YOUNG STAR: Whenever a rally is held to protest the actions of the Duterte administration, those who attend still sing the same songs and chants from People Power 1 and 2. It seems this generation has no protest songs to call its own. Would you agree?
Jim Paredes: Actually, I get a lot of protest material from young people who actually send it to me, asking me what I think. Some of them are actually pretty good. I must’ve gotten about eight songs already. Maybe they’re just not into the rally culture or di nila kilala yung mga nagdedecide kung anong kakantahin.
Itos Ledesma: As far as a lot of musicians that I know that are involved in mobilization, organization, it almost feels like the people’s genre is hip-hop. And I think it would be difficult to transpose the verse into something that can be chanted. And I feel like, especially here — I know there’s been a lot of newer protesters, especially right now, during this particular time — there seems to be somewhat of a disconnect from a lot of popular folk songs. So I think that’s why we haven’t heard [new protest songs] yet.
It is disconcerting to know that the songs and chants we yell out now are the same songs and chants our parents sung during the EDSA Revolutions of 1986 and 2001? It begs the question: where are the protest songs of our generation? Yes, there are musicians making political songs today, but among them, are there anthems we can call our own?
And yet it’s still these same folk songs that become the hooks, the chants that end up being sung and chanted at these rallies. Why is it, this first impulse to go back to the past?
Jim: For artists, there’s a lot of hesitation about going into protest songs, because politics is kind of a scary thing. You have feelings about causes, but you don’t really understand politics, and politics opens you to criticism immediately. So it takes a process for you to go through, before you start actually making your own stuff. At least, I speak as a young man in the 70s, that’s what we went through. And y’know, people will ask na, “Do you really understand what you’re talking about? Are you being reverse-elitist about it?” Maraming nga ganung questions eh. But for us, during that time, it was already clear, dictator na talaga. There are things you need to answer to be able to write stuff like that, if you really are serious about it.
Aly Cabral: Well just to go back what you were asking, at this point, we’re still trying to figure out a lot of things. ‘Cause there’s so much happening and the political atmosphere is becoming so convoluted. In the rallies, they sing the old protest songs as a way to have something to hold on to. Try to make sense of what’s happening now politically by looking at what happened back then, and the songs back then. Like what Itos said, hip-hop is becoming more popular and more like the people’s genre. Right now, mas nagiging diverse na rin yung genres na sumisikat sa mga tao. So there’s no singular folk vision, unlike how it felt back then. Back then there was a really big turning point, right? People Power and everything. And protest songs played a really huge role. At the time, it kind of had a different purpose because the context was different. Diba, when they say that history repeats itself, there are residues of that past, that’s why people still sing those songs, to try to ground themselves in their ideals.
Bayan ko: Musicians Jim Paredes, Tao Alves, Itos Ledesma, and Allen Jordan discuss the state of local protest music today.
Jim: As an artist, you don’t want to be too didactic di ba? You wanna be artistic, at the same time having a statement. Like for example, when I did American Junk. There’s a difference between doing American Junk and listening to yung mga left dati, yung mga songs nila dati talaga “Ibagsak, ibagsak!” Masyadong polemical. I wanted to stir discussion. So I made it funny. Sabi ko, if you’re gonna bring up a topic, you might as well make it interesting for everybody. To this day, I write like that. Never write for the converted. You write for people that you wanna bring in. I remember one UP professor going up to me and said, “I teach imperialism as a whole course. And then you write something in four minutes which encapsulates everything.” Sabi ko, “That’s the power of art and music.”
“For artists, there’s a lot of hesitation about going into protest songs, because politics is kind of a scary thing. You have feelings about causes, but you don’t really understand politics, and politics opens you to criticism immediately.”
What do you think are the components of a protest song and what makes it different from other kinds of protest art, like say, poems or effigies?
Tao Aves: Actually, gusto ko muna susugan ang sinabi ni Aly na, binabalikan talaga natin yung mga dating protest songs. I think that’s an apt barometer for where you are, where the political climate is: it’s the same shit. Pinapatay pa rin ang magsasaka, inaagaw pa rin ang lupa. It’s purposefully in the programming of any protest program that you’ll attend because the situation is, if not elevated, the same.
Jim: I’d like to comment on that, no? Noong time namin, 90 percent of protest songs were written by the left, for the left. They sing it in the hills, y’know?
Tao: So maganda yung follow-up mo na, paano mo ba bibigyan kahulugan, paano nagiging protest song ang isang kanta? Halimbawa, ngayon kasi, nag-iiba na rin yung itsura ng protest. Kumbaga hindi ka lang sa rally nagpro-protest na eh. Spaces like Catch272 halimbawa, or Mows. You’ll see a trend of programming na doon din [may] call to action. Meron nang, like a buffet a form. Hindi lang hip-hop ang nag-eemerge. It’s the age of the producer. Exciting siya na time actually. Siguro dahil nag-uumpisa pa lang, ang daming umuusbong na bagong genre, bagong form na pwedeng lagyan ng konteksto ng protest.
