Where are the protest songs of our generation? A roundtable conversation

Ever since Rodrigo Duterte assumed the office of the presidency in June 2016, his administration has seen numerous protests and rallies, held to rise against him — whether by the death toll wrought by his drug war, or for the burial of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the hero’s cemetery. Such demonstrations also tend to hold the same program flow, at least in terms of songs played: Bayan Ko, Tatsulok, the occasional Ang Himig Natin.

These are of course legendary songs, connected to the political movements that came before. Still, 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?

To engage this issue, Young STAR brought together five musicians from the local music scene: Tao Aves, frontwoman of Sleep Kitchen and bartender for Catch272; Alyana Cabral, musician of many projects, most notably Ourselves the Elves, Itos Ledesma, frontman of Yūrei and English professor at UP Diliman, rapper Allen Jordan a.k.a. BLKD, who joins us later in the roundtable (due to schedule complications), and Jim Paredes, musician, activist, and founding member of APO Hiking Society. We talk about creativity, the complementary roles of artistic production and direct action, and what it means to be part of the local music scene in times like these.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jim Paredes, APO Hiking Society
Alyana Cabral, Ourselves the Elves
Allen Jordan a.k.a. BLKD
Tao Aves, Sleep Kitchen
Itos Ledesma, Yūrei

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.”

Jim: Especially that time, wala pang social media, so you really did not know how people felt… until you said it. For me, especially writing about protest songs, or even any pop song for that matter, you have to have a certain pulse of what’s going on. Nung time ni Marcos, na-realize ko na the subculture was actually bigger than the official culture already. That you could do a whole concert na ang dami mong messages politically at tatanggapin talaga ng mga tao. Pumapalakpak talaga. And they do that because they cannot say it by themselves. But as an artist, you can say it. I felt very empowered, very scared at the same time, kasi parang, you’re walking on the edge talaga. We were banned on radio and TV, and all government venues. But the community responded. In a sense, the artist says what people cannot say.

As an artist speaking your truth and also as one who cares about the political situation of your country, it’s tricky, the idea of being a mouthpiece for a people. How do you reconcile that, if that’s something to be reconciled at all?

Jim: As much as I try to feel what the people feel, my first aim, really, was to write it because I felt it. It’s not like, tell me what you feel and then I’ll write about it. If it’s not true for me, I cannot share my truth diba? In a sense, artists pa rin are writing for themselves. Pero yung definition mo nga of self, dapat malakas yung feeling mo of people. Meron kang in a sense, compassion, na nafe-feel mo intuitively what is relevant and what is not.

Katotohanan, kalayaan, katarungan: For veteran musician Jim Paredes, pop music is ready to discuss other topics, with politics being one of them.

Itos: I wanna go back to the question of community and how to get people to speak. There are a lot of people who do speak and there are a lot of people who are silent and silent still. And I think it’s because of privilege. For instance, in my experience working with the independent faux 90s-inspired guitar rock contingent — I’ve been writing more politically now. I’ve been writing songs about US Imperialism and explaining it on the mic every time I perform. But, every time I do say “Okay this song is about 330 plus years of colonization which is still ongoing today,” people will mockingly shout “Lalim!” and completely let it go. And I think it’s because they feel like they’re not affected. I guess an important thing we have to do is drag the point home that we’re all affected. Even if the community doesn’t seem like a target, it could be, potentially.

Aly: I feel it has a lot to do with social media also. Before the internet, at the height of folk protest songs, people would hear it live. There’s that really analog moment of resonating. Other protest songs today, you release it on Facebook, on the internet, a lot of people hear the song for the first time through the internet. It’s kind of a good and bad thing. Bad thing in a sense like, the artist won’t know kung sino yung naka-resonate, you won’t know kung paano nag-rereact yung audience, or if they agree with it or not. But the good part of it is, I guess, the listener is left to reflect on the song on their own, and actually have more time to think about it. And then when the audience ends up going to the gig, like, that’s where they can talk about it diba? So it’s just like a different atmosphere now. The community is disconnected but at the same time connected in that way.

“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. But that’s not gonna get airplay. Isang kalaban mo na ngayon is airplay, and singing to the converted.”

I wanna ask another community-related question. Let’s say I’m a fledgling songwriter, and I have my material, and I have a burning passion to engage the political situation of the country. My problem is, I don’t know which groups to hang with, which coalitions or parts of the community for me to join to engage in a meaningful way. How would a musician in that position address that problem?

Tao: Google. Charot. [laughs] Marami namang banda. Kasi ‘matic na yan eh. Kung ganung kalakas yung nararamdaman mo tungkol sa sitwasyon

Jim: Hahanapin mo.

