obvious that the city government is deliberately ignoring the needs of certain peoples and communities while bending over backwards for others. Meanwhile, they will blame and criminalize the residents of those communities for responding to the unlivable conditions that the city itself established.
Another time, I was walking in the actual Mission District, 15th and Mission, and I noticed huge condos being built and advertised. RIght away I thought, “Oh hell nah! We gotta do something to stop this!” Just then I realized that the developmental planning on those condos had probably started years ago; that all the permits were in place; that the time do something about it had long gone. This is consistent with all the other issues and actions related to gentrification. The more research I do, the more I realize that this has plan has been in place for decades. It goes back to redevelopment of the Fillmore and the creation of the “Western Addition;” it goes back to government shutdown of the Hunter’s Point shipyard and the transformation of that area into a toxic waste dump; it goes back to the military internment of Japanese citizens during WWII; it goes back to the massacre of Native Americans by miners and mountain men during the gold rush; and all the way back to when conquistadors touched down from Spain and forced the Ohlone people into the Mission system.
Almost every turn of events related to city politics in the last 50 years has led us to this. The closure of public schools, gang injunctions, metered parking on Sundays, tickets & citations no one can afford, sit-lie laws, the courtship of the America’s Cup, and the endless development of high-price housing- they are all part of this tangled web.
Maybe this sounds extreme to some but now I relate to those Native Amercians. I relate to the Palestinians. I relate to anyone that’s had their homeland taken from them by people who look at you and everyone like you as inferior. These yuppies, hipsters and tech-types don’t care about struggles of poor, working class people. If anything they are disgusted by poverty; they look at homeless people as a nuisance, young black men as a fear, and outspoken Latina women as a threat. They are conveniently sheltered from us in nice Victorian homes we used to populate, and watch us from shaded outdoor patios at expensive trendy restaurants. To be an outsider in your own home is a terrible experience that I don’t wish on anyone.
Unfortunately this experience is not limited to San Francisco. What’s most disturbing is that this cycle of gentrification is common nationwide. My patna from New York laments about how whack Brooklyn has become. My homegirl from South Central LA is shocked to have white neighbors for the first time in her life. Even my folks in Asheville, North Carolina talks about how trendy hipsters have invaded the town. So, now I pose the question: what exactly can we do?
The sad answer is that, at this point, I simply don’t know. Honestly most of me has given up on San Francisco. I love living in Oakland, and these days that’s where I prefer to spend my time- something I never thought would be the case. But I know in my heart that I can’t just sit idle and start over here. Even if it was possible for me to fully abandon SF, I know that Oakland is experiencing the same type of change as we speak. I’m afraid that just as I get settled here, the Oakland natives that I know and love will be replaced with more of these modern-day colonizers. I’ve already seen it happen in just the short year and a half I’ve lived here. I don’t want to just lie down and accept it.
I want to be face-to-face with Mayor Ed Lee, look him in the eye and force him to address these truths I want to gather the displaced and soon-to-be-displaced residents of SF and force city politicians to give us a real answer. I want to call out some of the authors and publishers in the SF Chronicle on their biased articles. I want them to see, understand, and embrace how the true heart and soul of San Francisco is really living. I want to see some of these media and tech giants that have found success in our city use their massive revenue to help families and working-class people keep living here. I want people of privilege to empathize with our struggle instead of calling us lazy or accuse us of not working hard enough to keep up. More than anything, I want the same thing I wanted 3 years ago- I want the people who can really step up and do something about this to wake up- that means YOU.
A friend of mine sent me this article last night and it pissed me off. This morning I decided to write an open response:
There is no denying that the Tenderloin is a rough neighborhood. The poverty, drug peddling, homelessness, and crime is very real. For those who aren’t used to it, it can be shocking just to pass through the area. Yet the neighborhood is home to one of the most diverse populations of people in the country- as well as the most youth living in San Francisco. These people endure the struggle of living in this neighborhood every day, and they don’t deserve to be exploited for shock value in a VICE magazine article.
