Be the tool to infuse empowerment / Show ’em how we’ve been done wrong by the government / Represent the 12 Tribe Lost Knowledge / Teach the true essence of what’s really hood / Mentor the ones no one would.
You can call him a rapper. You can call him a painter. You can call him a Glendale College bookstore employee. You can call him Manny.
Hailing from the strip of urban landscape between Echo Park and MacArthur Park, the multitalented 30-year-old Salvadorian has had a lightning-rod life, attracting all sorts of people from all walks of life. From indie hip-hop artists to other painters like himself, they’ve all appreciated the friendship of Manuel Bracamonte, a man who has been through a lot.
“As a teenager, I was never home because I was on the streets, but now things have changed,” Bracamonte said. “Times have changed; I have changed for the better.”
Bracamonte is a calm, positive and reflective individual. It’s almost obvious that he’s a rapper. He’s dressed in baggy jeans and sports a shaved head. But he isn’t your typical lyric-spitting, bling-toting diamond stud. His desire is to infuse empowerment through social commentary.
Aside from that, Bracamonte excels at expressing his emotions with the stroke of a brush. He draws and paints to uplift spirits and to roll a reality of hope for the new generation.
But no matter what he does, Bracamonte makes sure to keep himself within the realm of positive energy.
The Spanish word for life is “vida.” Rapper Bracamonte has chosen that as his artistic name, spelling it VDAH.
“My name VDAH is made up of both sides of life,” Bracamonte said. “If there’s a god, there’s a devil… if there’s light, there’s darkness. It just depends on how you take it.”
VDAH is one of the many voices that represent the current LA underground hip-hop scene. He and his “homie” RHIPS are members of the hip-hop band Inner City Dwellers, which prides itself in gritty songwriting and its fight-the-power stance. They have a revolving door of beat-makers and are always looking for similar-minded rappers to help tell the stories of the hood. Making waves in the lakes of injustice is their ultimate goal.
These forces want me killed / Dark entities trying to take my will / No one close to me knows the deal / It’s my debt I pay the bill / Don’t want any innocent blood spilled.
“I’ll die before I sell out the cause,” Bracamonte said.
He has performed in shows all over California, from his hometown in Los Angeles to Santa Barbara all the way up the coast to San Francisco and Humboldt County.
“I think the biggest shows that I have gotten a lot of [appreciation] for have been out here in LA in house parties,” Bracamonte said.
He said local shows have been the best because they’re community-based, but when he travels “they always show me an abundance of love.”
The two MC’s are all about giving back to the community. RHIPS goes to detention centers and juvenile halls with At Risk Youth to set up workshops as well as reading poetry for a nonprofit organization called Street Poets. They use poetry to inspire young people to speak out on their problems as an outlet.
At Risk Youth helps teens who are violent, endure peer pressure or who suffer from depression, among other problems.
Tammy Hall, assistant book buyer and supervisor of the Glendale College Bookstore, has listened to Bracamonte’s rapping a number of times.
“It’s so intense, it gives me goose bumps,” said Hall.
When recording their music, the Inner City Dwellers do everything backyard-style in a home-studio with Pro Logic on a Mac. Their goal is to get booked for shows to get paid gigs for more resources.
Getting booked and performing on stage is not a rare occurrence in the life of VDAH.
A Day in the Life
May 19, 2010
It’s a big day for Bracamonte. He finishes his shift at the Glendale College Bookstore early at 10:30 a.m. and takes the Metro Bus from Glendale College down to the heart of Los Angeles. He has been invited to perform for the California Advocates United to Save Education rally at Spring and 4th streets downtown.
The idea behind the protest is to address California’s school funding process for education and to force legislators to take action against budget cuts that are affecting schools and colleges. It is a statewide campaign.
Steve Vargas, the MC of the rally, invited Bracamonte after seeing him perform at Plaza Vaquero just a few weeks earlier.
The protest begins at 4:30 p.m., giving Bracamonte enough time to prepare before he takes stage. After eating a fulfilling taco in a downtown market at noon, Bracamonte takes another bus to his nearby home. There, he meets Eric Torrez, a friend and coworker at the bookstore.
Torrez has known Bracamonte for five years and finds his paintings and rapping motivational. He provides moral support as Bracamonte goes into his tightly packed room to warm up and practice his songs. The blaring beats that boom through his speakers mix with the wailing sounds of sirens that can be heard from outside the house.
Once the mood is set, Bracamonte transforms into VDAH and the calm, reflective individual turns into the assertive, punch-Sacramento-in-the-gut activist.
Students can’t transfer because of the budget / I couldn’t stay quiet, seen too many politicians deny it / I’m driving my voice all the way to Sacramento / Representing every school, campus and ghetto.
It is 2:50 p.m., and Bracamonte takes a break and goes outside to do his blessings.
“The reason I put my hand to the sky is to show blessings to the sky and when I kneel to the floor, it’s to bless the floor that I walk on,” Bracamonte said. He makes sure to acknowledge all four cardinal points during the ritual.
Meanwhile, Bracamonte’s father and his full-blooded red-nosed pit bull, Bruno, hang out around the house. Life is peaceful despite the hardships that go on around them in this part of town.
One more hour of practicing, then at 3:50 p.m., Bracamonte and Torrez head out on a bus to the rally. The demonstration is held in the middle of the blocked street. Cops on bikes circle the stage as supporters in blue shirts gather around and hold up picket signs.
“Save our schools” reads one sign. “Last place is no place for our kids” reads another.