Tao: Mama-magnet ka talaga sa mga hahanapin mong banda na pwede mong i-peg, pwede mong iidolo, pwede mong gawing reference. Andiyan lang naman yung General Strike, andiyan lang naman yung Plagpul. Sa katunayan, probably, pumunta ka ng rally at may napanood kang banda, I think, kung bilang songwriter, doon ka maghahanap ng mentorship.

Aly: And I feel like each circle in the whole local music community has something to say at least. Even if they’re not really outright political, if they’re not that outspoken about it, I notice — me being in a lot of different circle kasi I have a lot of bands din eh — I realize that everybody has something to say! You learn a little bit from everyone, diba? And then, you can apply it to your practice.

[BLKD ARRIVES]

“Nung time ni Marcos, na-realize ko na the subculture was actually bigger than the official culture already. That you could do a whole concert na ang dami mong messages politically at tatanggapin talaga ng mga tao. Pumapalakpak talaga. And they do that because they cannot say it by themselves. But as an artist, you can say it.”

Wow, we have a lot of catching up to do. [laughs] The point has been brought up multiple times that hip-hop is the people’s genre, and it’s mostly through the genre of hip-hop, especially here, that resistance is being enacted. Would you agree?

BLKD: Oo. Kasi inherently yung hip-hop, as a culture, para sa akin nagsimula talaga siya as kultura ng oppressed. Ng mga naghihirap doon sa New York projects. Dito din naman sa mga ganung klaseng communities din siya umuusbong. Sa Tondo, sa urban poor areas, yun yung parang natural habitat talaga niya. So kahit hindi niya sadiyang maging progresibo o para sa protesta, dahil ito yung pinagmumula niyang communities, yun yung naghahaglip na mga tema.

Why do you think hip-hop artists are being more pointedly political than other musicians or genres or parts of the local scene?

BLKD: Sa tingin ko, yung pinagmumulang communities ay political lang mismo dahil sa kalagayan ng masa. So ayun, urban communities. At dahil doon, na umuusbong ang hip-hop, yun nga, yun yung mga tatalakay nitong mga paksa. At yung hip-hop naman, bakit siya doon sa mga ganung klaseng komunidad nagsisimula o inuugat, dahil sa praktikalidad. Halimbawa, ang art ng pagra-rap mismo, at kahit ng pagbe-beatbox ay walang ibang kinakailangan kundi ang isang tao. So hindi mo kailangan ng instrumento, bumili ng instrumento. Yung pagsasabay nito, yung inherent na kahirapan ng pinagmumulan niyang communities, at yung practicality ng hip-hop art forms, yun yung nagpapahinog ng ganung klaseng kondisyon.

To conclude this, maybe just one more answer from everyone here, very loaded, very broad. What do we do now?

Tao: Gawa lang. Gawa lang ng gawa. Shout lang nang shout.

Itos: And of course, kailangan direct action. I think at some point, like I mentioned earlier, we have to not be content to just deal with this as artist, but as people, as citizens, who have something at stake in this particular matter. Because there are 20,000 dead. And counting.

Aly: Aside from direct action, I guess it also helps to be able to see how your art can actually help the whole situation. Right now, people are doing music workshops sa mga urban communities — things like that, that will not just criticize the admin but also inspire communities through music.

Tao: I would say, take inspiration from these communities. Makinig tayo sa komunidad na gusto nating tulungan.

The five musicians agree that it’s important for artists to keep creating, and to be creative with the ways they tackle politics in their art.

Jim: I will say na, gawa lang ng gawa ng mga protest songs. At the same time, I want to address fellow artists. Ang default talaga is, don’t deal with politics. A lot of artists are afraid of the topic of politics, hindi sila pumupunta doon. Love songs, you want to be liked and everything. But I really feel that as an artist, ako, I felt liberated the moment I told myself [I could] write about anything I want. That includes politics. And as an artist, you learn from the community, you sort of see what they’re feeling, and if it’s true for you, you write about it.

BLKD: Sa usapan ng protest music, dahil mga artista naman ang mga musikero, eh di ang challenge niyan, bukod sa lumikha, ay magpalalim pa ng mga nililikha. At the same time, maging mas malikhain. Pwede kang gumawa ng [kanta] tungkol sa kalikasan o sa kasarian at iba pa. Ang daming mga paksa na nagangailangan ng maraming mga piyesa na kailangan pang talakayin ng nakalalaking lipunan. Pero siyempre, higit pa doon, yung paghingi natin ng puso sa bawat mga artista doon sa pag-go beyond doon sa paglikha. Mahalaga yung paglikha, mahalaga yung popularization, pero ibang bagay pa yung social practice. As much as nakakatulong magbasa ng balita, at makinig, manood, iba pa rin yung talagang paglubog doon sa mismong sitwasyon, at iba’t-ibang paraan naman iyan.

Photos by Enzo Tan
Portrait art by Jea Gaviña
Header art by Ivan Grasparin
Special thanks to Catch272
Tags:
#music #politics

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