Fictional depiction of Filipino "insurrectos" fighting U.S. colonizers. This screen shot is from found footage featured in the film Bontoc Eulogy. The Filipinos are played by African American actors.
In this edition of Throwback Thursday we celebrate Black History Month, which was founded by Carter G. Woodson whose connection to the Philippines as supervisor of schools during the early days of U.S. colonization makes the linkages of this blog to Black history so significant.
In my entry from April 2008, I discuss Filipino American participation in hip hop and the community's relationship to Black people and blackness. I've since refined my approach (for example, I've abandoned the term "mestizaje"), but my attempt to center Black history and positionality within a Filipino racial discourse is stronger than ever. Anyways, thanks for all the support and enjoy:
I just got done presenting a very short synopsis of some of my research questions at this year's Association of Asian American Studies Conference in Chicago.
I showed "Hip Hop Mestizaje" and did an 8 minute discussion on what the hell its supposed to be about. Thanks to everyone who liked the film and appreciated my research on the intersections of Filipinoness and Blackness. For those folks exploring similar topics, keep on keepin on, it's an emerging topic (I hope!). Can't wait for the Filipino Soul conference that is in discussion.
Here is the paper I shared at the conference:
"Right now I want to thank god for being me
My soul won't rest until the colony is free
1896 Revolution incomplete
Silence is defeat, my solution is to speak
Resurrect the legacy of martyrs I beseech
Time to choose a side: It's the mighty verse the meek
My big brother Free brought the word from the East
We're the bullet in the middle of the belly of the beast."
These are the lyrics of Geologic, the Pinoy emcee of the Seattle hip hop duo Blue Scholars. When decoding the meaning behind the lyrics, such as “I want to thank god for being me,” we can see that his references of Filipino nationalism are curiously reinforced by Five Percenter Nation of Islam rhetoric, which is a pedagogical and spiritual discipline rooted in sects of African American Muslim tradition. In this verse, “god” refers to Geologic himself. For those who are not familiar, in the Five Percenter tradition, “god” refers the original Black man, or the god on Earth. So the question we ask is, “why is a Filipino emcee uttering a clearly Afro-centric phrase?” In my thesis, I interrogate the uses of Blackness by Filipino American hip hop practitioners. I contend that for many Filipino Americans, Blackness is both a resource and referent in their process of racial identification, and complements an existing racialized and hybridized Filipino subjectivity. Hip hop serves as an appropriate case study to demonstrate the emergence of Blackness among Filipino Americans’ racialized expressions. The recent JabbaWockeez triumph are a prime example of Filipinos’ dedication and loyalty to hip hop cultural production.
By evoking the often-neglected role of the Afro-Americanization of Filipinos, it is my intention to bring into focus the formation of race-consciousness among young Pinoys and Pinays—an effort that is built from the interventions made by scholars who have documented the process of deracialization among Fil Ams involved in hip hop. While we may be well-aware of young Pinoy and Pinays’ efforts to deracialize themselves (i.e. becoming the real “invisible” in the Invisbl Skratch Piklz), what is happening when they attempt to bring race consciousness unabashed? What does a post-1980s, hip hop generation, race-conscious Filipino American identification look like?
As seen from the video, Filipino Americans have been immersed in certain realms of hip hop forms since the late 1970s, but their participation in the broader forms of Black performance traditions dates back to contact made by Black Buffalo Soldiers who arrived in the islands during the Philippine-American War. The Americanization of the islands through music, education, and culture certainly contributed to Filipino familiarity with their White colonizers, but with the Americanization of Filipinos was the simultaneous Afro-Americanization of Filipinos. Therefore, the identification with Blackness among Filipinos has precedence, a precedence that is essentially rooted in U.S. Empire and the concomitant resistance partnered by Black Buffalo Soldier and Filipino insurgents during the war. At the turn of the 20th century when the Jim Crow South was solidified and U.S. Empire reached the Philippines, Blacks and Filipinos were rapping to a different beat, one underpinned by colonial domination and racist ideology.
