Hip Hop as Survival Kit: Filipinx Americans & Dialogues thru Performance

The last time I came to the Luggage Store Gallery, it was April 2009, for a bboy jam called “Come Get Some!” organized by the Mighty Delrokz and Jason Mateo of Youth Speaks. At this time, I was heavily into photographing dancers, and had an endless feed of portraits, from bboys to lockers to krumpers, and event photos from local jams. It’s serendipitous that I would return to the Luggage Store Gallery a decade later in 2019 to host Hip Hop as Survival, because 2009 was a year of destruction, changes, and new beginnings, when I began my journey in organizing and community involvements, for which I stepped away from the dance/ hip hop community and other art forms. Returning to the Luggage Store brings me full circle, now on a new journey of culminating experiences from both hip hop and community organizing, and with a new craft, picking up where I left off.

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Photo by of Evelyn Obamos

Since my research on Asian American hip hop is based on a framework of transformative impact through hip hop as a vehicle for social justice, I was over the moon when I was asked to moderate a panel discussion for PostColonial Survival Kit, specifically on the topic of Filipinx Americans in hip hop, decolonization, and performing arts. The line up at the time consisted of Sammay Dizon, Rocky G, and Jon Mercado, who all have been making strides in fusing their Filipinx identity with their crafts to create contemporary hip hop works in dance, music, and bringing attention to Philippine indigenous arts, rituals, and sociopolitical issues. The line-up is completed by the addition of Jason Bayani, a master of spoken word and storytelling, and nationally recognized slam poet.

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Jon Mercado w/ Sagayan headdress

Hip Hop is a language of the oppressed. It is a language and vocabulary that comes from Black and Brown communities that were neglected, impoverished, disenfranchised, and struggling. Let’s look at our timelines: In the 1970s, as the Bronx was burning, we on the west coast were struggling to save the International Hotel of San Francisco. During this era of social and political unrest, we as Asian Americans took on a radical lens, for social justice, for equity, and for representation, through politics, education, and the arts. Second generation Filipino Americans at this time, started asking questions about their Filipino heritage, language, identity, and culture, while addressing issues of racism, erasure, and colonization, both internally and on global scales.

Fast forwarding the trajectory of the Filipino American community in the Bay Area— 50 years later— we can see that the search for heritage, has become an ongoing dialogue and also a blooming movement to return to indigenous arts and healing. When we take this radical language of decolonization to the intersection of Hip Hop— as a language of the oppressed, as a language of resistance— we find an abundance of transformative contemporary Filipino American arts, literature, music and dance.

“It is an artist’s duty to reflect the times.”
— Nina Simone

Jon Mercado performed a short set, fusing his background in urban choreography with movements from Philippine folk dance, particularly from Sagayan, which is a ritualistic war dance originating from Maguindanao. Donning both his brand new Sagayan headdress and shell-toe Adidas, Jon’s emphasis was on the notion of modernity, as Sagayan— like many other folk dances— has been modernized and re-adapted for performances throughout the years. Following Jon’s performance, Jason Bayani read from his most recent book of poems, Locus (2019), sharing stories of brotherhood, family, intimate memories, and the small moments that teach us not only who we are, but how we are, very much storied Filipinx Americans.

Rocky G, accompanied by DJ DonDon and Jomarie Calasanz, bounced back and forth between the microphone, keys, and saxophone. Jomarie’s talents as a jazz and R&B singer shined alongside Rocky’s skillset as a multi-instrumentalist, especially through her rendition of Tamia’s classic song, “So Into You.” Switching gears, Rocky G performed a few songs, including “Dog Eater,” and “Young Gifted and Brown” — which are some of my personal favorites.

 

Sammay Dizon has been making her mark as a spiritual contemporary dancer who invokes ritual through performance. Starting us off with popular dances as meditations, she leads us into a piece accompanied by her own voice, tracing her relationship with hip hop through spoken word, killing us softly with the highest of higher truths, and the lows of loving hip hop:

 “It was Hip Hop who taught me to love my brown skin//
but underestimated the feminine within”
— Sammay Dizon

During our short panel discussion, I asked only one question: In this dialogue between self, hip hop, and your art, how does hip hop inform your craft and your identity as a Filipinx American artist and performer, and vice versa? 

