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“Empire of Funk” Explained

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UC Irvine culture and theory P.h.D. candidate Mark R. Villegas held a guest panel and book signing for his recently published anthology, “Empire of Funk: Hip Hop and Representation in Filipina/o America” last Tuesday Feb. 18, at 6:30 p.m. in the Hillside Lounge as a part of The Hill’s ongoing Author Series to promote UCI authors.

Decerry Donato | Photography Intern
Decerry Donato | Photography Intern

Hosted by The Hill, the Department of Asian American Studies, Kababayan at UCI and Student Affairs, the event was attended by current students and faculty members, along with a number of UCI alumni who were a part of the hip-hop movement in the late 80s and early 90s.

The panel, facilitated by co-editor Villegas, featured co-editor and hip hop activist DJ Kuttin’ Kandi, along with contributors Arnel Calvario, who founded UCI hip-hop dance team Kaba Modern; Cheryl Cambay, former KM dancer; Kimmy Maniquis, former KM choreographer; and Mark Pulido, Mayor Pro Tem on the Cerritos City Council.
“It’s funny, because back in the 80s and 90s we just did this for fun,” Villegas said on the “old school hip-hop” the book focuses on. “We had no idea we’d ever make a book out of it.”

Villegas started “Empire of Funk,” a web forum for Filipino-Americans to share their experiences in the hip-hop community, five years ago. Now, the anthology of poetry, fliers and other forms of content, is compiled of 40 pieces, some of them taken from the website and written by artists, dancers and scholars alike “to provide different perspectives on hip-hop and its evolution.”

Decerry Donato | Photography Intern
Decerry Donato | Photography Intern

Villegas and Kandi hope it will be used in Asian-American studies classes in the future, but their mission is to make the book’s content easily accessible for all ages.

“It is important to tell our own stories, or someone else is going to try to write them for us,” Kandi said on their motivation behind starting the book.

The panelists also focused on mainstream hip-hop today, particularly Kaba Modern, to add an American perspective to the cultural dances at Kababayan’s annual culture night.

Kaba Modern rose to fame when they competed against other hip-hop crews on season three of MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew” in 2008. Though the six-member team represented Kababayan, Maniquis noted that none of the dancers were Filipino.

“That’s why we tend to gravitate towards celebrities like Jessica Sanchez and Manny Pacquiáo,” Maniquis said. “Filipino-Americans are so absent in the media today that when one of us receives recognition, it’s a big deal.”

Because the book is written by many hip-hop enthusiasts and activists from past generations, the shift from early 90s party music to modern day gangster rap has been met with criticism.

“Party music and old school hip hop is what establishes community,” Kandi said. “I was a hip-hop head in Queens, New York, and I was so lost, trying to understand my brownness — hip-hop is what helped all of us find one another in the city.”
The former dancers ended the panel by giving advice to the dancers in the audience. Their biggest piece of advice? Don’t copy others’ work.

“It’s okay to be inspired by an original generation, but don’t stop there –– create something of your own,” Calvario said. “Just like ‘Empire of Funk’ is a generation of our own.”