Jim: Strangely enough for my generation, the mere idea of writing in Tagalog was protest.You wanna write for your genre, you wanna write for Filipino lives.
“In the rallies, they sing the old protest songs as a way to have something to hold on to. Try to make sense of what’s happening now politically by looking at what happened back then, and the songs back then.”
From what I’ve seen, even when musicians aren’t making explicitly political songs, they’re still being political in their own way, musicians who take their political work off stage. Like for example Aly, you’ve been working making safe spaces for female musicians, for female music lovers. I wanna know what you guys think of that, that political action is taking place off stage but not on stage.
Itos: I think that’s a lot better. I think at this point, we shouldn’t be content with dealing with the problem merely as musicians but also as citizens. If there aren’t any new like, totally resonant and popular protest songs, at least there are relevant, popular and important protests.
Aly: I feel like, it’s every artist’s responsibility to not just inspire through their music, or express their ideals, but also, accompanied with concrete action. Because that’s how you know, ganun magiging buo ka as a person, and not just as an artist.
Jim: We write so much love songs na sometimes I feel, pop is ready to discuss other things. And politics is one of those things we should be discussing. Si Gary Granada for example. You heard his protest songs recently? Pure genius, may elegance pa rin. It’s like, you don’t lose your artistry and put your personality. Kasama pa rin yung pagka-artist mo sa paggawa mo roon, but at the same time, yung pagkatao mo, yung feelings mo about the situation, kasama rin.
Tao: Oo, they’re not mutually exclusive things.
“I feel like, it’s every artist’s responsibility to not just inspire through their music, or express their ideals, but also, accompanied with concrete action,” says Ourselves the Elves frontwoman Aly Cabral.
Jim: Which I think is important also so you don’t just become somebody who’s just shouting putangina to the world.
Aly: It goes back to the saying that the personal is political. For example, if you have very personal feelings about Duterte or whatever, if you express it in a very personal way, it becomes political. You’re not the only one experiencing it. Other people’s experiences, who can relate to you, validate how you feel in your song. And in terms of protest, like, what I said about concrete action plus your art, that’s the whole picture. That’s the whole point of protesting and having a program and having artists play in rallies.
Tao: Walang sigurong bumibida na one or six current or contemporary protest songs. It’s because mas may acknowledgement na intersectional yung experiences, tibak at hindi tibak, galing ka sa lungsod o hindi. Ang taong mahirap, nagmamahal din diba?
Jim: At the time I wrote my first political song, I was already on our sixth album. Tapos you write one song and people say you’re a political group. Sabi ko no, politics is just one subject of life! You come in as a whole person, expressing something on a political subject. For me, politics almost becomes like pornography. Why are you making such a big deal about it? “Woah, nagsalita siya.” Sabi ko, ano ba? It’s just one topic. So don’t call me like, a political artist. I also write about other things.
“I think that’s a lot better. I think at this point, we shouldn’t be content with dealing with the problem merely as musicians but also as citizens. If there aren’t any new like, totally resonant and popular protest songs, at least there are relevant, popular and important protests.”
You can be an artist who just… happens to write about politics.
Aly: But I feel like, that’s why people react that way. That’s why people react so strongly to political songs. Like what you said, we treat it like pornography. I feel like, if you would ask me how to define a protest song, it is hard to define. I would say it’s a great way for you to speak your truth. So that’s why people react to it so strongly. To those people na nakakataas who can’t face that truth.
Jim: You walk your talk eh. May danger factor. You could be ostracized, banned.
Let’s talk about community for a bit. I imagine, to resist as a musician is not just to write songs in your bedroom and then take it to the stage or a rally. I think it also means being part of a community, or a scene, unifying or interacting with other parts of the scene you inhabit. What obstacles face us in terms of getting other musicians or other creatives to enact unified political action?
Tao: Ang isa sa mga obstacle talaga ay, having your peers recognize that we all hold a stake in an issue like Digong. Impunity where you just shoot on sight, everybody has a stake in that. So dahil far-removed… halimbawa, very removed din kasi if you’re just busy with your comforts and holding on to your comforts. Hindi mo na iisipin na may na-tokhang kahapon sa kanto. It looked different during Martial Law kasi yun talaga, uniform, military men in the street were just shooting people on sight. Today, targeting is a very real thing. Mga musikero, nadadagdag sa listahan ng targets. And certainly, that also adds to that answer to your first question, na why there’s not current, or like newer [protest songs.] The fact is, meron namang awit talaga. Lalo na sa hip-hop. Calix has like, two albums full. But that’s not gonna get airplay. Isang kalaban mo na ngayon is airplay, and singing to the converted.
“It goes back to the saying that the personal is political. For example, if you have very personal feelings about Duterte or whatever, if you express it in a very personal way, it becomes political. You’re not the only one experiencing it. Other people’s experiences, who can relate to you, validate how you feel in your song.”
Photos by Enzo Tan
Portrait art by Jea Gaviña
Header art by Ivan Grasparin
Special thanks to Catch272