We also took a few questions from our audience:

  • What is hip hop to you?
  • What advice or tips do you have for other creatives?
  • How do you navigate appropriation of Black culture?

I feel strongly about providing a genuine and rooted answer. After seeing and hearing this question at multiple panels and events, I’ve observed that this question is sometimes weaponized against non-Black hip hop artists, which becomes a conversation about gatekeeping. I’ve observed this question being asked as gauge for political awareness. I’ve seen this question asked in many ways, but no matter how it’s answered, whether half-assed or genuinely, we never seem to land on an answer that we can all agree on. So let me offer my two cents:

While some people view hip hop as a bridge between cultures, some people also believe that Asians and Asian Americans do not belong in hip hop on the premise of race. As a writer coming from academia, I’ve had encounters with Black scholars who hated my work, and had me questioning my belonging in hip hop, as an Asian American womxn writer. While the bridge may not be best built through institutions and academia, bridges are built through the language of hip hop— a language of survival, resistance, and creating something out of nothing. This is the crux of hip hop— creating joy outside of a hegemonic standard, finding peace with your community through hip hop despite impoverished third world conditions in a first world nation, and becoming a “universal” language for poor and neglected communities all over the world.
All in all, for me, the question boils down to acknowledgement of disenfranchisement of Black communities, the conditions that birthed hip hop, and commodification of hip hop culture. So when people ask about appropriation, what I hear is a question of truth and a power check for whoever is wielding the mic. As Asian Americans, we can never fully grasp the deep-seated grief and hurt within Black experiences in America; however, we do understand the language of resistance and survival, and that’s a cornerstone for connection. As Asian American hip hop artists, it’s our responsibilities to understand Black histories, Brown histories, and our personal his/herstories, so that our contributions to hip hop culture are genuine, and not an attempt of replicating an image of hip hop.

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Jon Mercado, Joy Ng, Sammay Dizon, DJ DonDon, Rocky G, and Jomarie Calasanz

 

If there is anything I have learned about identity through the Asian American lens, it is that our identities, like our communities, are fluid and ever-changing. Hip Hop as a vehicle, in which we can apply a body of values, allows us to explore what we CAN be.
What Hip Hop can be.
What Filipinx American can be.
What decolonization can be.
This possibility and hope is resistance. We’ve seen this from Jon, Jason, Rocky, and Sammay, through their works, exploring themes of Filipinx American storytelling, history, identities, and returning the call to those who came before us. This too, is resistance. So the question I leave for everyone: In your personal everyday lives, whether through Hip Hop, or by any other means necessary, what is your language of resistance?

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While I’ve been part of other hip hop events and conversations, this was the first time that I’ve had complete control of shaping the context, dialogue, and conversation for an entire event. And the response? Folks connected with me after the show to discuss community, future collaborations, and also reached out via social media platforms asking for resources, literature, and more gatherings like this. There is an appetite for conversations such as this, for spaces where we can revel and unpack what it means to be an Asian American hip hop artist, dancer, thinker, writer, organizer, and everything in between… whether that conversation is happening internally in our own hearts and minds, or whether we carve this space out together. Reach out. We’re here.

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Recommended readings

Locus (2019) by Jason Bayani // (See on Omnidawn)

Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area (2015) by Oliver Wang // (See on Duke University Press)

Empire of Funk: Hip Hop and Representation in Filipina/o America (2013) by Kuttin Kandi, Mark Villegas, Roderick N. Labrador // (See on Amazon)

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (2005) by Jeff Chang // (See on Amazon)

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Special Thanks

Kularts (Manai/Alleluia, Tino, Hana, Wilfred, and Kim Arteche) ..
https://www.kularts-sf.org/
Jonathan Mercado .. About Jon // Instagram
Jason Bayani .. jasonbayani.net
Rocky G .. Instagram // Spotify
Sammay Dizon .. sammaydizon.com
Jari Bradley .. jaribradley.com

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