Fruits of Hard Labor

MC Kiwi brings a Filipino treat to the hip hop dinner table

On a scorching Saturday in mid-October, numerous artists, community members, and curious onlookers gather at Sixth and Mission streets for the third annual SOMA Fest. What begins as a public forum for performance soon feels more like a cookout, as the 50-cent Sno-Kones turn into puddles and the attendees ooze perspiration. Dressed in black from his baseball cap to his sneakers, MC Kiwi drips sweat from the set he's just completed. Looking at the dozens of children and young adults milling around the SOMA Recreation Center playground, the rapper observes that at least half are Filipino, probably more.

“I address a lot of community issues — some that are universal and a lot that are specific to the Filipino community in the United States,” says Kiwi, himself a Filipino. “I want to grow outside the community as well. I want the world to hear my music.”

This sentiment may be common enough among hip hop novices, but hearing it from Kiwi (aka Jack DeJesus) is a bit like hearing the class valedictorian resolve to get better grades. Already, the 29-year-old MC is a veteran of the L.A. hip hop underground; he's been featured prominently in a documentary short, Beats, Rhymes, and Resistance: Pilipinos and Hip Hop in L.A.; and he's received high praise as the rhyming half of Vice Versa, a group with DJ Kidwik, current tour turntablist for Latin rap-funk band Ozomatli. Plus, Kiwi was one of the architects of the Balagtasan Collective, a group devoted to providing art workshops for L.A.'s Filipino community, before he moved to the Bay Area this past March.

“He had respect from everyone in L.A.,” says Dawn Mabalon, co-director and co-producer of Beats, Rhymes, and Resistance. “He was working with Apple Eye from Black-Eyed Peas long before Black-Eyed Peas became Black-Eyed Peas. He was just really well-known and respected. There's a scene in [our film] where he's at an open mike, and the sea of people just kind of parts for him.”

Kiwi was not, however, always such an upstanding member of his community. Before he discovered hip hop in the late '80s, he was — as he calls it — a knucklehead. During his junior high years in L.A. Kiwi became heavily involved in gangbanging, an avocation that led to several late-night trips to the jailhouse. “I hung out with some guys who were murderers, and that was what they did,” he says. “You could ask, “Oh, what's homeboy up to?,' and it would be like, “Oh, he's killing people.'”

Kiwi's attitude began to change after he stumbled upon Boogie Down Productions' 1987 classic “Stop the Violence.” Eager to put his wild days behind him, Kiwi pitched himself into the world of hip hop. “More than writing, I started really studying the music,” Kiwi says. “Just listening to different styles, going, “Oh, I like this flow,' or, “Oh, I like this beat.'”

At the same time, he began developing his chops as a community activist. After taking part in a number of organizations, he helped start the Balagtasan Collective in 1998. The collective, which offers free art classes to the Filipino community, remains one of the crowning achievements of Kiwi's life, what he calls his baby.

It's no surprise, then, that Kiwi's rhymes are socially loaded, taking aim at the U.S.'s management of its inner cities, which he labels a farce. Kiwi's lyrical darts are particularly barbed when he speaks against the rise of juvenile incarceration. For the most part, however, his rhymes roam the plains of social injustice, protesting gentrification, imperialism, and racism.

Kiwi remains cautious, however, about the fine line between making music and preaching. His audience, he says, would be lost if his message came entirely at the expense of making good music. “I want to put my stuff out in a way that people can understand,” Kiwi says. “I think culture influences people [because] it's not just someone giving a big speech.”

Nonetheless, Kiwi has produced some impressively cerebral and emotional tracks, as evidenced in the superb new tune “Love Continued.” In the song, Kiwi gives props to his people, rapping, “I love my mom's thick Filipino accent/ The slanty eyes, wide nose, and thick hair/ I love seeing my people struggling to get theirs.” Then, Kiwi switches to a bittersweet mood, finishing with, “On the average/ Even the realest love comes with baggage/ Contemporary niggas made this topic redundant/ Now a whole generation is asking where the love went.”

In many ways, “Love Continued” feels like the offshoot of “Cause We Love the People,” one of Vice Versa's best cuts from its 1999 demo, The Concrete EP. The latter track is Kiwi's interpretation of a story told to him by a young soldier in the New People's Army, a guerrilla group fighting the government in the Philippines.

“His platoon was out there chilling, and they got ambushed by the Philippine army,” Kiwi says. “He was the only one to survive.” After hearing the tale Kiwi stayed up for hours, trying to do justice to what he'd heard. The song is remarkable in that it is short on melodrama, just a simple chronicle of the narrator's fears, insecurities, and longings for his family and friends back home.

“It's sort of a love song, but in a different context,” Kiwi says. “It's the things I can imagine going through a young person's head who has no choice but to do this.”

Filmmaker Mabalon, whose own move up north a few years ago made it hard for her to keep close tabs on Kiwi, is impressed by the way the MC's work has evolved and become more refined. “You really see a lot of his growth,” she says. “Every time I see him perform, he's doing something new. I think a lot of it has to do with his moving up here. L.A. gave birth to him, but I think Kiwi is really growing up here. … By the time he came up [to the Bay Area], I thought, “Wow!' He went from a collection of spoken word pieces to having a really solid body of work.”

Part of Kiwi's growth stems from his connection with new DJ partner Al-Boogie, who also spins for the hip hop/jazz ensemble the Recipe. Al-Boogie's machine-gun precision has added new energy to Kiwi's rapid-fire rhymes, leading to warm receptions at recent events such as Filipino Unity Day, the PiNoisepop Festival, and the LocusArts Asian hip hop showcase.

As for product, Kiwi is still touting Vice Versa's The Concrete EP, but he's planning to record an album of new material soon. Recently he hooked up with Full-Blown Management and began speaking with producers in both L.A. and the Bay Area.

Kiwi is also satisfying his thirst for activism by working as a publications editor for Health Initiatives for Youth. Sometime soon, he'd like to start another Balagtasan Collective, too. But his long-term goal is finding a way to bring music to the legions of kids who need hip hop as much he once did.

“I wish there'd been more people here,” Kiwi says of the SOMA Fest show. “A lot more young folks and knuckleheads. I don't know if they've been displaced or given up on the community. It just shows you gotta hit the pavement, get the message out in other ways.”

In the meantime, Kiwi will have to earn his converts one at a time. After the gig, a young boy who looks to be around 14 years old stops by to talk to him. The teen can't remember Kiwi's name, but he knows he's seen the artist before and liked him. He says he wanted to get onstage, too, but his teacher wouldn't let him.

“There wasn't an open mike?” Kiwi asks. The boy shakes his head.

“Well,” Kiwi says, “you should have gone up there anyway.”

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