Published by Nessa Roque,
Album cover photo by Kimberly Dela Cruz featuring a mural by Archie Oclos in Sitio San Roque
On June 30, 2019, three-year old Myca Ulpina became the latest victim of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘war on drugs.’ When asked about the child’s death, former Chief of the National Police and now Senator Bato dela Rosa said the child was ‘collateral damage.’ "Shit happens in operations," he added (Ellis-Petersen, 2019). People were outraged at how Dela Rosa could brush off Ulpina's death as an inevitable part of ‘Oplan Tokhang,’ the legal police operation mandated to arrest drug pushers and users but has produced thousands of dead bodies instead. He has since apologized for his remark (Salaveria, 2019).
Just a day before Ulpina’s death, a concept album on the drug war was released. The title: Kolateral. It was a sobering reminder that all the verses and beats in the hip-hop album was indeed the living, breathing, beating pulse of the city we lived in.
The group behind the album is the artist-research collective, Sandata, which means "weapon" in Filpino. The group is composed of rappers Calix and BLKD, playwright Mixkaela Villalon, and researchers Tanya Quijano, Abbey Pangilinan, and Ica Fernandez (Celera, 2019). Available on the internet for free, the album was digitally launched on June 29. The album is a collaboration between different artists and rappers featuring songs based on quantitative and qualitative data, as well as key informant interviews from two years’ worth of research on the current administration’s ‘war on drugs.’
Artists responding to the ‘War on Drugs’
Interdisciplinary approaches to making works that respond to the current administration’s policy on eliminating drugs have been thriving. Since Duterte came into power, artists have collaborated with journalists, researchers, lawyers, religious leaders, and community workers to call out the alarming number of human rights violations in the country.
In 2016, RESBAK (RESpond and Break the silence Against the Killings), an alliance of artists, media practitioners, and cultural workers was formed. They have since released videos, staged performances, organized solidarity nights, and published zines that document and protest extrajudicial killings. Three days prior to Ulpina’s death, RESBAK co-founder and filmmaker Kiri Dalena, together with artist Carlo Gabuco and journalist Carlos Conde released a documentary-type web feature on the Human Rights Watch website called, "Collateral Damage: The Children of Duterte’s War on Drugs."
The Arete, a private gallery by the Ateneo de Manila University, hosted an exhibition called, "What We Talk About When We Talk About the 'War on Drugs’" in June 2018. The multimedia exhibition was a project of the Ateneo School of Government with artists creating exhibition works based on data from the Ateneo Policy Center. Photojournalists displayed photographs that captured scenes from the bloody aftermath of police operations. Perhaps most famous of all the photographs is Raffy Lerma’s pieta-like "Lamentation," which won a Silver Pulitzer Prize for Best News Photograph in 2018 (Orellana, 2018). Other grassroots initiatives are community plays, and art therapy interventions, and livelihood programs usually for the widows and orphans of the victims.
Kolateral exists within this network of different responses from artist initiatives in Metro Manila. The album bears weight as it attacks from a different arena—music culture and sonic environment rather than the visual. Three years into the Duterte administration people have now seen hundreds of harrowing images and videos of butchered bodies, heads wrapped in masking tape with crude drawings of smiley faces, mothers and wives crossing pollice lines crying in the middle of the road (Katz, 2019). Kolateral then, forces us to re-encounter the ‘war on drugs’ differently through an auditory modality.
The album is absolutely free. It is available for streaming and downloading in several online platforms, and employs the participation of its listeners to reproduce the album for distribution in the streets, particularly in jeepneys. This strategy of dissemination adds weight to the project as it attempts to gain massive impact in influencing Metro Manila’s urban soundscape as a political battleground.
Music and Sounds on the Street
Metro Manila is a noisy place. The stagnation of mobility in the city necessitates that vehicles include entertainment. Most jeepneys, taxis, buses, tricycles, trains, and even engine-less pedicabs (bicycles with sidecars) have some form of audiovisual stimulation—movies, music, television and radio. Malls have music. Eateries called "carinderias," transportation terminals, small stores, sidewalk markets—also have some sort of audiovisual entertainment. Karaoke machines are just set up on the sidewalk for everyone in the neighborhood to hear. Almost every space in the city is filled with sound and it is very rare to find silence once you step out of your home.
