FEATURE: A Sound to Strike With: Political Music Growing in the Philippines

FEATURE: A Sound to Strike With: Political Music Growing in the Philippines
Filipino rapper BLKD. Photo Credit: Pixel Offensive.

What you need to know

'This music, for all intents and purposes, can never be confined to itself. It, alongside the creators, needs to be projected outward and engaged in serving the oppressed.'

Political music is re-emerging in the Philippines under the Duterte administration and is once again gaining influence amid a growing protest movement.

Protest music isn’t a trend or genre based on certain music styles and structures. It underscores a clear and present social condition that has beset certain sectors of the populace. It’s not a music scene in the strictest sense but a shared message and movement.

Some of the country’s most potent contemporary protest music was born from the 1960s to the 1980s, especially during the height of Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship. Revolutionary groups during this period spawned volumes of songbooks dedicated to advancing the people’s struggle for genuine freedom and democracy. These pieces were distributed and performed among various communities and coincided with political organizing.

Producing an apt “soundtrack” to the revolution was the least of the artists’ objectives. At its barest form, the music endeavored to provoke questioning the societal systems and ways to change it.

For example, “Ang Masa (The Masses),” a popular hymn among activists from the 1960s takes inspiration from Mao Zedong (毛澤東). It is a reminder that the masses of workers and peasants are and should be at the forefront of the struggle for freedom and democracy. This song can still be heard today at most protest gatherings.

“Pag-aralan ang Digmang Bayan (Study the People’s War),” which was distributed around the same period, is even more direct. It illustrates the principles in identifying enemies of the working class and which guerilla strategies are correct.

These songs emerged when the country’s political situation demanded their necessity. Now, they are still very much in use and the run of the times has created a need for the genre’s expansion.

Musicians currently engaged in political protest music are exploring what popularizing the discussion on social issues can do. By setting up concerts, distributing songs online and offline and overall competing with radio’s "top tens," they are compelling listeners to take a deeper and longer look at their surroundings.

Being generally unwelcome from commercial outlets, like radio, hasn’t suffocated more socially relevant music. The sentiment does not go away easily.

American Marxist Paul Baran once said, “The effective destruction in schools, churches, press, everywhere, of everything that smacks of solidarity in the consciousness of the man in the street. And finally, the utterly paralyzing feeling of solitude which must overcome anyone who does not want to conform, the feeling that there is no movement, no camp, no group to which one can turn.”

More people are turning to social movements and the music that comes with them. Artistic works articulate what is often felt but rarely spoken about in traditional avenues. However inconvenient or unacceptable for public consumption, some themes and messages need to be said and heard. It is propaganda, truth-telling and uninhibited.

A league of their own

I remember a recent conversation with Allan Metrio, a noted rapper also known as BLKD. He gained notoriety for participating in Fliptop, an independent Filipino rap battle league that has garners millions of views on YouTube. Being able to weave political commentary into his verses while dissing his competition — a contrast with the cliche macho-chauvinist dissing — marked him as “the activist.”

On the cover of BLKD’s 2015 album, “Gatilyo (Trigger),” was an image of a man with his hand positioned as if to pull a trigger. That singular sketch against an all-black background was inspired by Marlon Caacbay, a brilliant drummer, New People’s Army (NPA) guerrilla and martyr.

Photo Credit: Pixel Offensive
Cover of BLKD’s 2015 album, “Gatilyo (Trigger).”

Caacbay was a cultural worker and had been playing drums in several bands. He was plying his trade with a band called “The Axel Pinpin Propaganda Machine” when I met him.

The group formed in 2011 with former political prisoner and award-winning poet Axel Pinpin as a relentless frontman spewing venomous and unapologetic verses against oppression. Alongside other prolific musicians and activists, they arranged experimental and agitating scores that complimented the fierceness of Pinpin’s poetry.

One of their songs, simply titled “Arman,” traces the life of Arman Albarillo. His parents, both farmers in southern Tagalog were slain by military forces on suspicion of sympathizing and helping rebel forces.

Albarillo soon became an activist, exposing at every turn the atrocities that befell his parents and other farmers. This was the time of former President Arroyo whose regime would infamously oversee more than 1,000 extra-judicial killings of activists, earning several reprimands from the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights in the process.

Pinpin describes how Albarillo, determined to make his voice louder, left the urban mass movement for a life in the countryside with the NPA. The song features a voice recording of Albarillo saying, “The number one recruiter of the NPA is actually the government. They have pushed us to this point of struggle.”

I can’t imagine what was going through Caacbay’s head jamming this song at the string of gigs they had, but I suppose it affected him profoundly. A few years later he left for the mountains of southern Tagalog, just like Albarillo. And like Albarillo, his life too was cut short in service of the revolution. Witnesses say his right hand was still poised as if to pull the trigger when his body was found in 2015. The song ends with Pinpin narrating, “The sacrifice of life, for those who are still searching for a reason.”

To paraphrase Ho Chi Minh, “The musician must also learn how to lead an attack.” Caacbay’s life took this adage quite literally by personifying the logical conclusion of the music’s content: The revolution is happening now and we can take part in it with the fullest of our abilities. His legacy challenged an entire generation of musicians about their place in history.

BLKD says the effort of getting socially relevant messages across became broader and more concentrated around 2011 as bands and performers held regular events to showcase their music. The success of BLKD’s album, “Gatilyo (Trigger),” injected a sharp, analytical and reflective take on the Philippine society and received wide acclaim from independent music publications. Beats and bars were a contemporary contribution to the library of protest jams that had consisted mostly of classic marching and folk songs.

It wasn’t the first time this happened but it was happening to our generation in an era of globalization — social media, more readily available recording materials, a wider variety of musical influences and the third world experience of inequality and foreign intervention.

This brought about an impetus and a certain thrust for organizing music events with mostly activist musicians. Slowly it attracted more and more people. To the point where some would even discard previous motifs of their lyrics and adopt more radical ones after being exposed to how politics came into play.

For example, rapper Emar Industriya, noted for his command of the Filipino language and distinct flows went from making rhymes with friends to performing at cause-oriented gigs. Industriya last month debuted songs against militarization at a rally against ongoing Martial Law in the Mindanao, a southern region of the country.

Caacbay’s example shows us that this music, for all intents and purposes, can never be confined to itself. It, alongside the creators, needs to be projected outward and engaged in serving the oppressed. Otherwise, why make it? Do we tell stories in our music for ourselves? Or do we live them out in struggles and encourage others to do the same?

Photo Credit: Pixel Offensive
A tribute poster to Marlon Caacbay.

Where to?

I feel uncomfortable labeling all this as simply part of a sub-culture or anything that denotes exclusivity. It is a response to the collective experience of injustice that ripples through the Philippine society. It deserves and demands an audience with the broad masses.

These artists don’t rely on sales of their records, most of them don’t even have money for studio or recording equipment. If there are releases, a chunk of it is free or low cost; reproducing the content takes primacy over everything. Entrance charges to events are usually done through donations or nothing at all.

And yet still it perseveres and expands — a growth directly proportional to the mass movement from which it hails. It is a movement’s expansion through cultural work, and I hope it won’t take long for many to realize that something lies beyond these songs.

Editor: Olivia Yang