Several speakers take the stage before Bracamonte. When he’s finally called up, he picks up the mic, feels the beat, opens his mouth and delivers the message:
Knocking down the governor’s door / They say we’re not supposed to have heroes / Guess what, I’ll step up to the role / But I need your help to let ’em know / What are we fighting for? Education, life and more / What are we fighting for? Your little brother and sister’s future.
The crowd reacts enthusiastically. The rest is history.
That’s all in a day of life as Bracamonte.
Even though the rhythm in VDAH’s heart never stops, he considers it to be his second call in life, behind art.
“Music is beautiful and my drive, but if it happens, it happens,” Bracamonte said. “Besides music, one of my goals in life would be to become an art teacher.”
Concepts without Words
Painter Bracamonte feels obligated to leave something behind through his artwork. He likes to include culture is his work, from the Mayan hieroglyphs to the struggles he sees people going through.
Bracamonte was fascinated by drawing and began painting at an early age.
“I used to see people spray painting in an empty lot where we use to play baseball with a tennis ball,” Bracamonte said. “I liked how the color went over the wall. I started painting in many mediums at a later age but the first time I was introduced to color was true Prismacolor Pencils. Originally spray-paint had been what I’d always used.”
At first, Bracamonte’s parents did not approve of it. Once they saw him doing murals and trying to make a career out of it they were on board but would ask “how are you going to eat?” That’s when he decided to be an art teacher, hopefully working his way up to a master’s degree to teach in high school or college.
Edward Romo, 32, is a close friend of Bracamonte and was raised in the northeast sector of Los Angeles. The two met in the summer of 2000 at Glendale College. Both were writers and poets and they quickly bonded over music, showing a love for the rhyme in rap. But it was art that has kept them friends.
“After showing him my works done in oil on canvas, we both found a more common ground,” said Romo. “I soon gathered a group of creative-minded people and friends and we would meet weekly and exchange ideas. Manny was a significant part of that group.”
Bracamonte has had his art displayed in the Glendale College art exhibit, which is located in the library foyer. His most recent display was a three-piece painting titled “A Day in the Life Of,” also displayed at the college art exhibit.
“I used acrylic first to fill in my vision, and then I came in with oils to spice up the colors and pigments,” Bracamonte said. He worked on it at the art studio at Glendale College.
“It’s about what you make of it,” he said. “To me it represents a small fragment of what I see when I’m walking down the street in downtown LA. . [It’s a] distortion of a blur of a passing bus, morphing into my roots of it all.”
Bracamonte likes taking his admirer’s mind to total abstraction where only the colors are communicating to them.
“Paint can say anything you want to,” Bracamonte said. “But we have to know what to do with it. That’s why I used a wide range of colors.”
Romo said, “The beauty of Manny is if you don’t know him you have no clue of how highly creative he his. Most people don’t see him coming.”
To achieve his main goal of teaching art he’s taking art classes at Glendale College and working in media including everything from pencil drawings to graffiti.
Bracamonte has also worked with youth in El Sereno in an after-school program called Artstorm. Their mission was to employ real graffiti artists and have them show elementary and junior high kids how to use graffiti in a positive way.
“Parents were real happy to that see someone actually cared about their kids,” Bracamonte said.
Without words, a painting can say a whole lot.
“What I usually paint depends on what I’m trying to say with colors,” said Bracamonte. “My themes change through the mediums I use. Some are political, some social… my paintings always have a message of catching a mere moment of time on a canvas.”
He wants to be able to give color to a gray world with his art. He wants to use words to paint a picture for a new way of consciousness. Overall, he wants to create a new way of thinking.
“I’ve come a long way but I’m not going to stop now,” Bracamonte said.
Glendale: A Second Home
After graduating from Belmont high school in 1997, Bracamonte wanted to major in animation or in graphic design. But then he realized he wasn’t really a computer person so he jumped into fine arts. He wanted to be someone who could paint with his hands.
He is currently taking life drawing and Supplemental Instruction Leadership, which is an academic support program utilizing peer-assisted study sessions to assist students with traditionally difficult academic courses.
In addition to taking classes at Glendale College, Bracamonte has worked at the Glendale College bookstore since 1998 and enjoys helping out there. The other workers encourage his artistic endeavors.
“I try to mostly promote [Bracamonte] on what he does,” said Eriel Albarran, a Glendale College Bookstore supervisor. “I tell him, ‘if that’s what you’re into, go for it.’ You got to have that extra friend who supports you and tells you you’re doing the right thing.”
Bracamonte has called Glendale College his “second home.”
At his real home, he lives with his parents and helps around the house.
“My parents are very hard workers,” Bracamonte said. “They’ve always supported me in many ways. My mother cleans houses like many of our parents who work hard and wish their kids good. She’s very giving and has a big heart.”
Bracamonte’s father used to make shoes but was laid off because of the economy. Since he’s an older man, it’s harder for him to find work but he still manages to find odd jobs at the Los Angeles Coliseum for special events and during the USC season.
“I thank my father for still being there,” Bracamonte said. “I’ve carried our last name with honor.”
They have both been there through it all and they like his music. Bracamonte said that most of the money he makes goes directly to them.
For now, Bracamonte wants to continue his artwork by working on a few mural projects on Pico Union and performing for hip-hop shows as VDAH or as a part of Inner City Dwellers whenever the opportunity presents itself.
In the end, you can call Bracamonte a rapper, a painter or a Glendale College bookstore employee. Or, you can simply call him what he is: an inspirational artist.
“I’ve been blessed many times,” Bracamonte said. “I live everyday as if it were my last.”
VDAH and Class Closed at GCC Performing “HeadStrong: a Student’s Anthem”