It’s really easy to discredit someone like Tamba Leno for being a one-trick pony. If you’ve heard of the dude at all, you’ve probably only seen viral videos of him on Instagram acid dropping off random, high-ass shit, and feared for his ankles and knees at every attempt. Whether he’s jumping off the overpass above SOMA Skate Park in San Francisco or off the side of the quarter pipes at Oakland’s Town Park, Tamba is literally taking his skating to new heights almost every day (har har).
We decided to get in touch with Tamba to figure out how this all came about, and to get some insight into what goes on in his head during these near-suicide missions. What we found surprised us, as we discovered a man that has been through a truly turbulent life, but has managed to stay humble with nothing but love for skateboarding and all the opportunities it has given him.
What’s up, Tamba? This is your first interview, so let’s start off with the basics.
Where are you from?
West Africa, Liberia. There was a war, a civil war in Liberia so I was born in ’92 and we left and got to America in ’94. We got to New York first, we had to switch planes in New York to come to California. We’ve always been in Oakland, California since then, for over 20 years now.
What have your parents told you about the war? Were you in serious danger?
I guess it was a feud between two different regions of our country, so it was either you pick sides or you try to stay out of it, but if you’re staying out of it you’re still basically in it. I never really knew my dad, but my mom always told me that’s how she met my dad. He was from Guinea-Bissau and he was a peace keeper, so he came to Liberia to try and help out the situation, and I guess they met each other when the war broke out.
When the war broke out he basically helped her get to a boat to where she could get to a plane to come all the way out here. She never really told me too much else, but my grandpa stayed out here, so he helped us with our visa to get out to California, and we stayed with him in West Oakland for a few months after we got here. Then my mom got a boyfriend and he kicked her out, so we’ve been homeless for a lot of our lives.
Hold on my baby momma’s calling me, let me tell her I’m doing this with you.
Hey man, I’m here…
Sorry, I also have a daughter, I forgot to mention that. I have a four year old daughter.
But anyway, from what my mom said, there was like two different parts of our country fighting and it was just bad. They were snatching people’s kids, killing people, and I was actually born during the war, so there was a curfew. My mom went into labor with me during curfew so if you go outside during curfew, you’re liable to get shot by anybody. You don’t know who’s who, it could be an enemy or a friend and [the soldiers] won’t know.
So a soldier came over to her and told her to go back in the house, and she was like, “Well, I’m about to have my son, so if you’re going to kill me, you’re going to kill him, or you’re going to take me to this midwife’s house.” So he basically helped her to get there and then I was born. I was like, damn near not even supposed to be here. My mom had 12 kids, 6 girls and 6 boys. 6 of them passed away in the war, and now she has 6 left.
You mentioned you were homeless for a while after you first got to California?
Yeah, so after my grandpa kicked us out of his place, we went to a Berkeley shelter right in the back of the Berkeley Police Department. We lived there for a little while, and then my mom ended up getting us an apartment back in West Oakland.
Then my mom was working at Sears and I guess her boss was trying to get with her and what not, and she wasn’t trying to do that. She was just working, and she ended up getting fired over that. After that happened, she was walking down our apartment stairs and she got her foot caught up in the steps and twisted it and fell down the stairs. She tried to sue the building since those stairs were already really messed up anyway and then they basically kicked us out because she was trying to sue, and that’s how we ended up being homeless the second time.
That’s actually the only reason I ever started skateboarding. We went back to a shelter in Berkeley, but we went to Harrison House this time, and it just so happened to be that right next door was the Berkeley Skate Park, so I used to always go to the park just to ease my mind.
”I know it wasn’t really my mom’s fault, but I was just stressed and angry about the situation. But skateboarding was kind of a way out.”
How did you feel during that time? How did you deal with all of the changes?
I didn’t really understand, I was about 12 going on 13, I didn’t really understand why everything was going the way it was, and I was just so sad about how everything happened. I know it wasn’t really my mom’s fault, but I was just stressed and angry, not at her, just about the situation. But skateboarding was kind of a way out.
I didn’t have anybody to buy me a skateboard. I knew she wasn’t gonna buy me no skateboard. I used to go to the park every single day for like a month and just sit down on the bench and watch everybody skate. It was better than being in the homeless shelter with all the other families, cause there’s so many other families that are homeless too, and we’re all sharing one house and rooms with other families.
