BRAP: Flip Dot and the Dialectics of Conceit
The parking lane along Progress Ave. was quite wide enough to congregate local Hip-Hop artists of Filipino descent from different parts of Toronto. Dance crews walked it out with beats by the DJ. Graphic t-shirts stood along the walls of the garage that was bombed with stickers nascent of contemporary cultural identities. Emcees took to the front of the garage their verbal front while the youthful crowd matched the rhythms with hand gestures, almost as if scratching their own records.
Such was the scene in at the last summer block party organized by Filipinas Clothing Co. (FCC), an apparel brand owned by brothers Corwin, Harvey, Nikki, and Gino Agra. The one-off event succeeded in bringing together fans, Hip-Hop artists and even passersby to raise awareness of Filipino talent and collectivity.
Beyond his signature cigar hazed and bling-pimped videos, Fenaxiz rhymes with profundity yet grounded in reality. In “White Man’s Burden,” from his album Vintage released 2012, Fenaxiz educates his listeners about material history. Referencing the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same title, he reflects on the critical aspect of the history of his people and reclaims his personal story in Hip-Hop space: “I was lost ‘til I found my inheritance, Now I know my worth, I control the world’ And this rap ain’t even scratching the surface / Of our collective experience, my peoples / We gotta match our path with our purpose…”
For some time now, for Filipino-Canadians, “knowledge of self” has come from Hip-Hop. It is arguably part of a long standing Filipino culture which can also be traced in the Ilonggos’ romantic “binalaybay,” the Tagalogs’ “balagtasan,” and the Cebuanos’ “balak.” Its productive grammatical process is vernacular yet stemming to the Filipino diaspora.
Seeds of Counterculture
Much is known about the activist origins of Hip-Hop in the 1970s. The low-income neighbourhoods in Bronx, New York faced urban renewal policies that divided the peoples of colour from the dominant white ethnicity. Hence, the black folks later became a major indicator of ‘authentic’ Hip-Hop culture. Until the end of the 1970s, the culture primarily localized into five elements, which include breakdancing, beatboxing, DJing, graffiti art, and emceeing.
In Los Angeles, many working-class Filipinos were compelled to resettle in the outer districts, where the growth of West Bay Hip-Hop was witnessed by the 1980s. Emcees of Filipino descent, among whom Bambu and Kiwi are the most recognized, were immersed in gangster rap initially but later emerged in culture of resistance. Filipinos proved to be part of a thriving Hip-Hop generation that is parallel with the fundamental stage of narratives about Afro-diasporic narratives.
In fact, many second-generation Filipinos have, since then, been in a sense racialised. Filipinos being labelled as “Black Asians” calibrates the affinities of Filipinos with Blacks, especially if attributed with Hip-Hop culture. The culture of these peoples has hardly been narrowed down into a homogenous stereotype. Such diversity affords an individual to associate themselves to another identity with either pride or self-denial.
For Toronto-based emcee Scott Ramirez, Filipino Hip-Hop has started to experience its brighter days locally. While in university of which included a thesis project in his senior year, he went on a mission to record the impact of Hip-Hop culture as a channel of representation and a tool to facilitate knowledge of self. In his 2011 documentary “Flip Hop: Bridging the Gap,” the emcee posited that with the growing visibility of Filipino Hip-hop, solid community outlook is somehow achieved while its members are “instilled with a sense of cultural pride and confidence”
Tales from the Flipside
Wind back in 2000s, young Filipinos in Toronto were skewed as bolshies as tensions increased among new immigrants and assimilated youth who were born and raised in Canada. The beef defined the map between Scarborough in the east and Mississauga in the other end. These suburbs grew as preferred residential turfs of immigrants who were not distinctly clustered. Meanwhile, figures from statistical research found the downward trend of success for second generation Filipinos. With the comparative value of the category of visible minority, the ethnic group were even shown as more likely to consistently underperform in academics.
But regardless of the deplorable environment, Filipino youth were able to adapt Hip-Hop culture, from the university-based Superskillz talent show, the lone Filipino Hip-Hop radio station Jump Off (now defunct) to Bucc N Flvr representing Canada in a recent international dance showdown. To many artists, Hip-Hop has a certain appeal to be an alternative space for transformation.
This was, in part, why the newcomer Agra brothers then jumpstarted Filipinas Clothing Co. But more than doing rounds in the local events scene, FCC, which also means for continuous change, asserts its potential in developing a critical lens that can be utilized to not only understand the composition of the world but more significantly to re-create it.
Forward to 2011, the first Flip Dot Battle Grounds took place in Toronto—“Flip” is an obvious play on Filipino while “Dot” is in reference to the city—as an outgrowth of a rap battles burgeoning all over the world. In the current cycle, the Philippines had a representative in Canada’s King of the Dot league. Only then, Flip Dot is decidedly worth more than watching.
The unity that is espoused by FCC is probably best embodied by the supergroup Southeast Cartel, which has become the preferred brand by arguably the most popular emcees in Toronto including Tagalog-rapping Franchizze and Abstrakt of Dos Amardos, Pipoy, Dagamuffin, Biggz, Raygee and Bustarr of Sundaloz, Rydeen, and Mississauga-based Da Barkadaz. Southeast Cartel combined conventional views of Filipino with improvisation of language, whether native, second or both.
However, if the emergent Flip Dot culture is any indication, organizing Filipino youth still has a long way to go. Fenaxiz speaks sincerely again in “The Real Toronto” : In the end, it lures us to a calm compromise with “what it is,” instead of challenging the norm with what is to be done.
The challenge to forge unity among the Filipino youth through Hip-Hop is to bring forth new materials circumventing resistance against the standard notions of culture. While the more popular analyses on Hip-Hop’s origins date it back to the rhetoric of oppression caused by racial segregation, it is the understanding the axis of classes that strengthens it as a tool to deepen the lyrics and facilitate real human relations between different identities.
Perhaps the FCC block party was a swarm of Flip Dot’s finest. But for it to be a more durable performance is to spit back from Hip Hop roots of principled resistance, to put the cipher into plain text: “Makibaka! Huwag Matakot!” (Dare to struggle! Never be afraid!)
San Juan, Jr., Epifanio (2004) Working through the Contradictions, From Cultural Theory to Critical Practice. Associated University Presses. Cranbury, NJ
Badiou, Alain (2012) From Logic to Anthropology or Affirmative Dialectics.