What you doin’ in LA, with Filipinos and Ese’s.
– Jay-Z, “A Million & One Questions”
October has officially come to a close, but did you know that the entire month was Filipino American History Month (FAHM)? No? Don’t worry, you’re with 98% of the American population. And that’s why today, it’s so important to vote.
The current state of this country has taken a gloomy perspective. With the unfortunate lack of knowledge of other cultures, comes a lack of understanding and compassion for them, as well. But now more than ever, it’s important to come in unity with (and for) one another.
With the election today and plenty at stake both in our nation and state, it is easy to overlook the importance of a specific culture. And with Filipino’s being the second largest Asian demographic in The U.S., I am going to make it a point to represent for these people. Simply because no one else will.
Filipinos have been part of American history for many centuries. The first Filipinos landed on the continent in 1587, several decades before the Pilgrims arrived. Before our Founding Fathers declared independence from the Brits, a group of Filipinos had already settled in Louisiana. More than a century before Alaska became a state, Filipinos had already made it here, engaging in fur trade with Alaska Natives.
What the modern world now knows as The Philippines was not always this way. The modern construct of a country with political boundaries and national identity was once, and in some ways still very much is many hundreds of islands, with different tribes and languages and customs. And similar to their counterparts in Africa, these tribes were dark skinned. The Spanish initially described these tattooed people as pintados (“painted ones“). Later they would be called Indios, with the term Filipino reserved only for the light skinned Spanish born in that colony.
Spain would conquer and colonize the Philippines for 377 years. And the white skinned Conquistadors destroyed those tribes’ foreign, Wild Style writing. They forbid their warrior practice. Made the natives wear clothing that could no longer conceal their tatted skins. They cut their hair, covered the “pintados” skin and changed their names. They stripped their identities. But not completely. Hidden in the veins of these warrior women coursed the blood of a nation.
At the turn of the century, the Spaniards were replaced with American military as the Philippines became the US’s only colony in history. To help ease relations and build the trust of the natives, the United States Army tasked it’s soldiers with sharing and spreading American culture, through sports. And one of the biggest sports in the world at that time was boxing.
The soldiers introduced gloves and mitts to the natives, and the indigenous knife fighting of the jungle changed American boxing. It was from those times that the Philippines would birth it’s many world champion “Pinoy” boxers, who dominated the sport until the 1930’s. American, especially African American boxing would change too from the upright and stiff European “John L. Sullivan” style to the angled, head movement and hands up structure that characterizes American boxers like Sugar Ray Leonard, Roy Jones and even Floyd Mayweather today. These Filipinos, like the descendants of African slaves in America, shared a history of oppression; of colonization; of loss of identity; and a birth of a new one.
As waves of Filipinos immigrated to the United States, they came in the 30’s and 40’s as migrant workers. In the 50’s and 60’s as veterans of WWII, and in the 70’s and 80’s as both enlisted Navy and as part of America’s “Brain Drain” recruitment of nurses, doctors and engineers.
So it was almost exactly a hundred years from the US colonization of the Philippines (1898) to the tail end of the Golden Era of Hip Hop in 1993 where our paths continued. It wasn’t that Filipino immigrants were drawn to 90’s hip hop, rather, it was a history and culture and spirit of a people that were related with those that created this culture and art form that synced with each other.
And it was this spirit of the Philippines that Filipino Americans, Fil-Ams as they are sometimes referred to by those in the Philippines, that fueled and bound a history and culture and spirit to the new expression that reminded some of bebop, an evolution that cycled Bobby Brown amping like Michael. Or like the mandirigma, the warriors dancing by the fire. In circles. From dirt and sand to cardboard and linoleum. And the daughters and sons of Navy cooks, of veterans, of undocumented gangsters continued their fighting spirit as rebels. As creators. As crews. Sometimes even as thugs.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, mobile DJ crews as written about by Oliver Wang in 2015’s “Legions of Boom” dominated the scene and spawned modern turntablism as we know it. DJ Q-Bert, Shortcut and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz would spin down south to DJ Babu & The Beatjunkies in LA. The most notable Filipino American, or Pinoy rapper being Apl De Ap of the Black Eyed Peas.
On the East Coast things were poppin’ with infamously half Pinay Foxy Brown, “lookin’ half black and Filipino, fakin’ no jacks” (Jay-Z, “Ain’t No Nigga”), and one half of the insanely successful Neptunes with Pharrell Williams, Filipino American Chad Hugo. Filipino Americans like us were draped in Polo Sport and butter leather Tims. The classic elements of hip hop culture were direct reflections of a Filipino history once rich with tradition.