I ended up going to the skate park every single day, and one guy eventually noticed me. He came up to me one day and asked, “Do you even skateboard? I see you sitting down every day and watching us all skate, do you even skateboard?” and I was like, “Nah man, I’m homeless. I can’t afford a skateboard.” And he was like, “Oh, alright,” and then he just left… and I was like, “Oh, alright, cool… He just asked me that and cut” [laughs]. But then he came back out of nowhere with a brand new Element deck and was like, “Yo, go skate…”
After that, I always loved that feeling he gave me. Like, he didn’t have to give me that skateboard, but he did. So now I have a little company I’m trying to start based off that feeling that I got, where I just give back to kids. Especially cause I was just a little kid and I was stressed out about being homeless and everything, so that was like the best thing that ever happened to me in my life. Just someone coming up to me and giving me a skateboard.
OCF? That’s your company, right? Fill us in a little bit.
I was trying to think of a name, and I just came up with Overcome Fears. When it comes to skating, if you’re not going to overcome your fears, son, you’re gonna buckle. And then my friends at the skate park, instead of saying shit like, “Damn! You just fell hella hard!” we be saying “Bookum, bookum.” So now it’s, “If you’re not gonna overcome your fears, you gonna bookum bookum super bad!”
It started out as just kids. I just wanted kids up to like age 15 to just mentor and be down for. As long as y’all skate and progress, I’ll buy you guys boards and get you wheels, anything you need that I have enough money for and that I can get, I’ll give it to y’all. And I was kind of skeptical cause I was deciding whether I could really do it or not, and I thought like, if I do decide to promote this and do it, I have to really do it and can’t be in between with it. But what I will do for them, I’ll make sure whatever I do that gets recognition gets redirected toward them and they get seen too, and I’ll try to help out as much as I can with everything.
OCF has always been my pride and joy because however much I make it, OCF makes it. I am nothing without OCF or skateboarding. If it wasn’t for skating, I wouldn’t be so free. I don’t think I’ll ever stop. If I’m angry, upset, mad, any way that I’m feeling in life, I just get on a skateboard, put headphones in and listen to music, and just go.
What’s the end goal with this company? Are you looking to turn these kids or yourself pro?
I guess my biggest dream is for any of them to get recognized or go pro one day. And I’m not the type of person thats gonna be like, “Hey, that was me, I did that.” Nah, no way. Like in the homeless shelter, I taught someone how to skate and gave him his first board and all that and he became better than me. It’s just good to see that your contribution did something for someone, and you don’t need anybody else to know.
I’ve been seeing that you have been riding DOG Skateboards. Are you sponsored by them?
Well, I buy from them. I get them for the kids. They do $20 a board for me, so it’s cool. I can get five boards for $100 and give ’em to five kids and they’ll be hyped. But I just do it for them, I don’t get any money back or anything like that. These are just kids that I basically told I’ll always have their back.
Everyone who would ride DOGs at the park before I was getting them would say great things about ’em. One of their riders and owners hit me up saying he wanted me to do the SOMA drop with a DOG board, so he was sending me stuff saying if you go do SOMA with a DOG board and you tag us in it, we’ll give you 10 free boards. So it was like, yo $200 worth of boards? That’s what I’m talking about! And then they were like, “Yeah, we’ve got a few people in mind we want to ride flow for us and you’re one of them.” So if I ever do land SOMA… we’ll see.
How did jumping off big shit even become your thing?
In 7th and 8th grade, I went to Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, and one day I just looked at a basketball court and was like, “Well, I’ve never seen or heard of anyone jumping off a basketball hoop and landing on a skateboard,” so I attempted it one time and I kind of stopped after that one time. I remember everyone crowded around me and was like, “Do it, do it, do it!” And that was like the only type of fame I ever had, so I just jumped and slipped and went backwards and just fell straight on my ass and was just like, “Never again!” [laughs]
The whole jumping off stuff thing came back up at some point. I think it was The Matrix that got me back into it [laughs]. I always used to wanna be like Neo and run up things like how he could, so it started off with trash cans and fire hydrants. I’d just pop my board up, grab it, jump off the top of it and it would make people go crazy. From then, I would just go higher and higher and higher, and it got all the way up to jumping off a freaking bridge. Everybody that knows me since I was a little kid would tell me like, “That’s not how you skate, man.” And now those same people that used to look down on me are like, “Bro, you need to get that bridge! And as much as we didn’t think that was cool, you made it super cool,” so now it’s like, “Kudos to you, Tamba,” from everyone.
I guess this is sort of what I always wanted, cause I want all that love and attention I’m getting from it to go to the company and ultimately the other kids I’m putting on so I can buy boards for everybody that I know. Everything I get is for everybody. I like to share that love with everybody else.
I noticed on your Instagram you really like Lil Yachty. What is it about him you like so much?
I seen an interview with him, and I actually still haven’t let my girl watch it cause she does not like Lil Yachty at all. She thinks he looks like a clown, that his voice sounds like a girl [laughs]. It’s so crazy cause in this interview with FADER, he was explaining he went through school like that, with people always hating.