I have worked with several different organizations in the Tenderloin for several years- starting with my job as an on-the-street outreach counselor for homeless youth in 2008- and I would never refer to my clients the way this so-called “social worker” has in the article. The way she describes her clients, the neighborhood, and the people in it rings of privilege and lack of empathy and true understanding. Her wording and descriptions match the stereotypes that most people have towards drug users, the homeless, and people of color- especially those stereotypes that are prevalent in San Francisco today. It’s an insult to the work that myself and many other dedicated individuals do in this community, as well as the people who live here.
The article fails to fully describe what it is this social worker even does- she boils down her job description to handing out small checks to clients so they can spend it “on whatever piece of crack they can find.” I don’t really understand how it is exactly that she’s supposed to be helping these people- or whether or not she even believes that she can. She describes them as begging, paranoid, dirty, and unable to function in society. Of course we know that these terms can describe many people who are on the streets, but it’s harmful to think of every person on the street in these ways. There are many words and methods she could have used to accurately describe this population that are way less damaging and derogative. The worst part about this story is that this woman seems to think she’s some type of tough warrior fighting for all these crazy bums on the street. Don’t go patting yourself on the back just yet, girl.
To dispel some of the vicious stereotypes and generalizations that are being perpetuated by this article, I’d like to give MY description of the Tenderloin and talk about my average workday.
Neighborhoods like the Tenderloin don’t just self-destruct by chance. The condition that it’s in right now is no coincidence. The Tenderloin is a containment zone- it is a place to house and control many of San Francisco’s unwanted residents. The reason they are unwanted is because San Francisco is a city that heavily relies on its tourism and beautiful architecture, landscape, and neighborhoods to attract people and income. Therefore, in order to keep the elite neighborhoods and tourist attractions exclusive to SF’s wealthier residents, the socially and economically worst of the worst are dumped in the TL. Within this neighborhood you can find the most housing and services for the homeless, the elderly, substance users, HIV patients, immigrants, parolees, and the mentally ill. When you mix all these populations in overcrowded settings and continue to marginalize and oppress them, the result is the chaos that now exists in the Tenderloin. This is done very intentionally. They don’t want a housing site for Arab immigrant families next to new condos in SoMa. They wouldn’t care to have an employment resource center for the homeless around the corner from the tourist traps on Pier 39. And the idea of mental health treatment services happening next door to a trendy North Beach café would have the whole neighborhood outraged. It’s much more convenient for the privileged to be segregated from the non-privileged, and most don’t want a reminder of the vicious poverty and inequality that exists within these 50 square blocks in the heart of San Francisco. Not only does this make these populations invisible to the hipsters and yuppies gallivanting around town, but it makes the prospect of having effective services for them seem pretty ridiculous. City officials will say they’re providing housing for the homeless, but when that “housing” is a dilapidated hotel room the size of a prison cell, inside an entire neighborhood full of buildings like that, how much of a step up is that from being on the street, really? Believe me when I say that if the city government really wanted to address and put a dent in these issues, they could. The money and resources are out there. I have to seriously question any type of “social worker” who claims to empathize with this population but has no real understanding of the concepts I just described.
On the other hand, the Tenderloin is a vibrant, active community and one of the most diverse in the city. You can find immigrants from Cambodia, Pakistan, China, Vietnam (part of the Tenderloin is historically referred to as “Little Saigon”), Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Yemen, Syria, Morrocco, Lebanon, and more. Yet in the VICE article, the social worker says that it’s one of 2 predominately black neighborhoods left in SF. Let’s get this straight; the Tenderloin is not a “black neighborhood.” There are a large number of African-Americans living in the Tenderloin but many of them are people who have been displaced from the dwindling black communities in the Bay Area and beyond. The Tenderloin is also home to the largest percentage of youth in San Francisco (SF has the lowest youth population out of any other major US city). There are several schools and afterschool programs and during the afternoons you can see large groups of happy children walking together. It’s also the scene of brilliant pieces of street art and murals, with many artists residing in the area. Believe it or not, there are also many excellent restaurants and shops in the Tenderloin that reflect the diverse flavor of its residents. It’s a place where people share struggle, and as a result there is a strong bond of solidarity within many people in the community. It’s a place where people still say hello to each other on the street. Where people help each other out through the non-stop pain, grief, and struggle they experience. Sometimes it gets ugly. But sometimes the struggle is beautiful.
