Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Isasabuhay, mga salitang pumapaslang / Nakatago sa mata ng publiko ang makinarya ng pagtokhang...”
In a bar filled with almost 200 young people, two rappers take the stage to perform songs about the drug war in the Philippines. Their verses switch between slick punches and guttural outbursts — until the air is suddenly punctuated by an actual recording of gunshots and a woman wailing. The music transforms the audience into a mosh pit, and by the end of the set, 200 young people have their fists in the air, shouting “Never Again!”
Behind this movement in the music scene is a group called Sandata, which is comprised of progressive Filipino activist rappers BLKD and Calix, playwright and screenwriter Mixkaela Villalon, and development workers and researchers Tanya Quijano, Abbey Pangilinan, and Ica Fernandez.
Sandata believes in the power of combining research and arts in addressing the drug war. For the last two years, the group has been interviewing families left behind by victims, and then transforming these data and stories into hard-hitting songs.
Villalon says the technique is to target both minds and hearts of their audiences. “‘Yung researchers, intellectual ‘yung tira nila — numbers, magkano ang wina-waste natin on this stupid drug war — more on policy sila. Ang purpose ng arts ay suntok talaga sa emotions tayo. Parang o sige, kung ayaw niyo makinig sa numero, di makinig tayo sa mga kuwento,” she says.
This means that every time they perform, their raps are followed by presentations of their data, turning gigs into learning spaces.
Sandata is currently working on a 12-track album called “Kolateral,” where each track is directly inspired by real accounts and cases of victims of the drug war. They believe that this will be the first of its kind in the country — an album backed by real data from start to finish.
One song, entitled “Distansya,” is based on a story of an OFW. “Nabalitaan niya na ‘yung anak niya na may kapansanan ay binaril,” Villalon shares. “So kinailangan niyang halikan ‘yung paa nung amo niya na taga-Saudi para lang makauwi. Tapos pagkauwi niya, niyakap niya ‘yung kabaong ng anak niya tapos sinabi niya, ‘Nandito na si nanay.’”
On another track, there is a ballad to the young lovers Jerico and Angel, shot dead on the street, a Barbie doll flying off from Angel’s back pocket. On another, a song from the point of view of an assassin and why he also is a victim of this system.
The relationship between hip-hop and resistance is not new. From its origins in the ‘70s as resistance to police brutality and to disco music being co-opted by capitalist markets, different movements across the world have since then utilized hip-hop to express dissatisfaction with the status quo — from American hip-hop artists’ show of force for #BlackLivesMatter to Bangladeshi youth rapping for freedom of speech.
But Sandata does not utilize hip-hop alone. Their gigs manage to draw artists and fans of other genres also, including R&B, soul, punk, and metal. Other friends that perform in their gigs include Kartell'em, Because, and kiyo. “Kahit iba-iba ‘yung lengguahe or flavor nung aming art, pareho-pareho pa rin ‘yung nakikita nating... material reality,” Calix says.
Beyond music, the group wants to maximize the different art forms available to them and push the boundaries of what creative activism can be. They are currently collaborating with street artists, comic artists, and writers to bring out the stories of the drug war to as wide an audience as they can.
Artists and attendees, moved by anger from hearing Sandata’s stories, find solace and hope in raising funds for the families of the victims. After several successful gigs, Sandata is now supporting the education of 64 children and the livelihood of 22 families.
Pangilinan shares that they made a video of the fundraisers, showing how young people were not spending their lunch money just so they could support the families. “When we showed that video to the beneficiaries … they were crying because they saw the people who actually raised the money so that they can have a new start,” she says.
Calix points out that the hip-hop, punk, and metal genre in the local music scene has also been somewhat shunned by the general public for so long for their piercings, tattoos, and fashion, and that despite this, they continue to show up for the victims. “Tapos itong mga subcultures natin, tina-tag as adik, tambay, rebelde. Bakit sila ‘yung nandito?” he asks.
Villalon adds, “May isang nagsabi sa isang fundraiser gig na bago raw siya dumating dun … sinabihan siya ng nanay niya na, ‘Ingat ka anak kasi mga kamukha mo ang tinutumba.’ Pero sila pa rin ‘yung lalabas at tutulong.”
Sandata wants to show that the kids are not apathetic and that this generation has its own protest music. Pangilinan asserts that despite the seeming helplessness young people might feel in the face of national forces, this must not be used as an excuse to not act upon seeing the needs on the ground.
Now, Sandata wants to bring the story out on a global stage to counter the country’s growing apathy towards the drug war. This April 20 to May 6, Sandata is taking the fight to the U.S., as they have been invited to present their work at Columbia University, the University of California Berkeley, and the Harvard Kennedy School. They will also be visiting Fil-Am communities and other music collectives to tell their stories, perform, and exchange learnings.
“‘Yung mga mapupuntahan naming communities doon sa U.S., meron din doong nagpa-practice talaga ng hip-hop organizing, gumagamit talaga ng hip-hop sa pag-organize ng communities,” BLKD says. “Pagpunta namin doon, isha-share naman namin paano natin ginagawa dito.”
As the group is mostly relying on loans and out-of-pocket expenses to see the journey through, they set up an online fundraising campaign to gather donations as well.
Sandata knows the path of resistance is a marathon and not a sprint, and that it’ll take more than six years to rebuild the social fabric torn by the drug war. “I’ll just keep banging this drum until someone takes this drum from me and continues banging it [until] the end,” Villalon says, before quoting Elias’s dying wish from "Noli Me Tangere."
In Sandata’s presentations, they always share a quote by mothers of drug war victims. One statement said: “Di kami nanlilimos ng hustisya. Ang hiling lang namin, patas na laban.”
To this, Pangilinan adds that they intend to provide this fighting chance using research and art. They don’t intend to simply extract data from these families nor do they plan to leave anytime soon.
“For Sandata… ‘di lang ito pagkukuwento ng kuwento nila pero pagsama sa kanila hanggang kakayanin,” she says.