Rhythm, Rhymes, and Revolution: Hip-hop in the country’s political landscape

Hip-hop, despite its brash flaunting of wealth and display of pseudo-masculinity, has never shied away from speaking against abusive state forces, corrupt government officials, and the unfair system black Americans are up against. With extensive roots in militant spoken-word groups like The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets who used their art to champion black nationalism in the late 60s, it’s not hard to see why the culture’s rhythm and rhymes are being used today to speak out against injustices no matter the skin color. From the concrete jungle streets of New York to the sun-smooched boulevards of Los Angeles, rappers have injected their lyrics with as much animosity against America’s imperialist system as they can, even dubbed by Public Enemy’s Chuck D as “black America’s CNN.”

Eventually, when the subculture found its way into the Pearl of the Orient during the early 90s, Filipinos quickly embraced this new piece of America into the homeland. Prominent figures of early Filipino hip hop are the controversial Dongalo Wreckords founder Andrew E. and the late rap legend Francis Magalona. The early 1990s soon experienced a hip-hop revolution as the genre attained mainstream status caused by its popularity among the youth around Metro Manila. 

Progressive hip-hop in the Philippines

After getting a tiny taste of what the American rap game had to offer, I wanted to check out the scene here in the Philippines because as overly-saturated-alpha-male-grind set, local streetwear business owners would say, “support local.” But it wasn’t until 2019 that I saw for myself just how big of an impact hip-hop could have in the political landscape of the country. In 2019, a 12-track album “KOLATERAL” was dropped by a collective called Sandata headed by Calix and BLKD, two well-known local rap artists. KOLATERAL takes a deep dive into the atrocities of the Duterte regime with its infamous, failed, and abusive war against drugs. Local rap group Kartell’em and BLKD turn into young impoverished boys killed by policemen just to finish the ‘quota’ they have for the day in the track Boy, another artist Tao gives voice to a young couple whose lives are both taken from them by cops waiting in the dark in Hawak. In the album’s 12th song, Sandata, various artists use their collective voices to express the rage they feel against the administration using colorful words that could get anyone kicked out from any old Catholic school. 

In KOLATERAL, hip-hop doesn’t just take the form of another album. Hip-hop becomes a memorial, a tribute, to remind its listeners that the victims of the Duterte regime are not mere numbers but real people with real lives unjustly taken from them一and finally a form of hope that the condition of the country doesn’t call for another album like it. 

From this powerful album, more progressive artists came under my radar. Bambu from Uprising showed me what life as a Filipino living in America fighting for the revolution is like. Bambu’s Jeepney (with Farmer John) is not the typical Ez Mil-esque it’s more fun in the Philippines track; it exposes the ugly and system-wide corruption in the country in a straightforward manner while also telling the story of a Filipino kid living in America who still holds great love and nostalgia for his motherland. In Welcome to the Party, Bam brims with pride saying he’s from the same bloodline as the people who took up the frontline with HUKBALAHAP and also the Katipunan.

One more album from another group of creatives, Pasya Music Album highlights bodily autonomy. The album champions the decriminalization of abortion in the legal system with music geared at empowering women. It is a reclamation of the body’s ownership back to its rightful owner. Periodt by Muro Ami and Tao explores safe and unsafe sex plus the physical and mental toll of unwanted pregnancies. The 11th track Regla by Muro Ami, SHNTI, and Tao highlights the societal and cultural pressures and barriers that women experience with regards to their bodily autonomy and reproductive health. 

Naga city emcee Sgimi criticizes political figures, regardless of their campaign color, with their unfair treatment and killing of the country’s farmers and indigenous people in his track Rehas ng Silanganan. San Roque 21 explores the failure of Duterte’s pandemic response. In this, Sgimi underlines the cruel arresting of 21 protesters from Sitio San Roque who were only asking the government for food and other assistance during the first wave of lockdowns in the country.

Another recent and prominent example of a local rapper using their craft politically is Gloc-9’s reclamation of his song and political anthem Upuan during the Leni-Kiko people’s rally in Baguio. The track implores political leaders to put themselves in the shoes of the masses, the same people they abuse and take from. For the longest time, followers have been pointing out the contradictions in his socially relevant music with his political endorsements. During the 2016 elections, he was seen performing sortie gigs for then Makati mayoral candidate Abby Binay and other local trapos. In a 2016 Inquirer article, Gloc’s camp says “It was just a regular sortie gig for a local candidate一no different from the sorties before it, and the sorties that will come after.” I personally felt extreme happiness when Gloc performed Upuan during the Leni-Kiko rally not just because it was a socially relevant song but because it was a chance for him to finally use his influence against oppressors and to legitimize Upuan’s meaning. He said it himself before performing “mayroon akong isang awitin, ang dami-dami kong atraso sa awitin na ‘to pero ngayong araw na ito babawi ako sa kanya,” – such poetic justice. All that’s left is for him to junk his NutriAsia endorsement (baby steps). Gloc-9 with all his influence and clout from the local rap scene and his reclamation of his own song is a chance for local and mainstream Filipino emcees to reconnect with the progressive roots of the culture.

In the political landscape

Where exactly does the Philippine hip-hop scene belong in the political landscape of the country? It belongs to the people. The masses一it always belonged to the masses, from its humble beginnings in America to the music industry giant that it is now. Hip-hop is a widely-accessible and unfiltered instrument to spread and circulate revolutionary and progressive ideas. It is an art form, a culture, and a political movement. It allows disenfranchised communities to speak. 

Aside from providing outlets for underrepresented groups and shining a spotlight to the fight for national democracy, hip-hop is also especially potent in stoking the fires inside people born from dissatisfaction and anger against the system. This can be seen from artists like Calix who recently performed with his Lightning In A Bottle (LIAB) studios label mates for activists who camped out in Liwasang Bonifacio on May 10 right after the protests against the deception and lies of the COMELEC. With this, they fueled the fire for the protesters present that night, and stressed that we should not allow another Marcos and Duterte into power. His assertive and in-your-face music directly correlates to the message he wants to share: people should rage against the fact that a lot of the government’s atrocities are often pardoned and the individuals who commit these atrocities get away scot free and are even seen as heroes.

The genre has expanded beyond the borders of the black American experience, it has grown to become the voice of a variety of communities and people. Although the commercialization of hip-hop has created a flood of music that is devoid of any social meaning, there will always be artists that see hip-hop as an art form that can bring about social change. I’ve highlighted only a fraction of progressive artists and activists fighting for a better Philippines through lyrics and a sick beat but there are hundreds— even thousands more out there. All we need to do is open our ears and, eventually, our eyes. 
To end my long love letter to the local hip-hop scene here in the Philippines, I’d like to quote BLKD from his track Gatilyo: “pagkat sa daing ay dahas ang cariño pagmulat ay pagkasa, tayo ang gatilyo.[P]

Listen to Polo’s curated playlist here:

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