That’s my outlook as I commute on the BART train to the city I can no longer afford to live in. Walking from Civic Center into the bowels of this concrete jungle, the belly of the beast, I do a lot of observing. I will see panhandlers selling Street Sheets or BART tickets, many of whom I know on a first-name basis and often stop to talk to. I will see people roaming the streets talking to themselves- reminders of the lack of accessibility to and concern for mental health care in this country. Store owners sweep up and get ready for business, struggling to compete with new and trendy businesses. A few people will be sleeping on streets or bushes and lawns of UN plaza- kind of ironic to see this in the shadow of City Hall. I have learned to keep an eye out for human shit on the sidewalk- nasty, but homeless people don’t own toilets, do they? It’d probably be a good idea for the city to build a few more public toilets but I’m not holding my breath on that one. I pass a few drug dealers- mostly young kids from Honduras who don’t speak English- doing their thing, and although I wish they wouldn’t push in front of my building I’m pretty sure that if they had the opportunity to make money another way, they would. Once I enter my building, I’m usually received with warm greetings from the residents I work with. I talk with them, spend time with them, give them referrals to services they need, educate and play with their children- they’ve accepted me and welcomed me into their community. This is something I don’t take lightly; most of the people I work with have never been able to trust anyone, even their own families, and especially service providers. Almost everyone I work with was born into poverty and homelessness. Some fell on hard times, maybe they picked up a drug habit, maybe they have a disability that keeps them from finding work, maybe they are undocumented and don’t qualify for the services they need. While I hope for them to take accountability for some of their actions, I don’t ever believe that their situations are entirely their own fault, nor do I believe that they deserve to live out the rest of their days at the bottom of the social totem pole - though the truth is that many of them will.
My job is special because I work with the youth, the one population who has the best chance of escaping the vicious cycle of poverty and homelessness. I have helped them deal with drug use in their families, violence, sexual abuse, crime and incarceration, and failing in the education system- on top of the regular problems adolescents deal with that are magnified because of their living situations. Some of the stories I’ve seen and heard have stayed with me and been deeply disturbing, but I help my clients deal with them and keep it moving. I don’t think that being a social worker in the TL has killed anything inside of me, as the headline of the VICE article would suggest- on the contrary my spirit and determination to make an impact on the people of this neighborhood are more alive than ever.
Lorian, the social worker in the VICE article, lists off her job duties and experiences like a soldier talks about combat missions in Afghanistan. She mentions that she got into social work to kill her own ego; well I’d say that there’s still some life in that fucker left. I wonder what’s more shocking to her, the things she sees, or the fact that she’s able to “deal” with them. I have to wonder how strong her motivation to help people really is. It sounds like the organization she works for is completely ineffective, and it sounds like she still has yet to have any real understanding of the issues facing her clients. I could see that. But I can’t allow myself to behave like that. Not when the crime and poverty in the TL has been tolerated (if not encouraged) by this city for as long as I can remember. Not when I’ve seen childhood friends, schoolmates, and neighbors end up washed up and strung out in this neighborhood. And not when bullshit articles are coming out and damaging the perception of what I do, what I stand for, and what the people of the Tenderloin live through every day.
Lorian, if you’re reading this, I want to tell you that I’ve met and worked with your type before. Ultimately, someone like you in this profession does more harm than good- especially when they go blabbing a whole bunch of bullshit to VICE magazine. If you’re going to stay in this field of work, I hope you educate yourself a little more, check your own personal privilege, and ask yourself how you’re really going to make a long-term difference in the lives of these people you claim to know and understand all so well.