I think that’s why I like him so much. Just the fact that he faced so much adversity growing up because he just wanted to be different. I’ve always been different, I’ve always been cool with everybody, I’ve always liked so many different types of music.
It’s just his style, it’s very unique. It’s more of what he stands for and how he’s not about to change himself just because people won’t like what he is. For as many people that love him, I’m sure there’s just as many that don’t like him. He’s influencing people a lot, and I know there’s families out there that don’t want their kids influenced by someone like that.
But I relate to that a lot, like there’s so many people that will hit me up and be like, “You’re stupid for dropping off the bridge,” or whatever, or like, “You’re not gonna walk in five years,” and I understand all that. But that’s why I feel like people who have known me for a while know how it really is, just like there’s people out there telling me and reminding me of all the risks I’m taking. But I’m still gonna put my mind to it and it’s set. I don’t wanna start something that I can’t finish.
What sort of impact have you seen after the renovation of Town Park in your neighborhood?
Everybody that knows Oakland and has been around that park and remembers when that was nothing. Now they all come to the park and they be like, “Yo, you guys are doing something really good for the community.”
All you expect from Oakland is somebody getting shot, police messing with somebody, or just negativity. Oakland is just looked upon with a lot of negativity. Oakland overall is one of the worst cities in general. If there wasn’t no skate park in Oakland, it would still be the regular park but it wouldn’t bring out so many people. I mean, we had Ryan freaking Sheckler come by Town Park and that’s something you would have never, ever thought in a million years. For them to see one of their favorite pros come to the park, it’s amazing cause you would never expect that, cause it’s Oakland.
K-Dub [founder of Town Park] did a whole lot for us, to just even get us a skate park. And now, they changed it from wood to concrete, it is the most amazing thing in the world. K-Dub used to skate and I’ve heard a lot about him, but for a person who doesn’t really skate now to build something for everyone else, it reminds me of the guy who gave me my first skateboard. I love people that don’t do things to expect anything back, cause there’s a lot of people out there that will do something for you just because they expect something back from you when the day comes.
If you could be flown out anywhere to do an acid drop where would you go?
My dream was always to somehow, someway jump off the highest building and just kind of ride down the building. If you’ve ever seen Ghostrider, how he rides up buildings on his bike… I’m trying to ride down a building with my skateboard, and there’d be a little ramp at the bottom and it would just let me flow out. But to jump off something high… I would wanna go to the X-Games, because I tell people that my biggest dream after seeing the X-Games was to go on the Mega Ramp.
There was one guy who I remember took a free fall all the way to the bottom and he wasn’t supposed to be able to walk that day, and they took him to the back and iced him up and he came back out and he landed it. I would like to get flown out to the Megaramp and acid drop off of that. That would be a dream come true. I’ve also always wanted to do a 900 and be the first African to ever do a 900 [laughs].
”I would like to get flown out to the Megaramp and acid drop off of that. That would be a dream come true.”
Have you ever dropped real acid?
Oh no, I think the worst drug I ever did was weed, and back in high school I popped one ecstasy pill. But I never did no cocaine, meth, and always just stayed away from all that. Then the fact that my mom would go to AA meetings… I’m actually lightweight trying to stay away from alcohol, but I still drink it like it’s water. I tend to stay away from hard liquor, but I drink beer a lot.
One thing my mom always taught me too, it was like, “Boy, we are immigrants to this country,” and we’ve been through so much where I just understand not to be in those positions and avoid trouble. One thing that she said was if I ever get in trouble that’s serious enough, they will deport me back to Africa. That’s always kept me in check cause it’s like whoa, whoa, whoa, I don’t wanna go back there.
I mean I want to, but not like that. I’ve always felt like I can’t go back there empty handed. If I go back, I wanna be able to do something there with skating or music as well. In her eyes, she’s like, “Go to school, get an education, become a doctor, become something that you can bring back down there and you can uplift and give it back to our people.” So I always remember that and say I can’t go back empty handed.
August 28, 2016 11:51 am
August 29, 2016 8:20 am
Wow what an awesome read, a real breath of fresh air. So many skateboarders can be entitled dick heads (including myself), and it’s so rad to read about someone who wants to give just because they want to. Awesome approach to skateboarding as well, this shit is supposed to be dangerous and different. It ain’t all about switch back tails, love the approach and the words and the different perspective
August 29, 2016 10:41 am
Big ups to the guy who gave this kid a complete!
September 3, 2016 6:56 pm
Skateboarding needs more Tambas! Inspirational stuff right here