Eyes low, lookin’ Philippine divide dough. – Capone-n-Noreaga, “T.O.N.Y. (Top of New York)”
90’s hip hop blended late 80’s pro-blackness from Public Enemy and Ice Cube, with the revived G-Funk Death Row and ‘Pac West Coast gangster rap, and the street gully grittiness of Das Efx, Gravediggaz, Mobb Deep, Nas, Biggie and Wu. And hip hop continued to embrace and include more. Big Pun and Fat Joe built on what the Beatnuts. Ruff Rydaz signed Asian American Jin. And Eminem continued a legacy that Beastie Boys started and Vanilla Ice nearly ruined. More peoples were contributing to hip hop. Method Man talked about all the flavors of honeys in Ice Cream. And gangsta, thugged out shit was in. Capone-n-Noreaga’s War Report, Dog Pound and Mobb Deep brought that realness. And the Fil-Am sons and daughters of 70’s era disco dancers, 80’s People Power rebels, Barkada gangsters and elite academics found the spirit brother of another mother culture in hip hop. And just like the universal energy that moves both personalities and astrological positions, the spirit and body movement of peoples across time and space intersected Filipino Americans with 90’s hip hop.
With a new generation of these young Fil-Am men and women, comes a new set of visions and voices. Fortunately, it seems that they have finally found their voice in American society and are ready to make history.
I hosted and moderated the City of L.A.’s official closing event for Filipino American History Month (FAHM) inside the iconic Los Angeles City Hall with the help of First District, Councilmember Gil Cedillo and Board of Public Works. It was an intimate night that was set, by veteran Music and Entertainment industry leaders where the context of the entire night was tailored to empower second generation Filipinos to follow their dreams.
The event began with a short VIP meet and greet with plaques of acknowledgement to honor the Filipino American Game Changers who have already paved the way for the youth, which was followed by a panel with the headliners. Ricky Nierva of PIXAR Animation who worked alongside Steve Jobs and was the Production Designer and mastermind behind the animation films, “CoCo,” “Finding Nemo,” “Monsters Inc.,” and so much more; he was accompanied by Activist, Actress, TV Host and Producer, Giselle Tongi, YouTube Star and Musician, AJ Rafael and 93.5 KDAY, 90’s Hip Hop Radio Legend and 20+ year industry veteran, PJ Butta.
Ricky Nierva who is known for his Production Design on most PIXAR films quoted his once Boss, Steve Jobs in his TEDx Talks stating:
“Design is not what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Ironically, that was the point of Fil-Am Game Changers LA: to design the type of life you want to live on a day-to-day basis because our ancestors didn’t bring you here to be an “Average Joe”.
The U.S. has certainly provided plenty of opportunities to Filipino-Americans so that they could achieve the American dream. Rear Admiral Connie Mariano is a Filipino-American who served as President Clinton’s physician. Chef Cristeta Comerford is also a Filipino-American who has been the White House Executive Chef since President George W. Bush. Thelma Buchholdt of Alaska was the first Filipino-American state legislator and Benjamin Cayetano of Hawaii was the first Filipino-American governor. Rapper Apl.de.ap of the Black Eyed Peas and actor Lou Diamond Phillips are Filipino Americans. The Los Angeles Rams’ MVP and Pro Bowl quarterback, Roman Gabriel, and NBA coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat are both Filipino-Americans. Those are just a few Filipino-American notables; and there are many more that can fill the pages of ADN.
Despite the success of some Filipino-Americans, let us not lose sight, however, that America was not and is not always a “land of milk and honey” for many Filipino-Americans. The manongs faced much discrimination and injustice. In the 1930s in California, they were not allowed to marry Caucasians. It was also not uncommon for them to see the sign, “No Filipinos Allowed,” on the windows and doors of some business establishments in parts of California. Those who worked in plantations and fisheries faced poor working conditions and did not receive decent pay. Although such blatant forms of discrimination and injustice do not seem to exist today, discrimination and injustice are still problems faced by Filipino Americans.
Celebrating Filipino-American History Month in official partnership with the city that has brought me up, was historical. But I have just barely scratched the surface. It was a remembrance and commemoration long overdue to a group of people referred to by Dr. Fred Cordova as the “Forgotten Asian-Americans” and who have significantly contributed to our nation for centuries. Moreover, history validates our existence as a community and is ever so prevalent in Hip Hop culture. And since history is part of the culture that defines us, awareness of history is the first step to cultural tolerance and appreciation, which is in turn a precursor to healing racism and eliminating discrimination. So please vote. Vote for the diversity in our country. Vote to fight for our freedom. Vote because your voice counts.
Today on your ballots, I would like to use Ricky Nierva’s very important statement:
“Don’t be afraid of the blank sheets.”