I just finished reading this book, “The Young Lords: A Reader.” I’m going to assume that most of the people reading this post have never heard of the Young Lords, just like me until I heard the song “Young Lords” by Immortal Technique. And even then, it wasn’t until I saw this fan-made mashup video to the song that I realized the Young Lords wasn’t just a title for a song, but a Puerto Rican revolutionary group from the 1970’s:
The video contains video and pictures of the Young Lords Party in action, protesting and organizing in their community. When I saw this I was shocked that, even as an Ethnic Studies college student and activist, I had never heard of them. After checking some information about them on the internet, I became really curious to know more. Online information was really limited, so I went down to library and took out the book above. The reader contains articles from Palante!, the Young Lords’ informational newspaper, as well as speeches and interviews of party member. I want to share with you all some of the things I learned about the Young Lords Party.
The book starts off by going over the Party’s history, and the history of the island of Puerto Rico itself. Originally inhabited by the indigenous Taino indians, who called the island Borinquen (which is why nowadays some Puerto Ricans call themselves Boriquas), the island was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus and colonized by Spain. The Spanish brutalized the Tainos, killing many of them, raping women, and forcing the people into slavery- same as they did all over North and South America and the Carribean. They eventually began importing kidnapped Africans to serve as slaves. Early on, Africans and Inidans rebelled against the Spanish colonizers but were defeated everytime. This is the foundation for the modern Puerto Rican’s mixed heritage of African, indigenous, and Spanish roots- a heritage they are quite proud of. After centuries of Spanish domination, the United States gained control of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, as well as Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines.
The US treated Puerto Ricans no differently than the Spanish, and the military and corporations quickly moved in to secure a military stronghold in the Carribean and take advantage of the island’s natural resources and human workforce. This led to the first migration of Puerto Ricans from the island to the mainland US. The US forced Puerto Ricans into cheap labor in factories and farms while establishing a puppet government on the island and indoctrinating the people with propoganda and education that praised the US as heroes while downplaying the achievements and accomplishments of historical Puerto Rican leaders. This is standard in colonization- brarinwashing the people into loving the very same country that is oppressing them.
Of course the US colonization of Puerto Rico was met with extreme opposition. There were many revolutionary leaders who fought for Puerto Rico’s freedom through community organizing, labor protests, and even assassination attempts. These freedom fighters were given harsh jail sentences often without fair trials, tortured, and even executed- of course you will never hear about them in any public school history class or textbook. But these revolutionaries were the predecessors of the people who would become the Young Lords in the late 1960s.
Amidst the cultural and social backdrop of the 1960s, when oppressed people around the world began to rebel against their oppressors, the Young Lords started off as a street gang in the Chicago slums. They eventually grew tired of the gang lifestyle and began organizing to help out in their community; cleaning up their neighborhood, assisting children and the elderly, and preventing crime and violence. Eventually they became a full-fledged political party and a chapter was founded in New York City. Tired of seeing their people be confined to tenement slums, given no educational or economic opportunity, drafted in the military, becoming strung out on drugs, and being oppressed on the basis of their ethnicity, the Young Lords decided to fight back.
Some of the things they did include: organize garbage strikes protesting the terrible job municipal services were doing of picking up their trash; circulate their own informational newspaper with articles on current events and Puerto Rican history; collaborate with other revolutionary groups of blacks, Chicanos, Asians, and poor whites; provide free breakfast programs for children; hold educational workshops in their communities; and advocate for the independence of the Puerto Rican nation from the United States. They stole an X-Ray machine truck from a local hospital and conducted lead poisoning and tuberculosis tests in their neighborhoods. They denounced racism worldwide and within the Puerto Rican community, promoting solidarity within their people regardless of skin color. They also advocated for gender equality and demanded that women be a crucial part of the revolution.
I was really inspired by the Young Lords. For one, I was amazed that the Party was started by youth (early membership ranged from ages 14-22). Also how they took action in their own communities without relying on government assistance. They built bridges between other communities and identified themselves as being part of the collective worldwide struggle of people from all oppressed/colonized countries. I encourage you to learn more about them, the Young Lords Reader would be a great start.
But the real reason I wanted to write this is because I believe that EVERYONE should know about them! Why are the Young Lords not included in history lessons? I have learned about the US revolution year after year during my public school education, why not the revolutionaries of our own people? Of course the answer is very clear. And, like the Young Lords, I believe that WE must create the change we want to see. So this post has been my attempt to spread the word. Hopefully the Young Lords inspired you as well!