Since 2016, during the last presidential elections—all these audiovisual channels have been filled with the rhetoric of the administration’s banner campaign against illegal drugs. As a resident of this city, every time I commute, I have had to listen to the President, the police, and other figures of the state deliver countless speeches and interviews for the past three years. Television sets and radios are everywhere and one has no choice but to confront this multi-media bombardment as one cannot simply escape these sounds.
However there are differences between what one hears on the street depending on which spaces you are in. Jeepneys generally play music from downloaded files (in CDs, USB flash drives, or cellphones). Buses show movies or TV programs. Taxis are often tuned in to FM radio stations playing slow rock and ballads or news commentators on AM channels.
Jeepneys are open-air vehicles with very loud engines, contributing to the overall noise of the street. When riding a jeepney, even on the ones that don’t play music, passengers don’t usually talk to each other because one has to rise above the noise of the engine and the city itself. Naturally the choice of music for jeepneys are loud pulsating tunes that can still be heard amidst the chaos—rap and hip-hop or EDM remixes of classic ballads (Cabral 2017). Hence, when one listens to Kolateral, one can almost imagine that it should be listened to in the middle of the road, inside a jeepney, with the heavy bass coursing through big vibrating speakers as passengers nod to the beat.
Kolateral: From the Streets to the Streets
The album opens with sound bytes from the President himself remixed with an ominous beat: "And you can ask anybody here if I allow any policeman to kill a human being kneeling down or surrender…but I've always told you that if you have to shoot, shoot them dead." BLKD then begins the song, "Makinarya," assuming the persona of the President thanking everyone who has been part of the ‘machinery’ of the state, including the people who let themselves be brainwashed by his message.
Althroughout the album several songs are mixed with soundbytes from the news. Thus, we repeatedly hear the voice of Duterte in dystopian tracks that unveil the money-making system of kill lists in "Makinarya" and "Neo-Manila." We hear voices of the victims, including one child reading a poem about his father’s death in the retelling of a particularly disturbing incident in "Papag." In "Neo-Manila" an accomplice to the killings admit to their crimes.
Staples of the urban soundscape are also mixed in almost all the songs. Found sound or samplings such as the ringtone of Facebook messenger calls, guns being loaded and cocked, gunshots, sirens, and radio static are included in the tracks. These sounds work as narrative tools in "Distansya," a song about an overseas Filipina worker who had to come home after her disabled teenage son who could not run was shot to death after being accused of drug dealing. The song takes the perspective of the mother who talks to her son over Facebook messenger. Other samplings serve as sonic layers to add musical depth and weight to heavy-handed and angry drops in rap verses like those in "Neo-Manila," and "Sandata."
Perhaps owing to the art director’s background in playwrighting, spoken dialogue is also a common narrative devise in the album. "Makinarya," ends with a person pleading for his life, whose voice is cut mid-sentence by the sound of a gunshot. "Boy," begins with two teens warning each other that they should go home before dark lest they get mistaken for drug addicts. A subtle yet powerful musical choice were the synths in "Neo-Manila," reminiscent of escalating music in horror slasher movies. Meanwhile, "Pagsusuma," a song that lists the number of victims thus far, opens with music reminiscent of the opening credits of news broadcasts.
One song that also stands out is "Hawak," which retells the story of two young lovers who were shot on their way home by masked men. The song does not have any rap in it but the vocals of Tao Aves turn the lyrics into a dirge as she almost yells at the height of the track.
The concept album thus successfully captures the soundscape of the streets of Metro Manila during the first half of the Duterte administration. The songs are familiar narratives, retellings of what we already hear all around us—but listening to the tracks one after the other forces us to sit down and reckon with our immediate reality with renewed focus and attention.