Filipino Americans’ hybridity (or the “mestizaje” that I use) mediates their identification with Blackness in both its aesthetics and cultural origins. Elizabeth Pisares writes of Filipino American artists’ “invisibility” and lack of racial discourse, which allows for a flexible identity formation, moving in-between Asian-ness, Latinidad, Whiteness and Blackness. Many young Pinoy/Pinay brothers and sisters have been making visible a constructed notion of their Filipinoness through hip hop. The Pilipino Culture Nights, whose organizers were once skeptical of the “modern” hip hop sections of the theatrical shows (as Filipino hip hoppers were accused of “acting Black”), are now almost incomplete without them; hip hop has become staple for many PCN troupes. In another example, at a recent “Filipino Hip Hop Renaissance” showcase organized by the Kababayan Pilipino and “The Dark Boys” Pinoy brotherhood at University of California, Irvine, a graffiti-style artwork displayed on one panel the Philippine star rising above the Manila skyline and the word “Lost,” and on the opposite panel were displayed blaring boombox speakers along with the word “Found” (artwork by Pia Banez and Rommel Dimacali). As if evoking the Five Percenter “Lost-Found” lesson, young Filipinos continue to process racial and ethnic identification in the context of Filipino cultural recuperation. Here, hip hop is the recuperator.
Hip hop’s rise in popularity in the 80s among a generation of youth of all colors gave its resonance mass appeal, and for young Pinoys and Pinays, this resonance interwove with their existing racialized story here in the States and a broader story informed by Spanish and U.S. Empire. Commenting on hip hop’s appearance in the lives of young Filipinos in the early 80s, Geologic said in an interview “we had to respond to [hip hop] in some way. We had to either be a part of it or resist it. And why would we resist it? It’s something that we can kind of relate to.”
Even though Latinidad and Asian-ness can be powerful sources of racial affiliation among Filipinos (with Whiteness as the neocolonial racial default), my interest is the Blackness that is left unregistered, unrecognized, and even denigrated. As Geologic puts it, “I think a lot of ways when people down talk hip hop in the Filipino community, I think they do it with a tinge of racism to it. Because like a Filipino hip hop artist isn’t as legitimate as Filipino musical playwright. You know. Or a Filipino novelist. When in fact those three—first of all if they are all writing in English, then they’re writing in a language that’s not theirs. You know, so then who’s to say what is Filipino and what’s not?”
Filipino hybridity not only provides rich analysis for comparative race studies, even more, it presents the intersectionality of racialized groups and deconstructs the built borders surrounding ethnic studies disciplines. While addressing the fictiveness of essentialized Filipino identity, investigations of Filipino American performance of Blackness demonstrates the possibilities and promises of unpacking interracial subjectivities—indeed putting Blackness at the center of analysis—while never abandoning the critique of Whiteness as forming the broader structure of power relationships.
So it is worth asking, “what does a post-1980s, hip hop generation, race-conscious Filipino American identification look like?” It can look like many things, and rocking the dance floor to funk breaks and dominating the DJ scene illustrates an un-ignorable cultural dimension, like a bright colored graff piece written on a painted and repainted road sign.
In closing, it is important to acknowledge that Filipino American performance of Blackness is not free of deserved criticism. As Joel Tan writes in “Homothugdragsterism,” “it didn’t bother me that Filipino Americans we re affecting and talking Black. What vexed me was the ways this adopted Blackness went unquestioned…” Uncritical Blackness as drag should be scrutinized, especially when affiliation with Blackness does not necessarily mean a respect for Black people. In addition, Blackness in its constructed hypermasculine dimensions and its gendered role imbedded in racial significance should be taken into consideration. So in an attempt to re-imagine greater dimensions of Filipino racial discourse, a gesture towards the Afro-Americanization of Filipinoness is worth generous attention, especially for a people whose prism of difference is molded from every direction. Geologic best summarizes this re-envisioning:
“Rewriting what it is to what it ought to be.
I be the emcee in the place not to be.
Under constant revision is the poem that I be.”