I resent high school for various reasons, and one of them is the fact that all the Filipino American history I should have been learning at that age was nowhere to be found in any of the history classes I took. I had to go find out about my people’s history on my own, whether it was in books my older brother brought home from college, on KQED or in the Asian American history classes I enrolled in after high school.
Back then, there also weren’t as many Filipino American MCs in the rap game as there are now. There was no Bambu to record tracks like “Orosi,” which big-ups the Filipino farm workers’ movement in California, or “Massacre,” which details an incident that took place back in the Philippines, the 2009 Maguindanao massacre where a squad of gunmen abducted and killed a convoy of 58 people who were headed to filing candidacy papers for a gubernatorial candidate.
Mugshot from the New York-based Pinoy group Deep Foundation once said to GMA—the Filipino GMA, not the American GMA—that hip-hop is the voice of the disenfranchised. The genre is also a voice for the history of the disenfranchised. Thanks to the likes of Deep Foundation and Bambu, their younger fans are being exposed to many of the same bits of Filipino or Filipino American history I first picked up in university studies instead of in rap lyrics. As the following examples of Filipino historical references in hip-hop have proven, there’s more to Filipino history than just Corazon Aquino, Manny Pacquiao and Rufio from Hook.
If you’re not familiar with a few of the historical figures Bambu or Blue Scholars rapper Prometheus Brown, a.k.a. Geologic, have dropped references to, this Filipino American Heritage Month post is your chance to get to know them, including a couple of much more recent heroes in the islands even I wasn’t aware of. Forget clicking to Rap Genius to understand the references in several of the following bars. Most of these bars don’t contain explanations over there.
1. “I got that heart of Bonifacio/Beatin’ like a bongo,” from “Lookin’ Up” by The Bar (Prometheus Brown and Bambu), 2012
At the start of track 8 of Prometheus Brown & Bambu Walk Into a Bar, Geo refers to Andrés Bonifacio (1863-1897), the founder and leader of the Katipunan, a secret society of revolutionaries who fought for Filipino independence when the islands were under Spanish colonial rule. The revolutionary was also name-checked by Chino XL in “Arm Yourself” and by part-Pinoy, part-Mexican rapper Odessa Kane in “Pancho Bonifacio.” Bonifacio’s Tagalog poem “Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa” opens with one of his most signature sayings, “Aling pag-ibig pa ang hihigit kaya/Sa pagkadalisay at pagkadakila/Gaya ng pag-ibig sa tinubuang lupa?/Aling pag-ibig pa? Wala na nga, wala,” which means “What love can be purer and greater than love of country? What love? No other love, none.” This year’s Bonifacio Day on November 30 will mark Bonifacio’s 150th birthday, which the islands have currently been celebrating while historians have been pushing the government to start recognizing Bonifacio—not Emilio Aguinaldo, the man who assassinated Bonifacio—as the first official president of the Philippines.
2. “Hey yo, live from occupied Duwamish territory/Where Carlos Bulosan once lived to tell the story,” from “North by Northwest” by Blue Scholars, 2007
Essayist and poet Carlos Bulosan (1913-1956) was the author of America Is in the Heart, his most signature work and his partly fictionalized account of his often brutal experiences as an immigrant laborer. The 1946 book became a cornerstone of Filipino American literature (it was, of course, assigned reading in one of my Asian American history courses), and Bulosan’s fictional counterpart in America Is in the Heart was named one of 10 favorite Asian American literary characters by USC’s US-China Today in 2008. Bulosan settled down in Seattle (by the way, the Duwamish tribe that the Seattle-based Geo referred to in “North by Northwest” is the indigenous tribe that ruled the region that’s now Seattle). The Emerald City was also where, a few decades after Bulosan’s death, the University of Washington reprinted the 1946 book and discovered a bunch of unpublished Bulosan works. Bulosan received more recognition for his writing posthumously than when he was alive, thanks to ’70s Asian American political activists who embraced America Is in the Heart.
3. “I directed for my people, Lino Brocka with the horn/When the brother yelled ‘Action,’ it wasn’t just for his act/ ‘Cause he wanted to see the masses get they asses out the door,” from “Cinemetropolis” by Blue Scholars, 2011
Filipino film director Lino Brocka (1939-1991) is a figure I first learned about not in college but from Prometheus Brown’s blog posts about films he recommends. The socially conscious filmmaker was best known for works like 1975’s Manila in the Claws of Light and 1976’s Insiang. “Despite his Mormon faith, Brocka was openly gay and homosexual themes were often a big part of the narratives of his films, as was showing sexually confident and strong-spirited women,” said the Culture Trip site in its overview of Brocka’s filmography. “Brocka’s films highlight the marginalised and ignored sectors of society—the slum dwellers, prostitutes, street hustlers, as well as those who were discriminated against simply because of gender or sexuality—subjects that no other director dared to touch, especially while under the Marcos dictatorship.”