Kolateral: Multi-platform distribution
The first song released from the album was "Makinarya," posted on Facebook on April 12 accompanied by a lyric video with edits of videos and clips from the news. As of writing, the video has had 1.6K reactions (824 likes, 569 hearts, 162 wow, 50 sad, 12 angry, 8 laughing); 361 comments (from both pro and anti-Duterte accounts); 2,585 shares; and 68,000 views.
The collective uses the Kolateral Facebook Page to post announcements of events and share links. However, the album itself is housed in other platforms: YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and Soundcloud for streaming; MediaFire, Dropbox, and Google Drive for mp3 downloads.
Sandata also uploaded the lyrics of all the tracks in Genius, a website repository of song lyrics which allows logged in users to annotate song lyrics with interpretations, sources, and other information. Lyrics from the songs in Kolateral are carefully annotated with news sources as well as annecdotes from Sandata’s research. Thus, the feature becomes an essential tool that elevates the discourse around the songs.
Through Genius, one can listen to the music, read the lyrics, articles, and reports to ‘fact check’ what the rappers are saying. In a time of misinformation this attention to citing the research behind the lyrics is a strong tool that not only counters comments from trolls but also invites listeners to engage with the topic beyond the music. Thus, the album can also be seen as a curatorial work where listeners are guided through a series of events through the songs. The project balances affect with information, and aesthetic pleasure with the civic responsibility of pakikialam at pakikisangkot or knowing and taking part. English translations of the lyrics are also published in the website. This particular platform is probably more catered to the educated and English-speaking class as the annotations are also in English and the website works better when accessed through desktop browsers or smartphone apps.
On the other hand, on YouTube, perhaps one of the most accessible platforms that cuts across social class, people from all walks of life get to comment on the tracks. Comments range from enthusiastic fans posting fire emojis to people (and perhaps trolls) hating on the songs. As in all comment sections, exchanges between the two camps range from civilised conversations to intense cursing. Thus YouTube becomes an essential platform for people to express their opinions on the songs and engage each other in dialogue. Even I personally learn from reading these comments as some hip-hop and rap enthusiasts will mention what kind of beats and rapping styles are being used in the songs. Interestingly, people don't usually hate on the musicality and often say that it's a waste that the song sounds good but the anti-Duterte message is horrible.
Sandata also requested for donations of USB flash drives during one of the listening parties that they organized. The album was then downloaded onto the USB flash drives which were then distributed to diffrent communities, particularly targetting jeepney drivers—arguably the incidental DJs who truly rule the Metro Manila music scene. Sandata also encourages its listeners to ‘pirate’ the album. Talking to Villalon, she says, "To be honest if you can pirate it on your own please do. I hear there are some teens in Pandacan who already burn the CDs on their own and give them out to drivers."
Last July 21, during the President’s annual State of the Nation Address (SONA), Calix from Sandata sang "Giyera ng Bulag," during a protest rally. Villalon took a video of the performance and posted it on Facebook on July 23. People on the street were already energetically singing and rapping along.
Needless to say, the fight for justice is still an ongoing battle. The administration still has three more years to go. On July 11, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted in support of a resolution advanced by Iceland which, among other things, asks UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet to write a comprehensive report on the Philippines to be presented to the council the following year (Cumming-Bruce, 2019). The resolution may be a small step but is already a big win for people on the ground who have been working hard to call on the international community to take action.
Will Kolateral be successful in bringing the discourse of human rights back to streets? Well, the material is already here and it is a solid piece of work. It is now up to the listeners to take an active part in spreading the music beyond the internet and back to the people. Kolateral is a welcome addition to the already deafening noise of the city—sick head bangers, lit flows, and fiesty verses that carry the energetic pulse that can only come from the spirit of dissent. One can only hope to one day yell Calix’s verse on the street with a huge crowd, "Don’t belittle the courage of the poor (It’s time to rise up) / Overthrow the crooked lords of the system /Deepen the fight against tyranny (It’s time to rise up) / No one left behind, no collateral damage!"
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