The last couple of years have seen Manila, and the Philippines more generally, thrown into turmoil, with President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal “War on Drugs” seeing thousands killed, many with no fair trial or evidence of wrongdoing. In a new documentary with Boiler Room, director Angela Stephenson has visited Manila, profiling the eclectic, unique and resistant musical talent bubbling under the surface.
While chaos reigns on the streets, these artists and producers channel their surroundings into their music, resulting in powerful, un-missable music that straddles the line between protest and introspection in a truly fascinating way. We talked to some of these artists – The Den Sy Ty Project, Eyedress, OWFUCK and BP Valenzuela – about the situation, their music, and more.
Could you talk to us a little more about the so called “War on Drugs” in the Philippines? Den Sy Ty: Our president Duterte thinks that it’s necessary to eliminate the poor “who earn quick cash from selling drugs” in order to destroy what he calls the “apparatus”. He believes the only way to get rid of the drug trade is to kill the users, every one of them. I obviously don’t agree. I’m sure there are better ways to approach this situation, and it’s probably part of some grand scheme or masterplan he has brewing behind the scenes. Some people even talk about how it’s just an excuse for whoever involved to kill/eliminate their opponents, as the situation gives a lot of room for “killings without investigation”. Its really fucked up, this “culture of violence” that the president is spreading here.
Does everyone in the Philippines and Manila oppose what’s going on? Eyedress: I feel like really classist people in Manila aren’t bothered about the killings…some would even joke about it, but it’s no joke. It’s sad when educated people have the dumbest things to say about what’s going on. It’s bad enough that half of the news coming out is fake. Everyone is suffering, the land is suffering. It’s so polluted, it’s really filthy in Manila.
The music you’re making explicitly challenges the “War on Drugs”, and you are open about your own recreational drug use. In the documentary, we learn that it’s important to have the “balls to tell the truth, even if the truth kills you.” Do these things put your lives directly at risk? OWFUCK: Yes, my life has been put at risk several times already, but I have no choice but to do it in order to survive here in Manila. Here, one needs to have gained a college degree to be able to get a decent living, but what about those who weren’t able to finish their studies? In order for them to survive, they need to be resourceful and keep “hustlin”, as they say. And if I don’t say the truth and if I’m not being honest with myself, then who else will do it?
It’s also been said that the legal system is failing, with no evidence or investigations into people’s murders. How did this come to be? Den Sy Ty: I don’t know exactly how it came to be, but as part of this new “Oplan Tokhang” [the official name for the “War on Drugs”], the police have been allowed to barge into homes and search/arrest without proper warrants, forcing “suspects” to surrender, be arrested, and later shot. Stuff like this really endangers our rights to life, security and liberty.
In the documentary, we hear that “If you’re different, you can be pegged as a drug dealer or criminal”. Do you think this extends to LGBTQ+ community? BP Valenzuela: Of course! Filipinos claim to be tolerant with the LGBTQ+ community, but they aren’t particularly accepting: only really making the community go on shows as props for entertainment, relegating them to stereotypes, especially when people dress how they feel they should express themselves…there’s just a culture of violence that still makes it unsafe for you to be open and more vocal about standing up for yourself. It’s still quite a macho society that sees in black and white, and part of that also is responsible for the drug war.
You’ve talked about how people don’t take depression seriously in Manila, and about the fact that you’ve tried to commit suicide yourself. Why do you think this is the general attitude towards mental health? OWFUCK: They don’t take these things seriously, not just in Manila, but in the Philippines. Even big personalities such as Joey de Leon joke about it, and for me it could trigger people to commit suicide because it only shows that, instead of helping and supporting you, the people around you would choose to judge and belittle you.
How do you find the balance between writing lyrics about your own personal troubles, and about everything going on around you? OWFUCK: It’s actually funny that whenever I get sad, that’s when I can compose good songs. Music somehow serves as an outlet for me because I could always run to it. I usually base the songs I write on what I have already experienced, and sometimes I just make a play on the words by putting metaphors, punchlines and other styles.
What do you think of the Western perception of what is going on in the Philippines? Eyedress: I think they know it’s messed up. I’ve seen huge pieces on the war on drugs, and tons of photojournalists tried to come and document it. When there were killings almost every night it was a scary time to be out. My paranoia got so bad I just stopped going out. It’s real for all of us; whether you’re affected by it or not you might have friends or people you work with that are. They’re striking fear into everyone’s hearts to control them and it works. But, there’s also something about it that I love so much. Just because a lot of the things on the news coming from the Philippines is bad doesn’t mean that good things don’t happened there. I think that’s what this documentary is also about, because it shows the beautiful community of artists we have in the Philippines. I know it doesn’t cover every fucking body, but it’s just a quick look into what the young people in Manila are up to creatively, and how they respond to their environment. I think the documentary is really positive, and Angela [Stephenson] directed something beautiful and did a really great job in getting all the different classes and styles of music together in one film. It’s sweet someone would go out their way to make something for Manila. That’s how you know it’s real. It wasn’t just convenient to put something out like this. She really helped put our culture on the map. Love to her.
Watch Angela’s documentary, in collaboration with Boiler Room, below.