4. “Veteranos that survived/Benefits still denied/So we party/Yeah, we party like it’s 1899,” from “So Many” by Bambu, 2012
The veteranos are Filipino World War II veterans who have yet to receive full veterans’ benefits from the same country they fought alongside with against Japan. “I am frankly embarrassed that we are still having this debate more than a half-century after Filipino veterans helped us win World War II,” wrote Congresswoman Jackie Speier (CA-14). Also frustrated about the denial of benefits to the veteranos is Bambu, who himself is a military vet as well. His play on Prince’s “1999” is a reference to the Filipino revolutionaries’ 1899 war against American colonial rule.
5. “So they joined the Filipinos and a bond was born/When mano Philip Vera Cruz and uncle Larry Itliong/Took on the task needed to get the farmers even,” from “Orosi” by Bambu, 2012
Philip Vera Cruz (1904-1994) and Larry Itliong (1913-1977) were Filipino American labor organizers who helped lead Mexican and Filipino laborers in the pivotal 1965-1970 Delano grape strike to demand wages equal to the federal minimum wage. Today (October 25) marks Itliong’s 100th birthday. “While [Cesar] Chavez is remembered as the farmworker icon, his name emblazoned on schools, parks, and roads, Itliong has been generally forgotten, treated by society as it seems Filipinos have always been treated. As nothing,” wrote journalist Emil Guillermo in a recent blog post. “But labor movement writers know that without Itliong, there would be no Chavez.”
6. “From Datu Lapu-Lapu of the Sultan of Sulu/Killed Magellan with kampilan and spears, yeah, it was brutal,” from Ill Poetik’s verse in “Children of the Sun” by Deep Foundation featuring Hydroponikz, Nomi, Koba, Kiwi and Encite, 2009
The king of Mactan, one of the Visayan islands in the Philippines, Lapu-Lapu (1491-1542) was the tribal leader who merked Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and remains a national hero in the Philippines for standing up to colonialism. Lapu-Lapu stabbed Magellan with what has been believed to be a huge kampilan sword. His words to Magellan were believed to have been “Shook, you’re scared to death, you’re scared to look/In the mirror when Lapu is near you/King Lapu!”
7. “Dr. José Rizal and La Liga Filipina/El Filibusterismo speaks of freedom for the people,” from Ill Poetik’s verse in “Children of the Sun”
A leader in the revolution against Spain who championed non-violence, José Rizal (1861-1896) is another national hero in the Philippines. He’s the subject of several biopics (director Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s big-budget 1998 film José Rizal is the most popular of these) and the namesake of many schools or towns in the islands, countless city streets and even a bridge and park in Seattle. A Renaissance man, Rizal dabbled in ophthalmology, art, poetry and novel writing (1891’s El Filibusterismo was his second and final novel). He founded La Liga Filipina, an organization with goals that included uniting the archipelago, defending against all violence and injustice and encouraging agriculture and commerce. La Liga Filipina led to one of its members, the aforementioned Andrés Bonifacio, launching the Katipunan movement. Rizal was the CHOPS to Bonifacio’s Geo, the influential figure who sparked Bonifacio to get in the game. Forget Dos Equis brew’s “Most Interesting Man in the World.” Rizal was a real-life “Most Interesting Man in the World.”
8.”I do it for Gabriela, the spirit of Ka Bel/We celebrate our people but all is not well,” from Kiwi’s verse in “Children of the Sun”
The Gabriela Women’s Party fights for and advocates women’s rights in the Philippines. Working class hero Crispin “Ka Bel” Beltran (1933-2008) was a labor leader and congressional representative of the Anakpawis Partylist who championed workers’ rights and fought against political corruption.
9. ” ‘Cause Liza Maza didn’t flinch/When they tried to take her down over some trumped-up shit,” from “No Waiting” by Bambu featuring Nphared, 2013
Women’s rights activist Liza Maza repped the Gabriela party in the Philippine Congress from 2004 to 2010. Then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s much-maligned administration viewed Maza’s party and its progressive agenda as a threat. Like Ka Bel, Maza was subjected to political persecution from the Arroyo regime and thrown in jail for sticking to her ideals. She and her colleagues were even slapped by the administration with trumped-up charges of rebellion, which the Supreme Court ultimately dismissed.
10. “Celebrate every moment/Knowin’ that you own it/ ‘Cause I know a lot of folks who got their moments stolen,” from “Inspired by Dream” by Power Struggle, 2010
One of those people whose moments were stolen was beloved Oakland graffiti artist Mike “Dream” Francisco (1969-2000), whom “Inspired by Dream” was dedicated to. The artwork he crafted as leader of the TDK Crew continues to be celebrated in Bay Area art shows long after his death in a robbery attempt. “In trying to make sense of his passing, I’ve come to see his life mirror that of brother Malcolm X. TDK went from meaning THOSE DAMN KIDS to stand for TAX DOLLARS KILL and TEACH DEM KULTURE,” said TDK Crew member Marty Aranaydo to Complex in 2010. “Through his art Mike’s consciousness went from a town ass dude getting paid to becoming a leader of his people. Instead of religion, it was knowledge of self, culture, it was graffiti. I can firmly say Graffiti was my religion, and I am a better human being for it. Thanks Mike.”