INTERVIEW: Filipino Artists The General Strike and BLKD Intertwine Music and Politics in Taipei

INTERVIEW: Filipino Artists The General Strike and BLKD Intertwine Music and Politics in Taipei
Edward Fung/The News Lens

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'Music is an extension of the self. It’s an extension of our activism which is why our music is so overtly political. We wouldn’t be able to write the songs that we write without being activists,' says the drummer of The General Strike.

Pedestrians on Zhongxiao Street in Taipei were busy bracing for a typhoon late last Friday. But inside a small bar and hostel, Filipino blues rock band The General Strike and rapper BLKD were prepared for a weekend of performances and talks on the political and cultural situation in their country.

The group was in Taiwan for the "Sound of Strike: Filipino Art and Cultural Exchange Project," a joint venture between Filipino and Taiwanese NGO workers to promote a deeper understanding of Filipino culture and politics. The project received an NT$700,000 (US$23,000) grant from the Ministry of Culture's Emerald Initiative, which helps to promote relations between Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries.

The first gig was held on July 28 with The General Strike and BLKD performing for an intimate audience of about 20 in the living room of a hostel. The culminating event was the Taiwan-Philippines crossover music party held on July 30, with The General Strike and BLKD performing alongside Taiwanese bands LEO37 + SOSS and No-nonsense Collective (無妄合作社).

Edward Fung / The News Lens
The General Strike takes the stage during the Taiwan-Philippines crossover music party held on July 30.

Band members are activists first and artists second; they met through their activism work, ranging from the labor to housing sectors, and this work serves as inspiration for their original songs.

“We write songs not particularly for any topic but to reflect social issues to raise awareness among the Filipino community,” guitarist Neil Ambion told The News Lens in an interview before the party on July 30.

“Art without politics is nothing. Some artists say they can separate their politics from their art but it’s bullshit because hiding your political stance is a political stance. If you make music just for yourself, then go play it in your own room.”

Drummer Michael Beltran adds, “Music is an extension of the self. It’s an extension of our activism which is why our music is so overtly political. We wouldn’t be able to write the songs that we write without being activists.”

Rapper BLKD whose stage name means “obstacle” in Tagalog, also believes that “the personal is political.” To him, producing personal music is equivalent to taking a political stance.

A “writer first, rapper second,” he weaves hip-hop beats and sardonic lyrics to highlight the “irony” in Philippine society.

In his opening track “Gatilyo,” BLKD rapped, “look at our country, wealth is what it stores […] the land is so vast, why are there homeless people? Even with hard work, nothing is gained, we are chained to unsolvable poverty.”

To perform in front of a mostly Taiwanese audience unable to understand Tagalog, BLKD communicated what he could not in words through body movement and video imagery.

“In the Philippines, I am confident that even if I don’t perform as well, the audience can still appreciate my lyrics. But for a foreign audience, there is no guarantee because they don’t understand me so I need to double my effort in stage presence,” he said.

During his performance, BLKD also explained in English what his song meant and what events transpired before each piece. In addition, the team's videographer Gerone Centeno and graphic designer Cristina Ponce, projected videos and images of protest scenes that complemented the songs of the performers.

During the performance of The General Strike’s current favorite song “Pugon,” images of the 2015 Kentex slipper factory fire in Valenzuela, a city north of Manila, were projected behind lead singer MC Sacay as she sang about the appalling work conditions of the factory workers.

“Pugon” which translates into “furnace," is dedicated to the 74 workers who lost their lives in the fire. Although literally referring to the factory fire, “Pugon” also symbolizes the asphyxiating condition of all Filipinos caught in an exploitative work system.

Due to a lack of local media coverage on the incident, guitarist Neil Ambion wrote the song to expose the injustices families faced in the aftermath of the fire. According to bassist Marc Lim, “Pugon” epitomizes the dire need for art in order to bring out change.

“Culture and art reflects the mindset of the people. If [people’s mindset] is that everything is okay and normal, then we have to make art that disturbs them and show them the truth that everything is not okay,” Lim said.

Edward Fung / The News Lens
Bassist Marc Lim during the July 30 crossover party.

BLKD believes music is the most effective way to get a point across.

"When you share music, you share your lyrics. People understand you more when they listen to you perform," he said.

With each performance, General Strike and BLKD hope to impart the need for solidarity regardless of creed, ethnicity, and social standing.

"Because we play different kinds of venues, from mobilizations to rallies, for the general public to peasants and indigenous people," Beltran said. "[Producing music] is not just for them, but for us as well."

Percussionist Chiko Hernandez joined the band late last year after just one post-concert jam session. His bandmates' steadfast dedication to social justice is what influenced his decision to join.

“I only hear about this kind of information from these social workers who dedicated their lives doing this. So while I am playing, I internalize all the hardships that I overlooked, that were kept from me but that the band was able to spread [awareness of]. Without them, I would be so ignorant. Their drive is my inspiration,” Hernandez said.

Shannon Lin / The News Lens
Percussionist Chiko Hernandez at the July 28 performance.

With the “Sound of Strike,” the group hopes to bring to light to President Rodrigo Duterte’s increasingly militarized rule especially with the extension of martial law in the southern island of Mindanao to the end of this year. In the talks, they drew on the similar histories of dictatorship and despotism in Taiwan and the Philippines.

As their trip to Taiwan reaches an end, The General Strike and BLKD prepare to return home to Quezon City, where corpses line the streets as a result of Duterte’s brutal drug war. There, they will wait for the return of their Taiwanese compatriots for a short film festival, also part of “Sound of Strike,” to be held at the UP Film Institute.

Despite Duterte's tightening grip on the country of 103 million, this group of nine Filipino activists and artists vow to stand united in the face of corruption.

“Before you seek justice, you must seek the truth because the truth is often buried,” said Hernandez.

Edward Fung / The News Lens
The General Strike wrapped up the crossover party by dedicating a cover of "A Change is Going to Come" to Duterte.

Read TNL's interview with the Taiwanese organizers of "Sound of Strike" here .

Editor: Olivia Yang