Talking about hip-hop as a global commodity – wherever it lands, local artists make it their own – reminded me of the Black Eyed Peas 2003 “the APL Song,” sung by Apl, the band’s half-Filipino, half-African-American singer. Although the Black Eyed Peas are better known for their catchy, often top-charting hip-hop dance songs, the type that easily get stuck in your head (“My Humps” anyone?), almost every album the band creates has a lesser-known track almost entirely in Tagalog.
Apl uses his star power in the mainstream market to create an alternative space for Asian American artists, especially his fellow Filipinos. “The APL Song” has several layers – in its music video, lyrics, and melody that speak to different Asian-American generations about the experience of leaving/returning back to one’s roots. The music video depicts a lolo (grandfather) in a nursing home, reminiscing about his family and longing to see his grandchildren again, who come in and out of the video as translucent imagined figures. At the end of the video, the lolo puts on his WWII Veteran hat, and marches in a protest fighting for full equity for Filipino WWII veterans. The video is a tribute to Filipino soldiers who served in American wars, but I believe it also raises awareness to many of those absent grandchildren who do not know about their grandparents’ cultural influences and history. The video also gives a starring role to Filipino actors, Dante Basco, Chad Hugo, and Abe Pagtama, who usually play supporting or background roles in American theater and film.
The lyrics describe Apl’s story of growing up in the Philippines in a barrio, immigrating to the States, trying to find work and the frustration of not having money to send back to his mother, and eventually returning to his birthplace. Apl raps “every place has got a ghetto, this is my version.” Where Kun’s article suggests that ghetto=urban, Apl twists it to a rural, provincial setting where you “have to build a hut to live in/catch your meal/and pump water out of the ground.” Apl often romanticizes his hardship and describes how “everyone be helpin’ each other whenever they can/that’s how we be surviving back in my homeland.” Whenever he returns, no matter how many years, “it feels like a day/ to be next to my mom with her home-cooked meals.” His lyrics speak to the common experience of many Filipinos who leave the RP, usually to work abroad as nannies, nurses, call-center associates, and construction workers, send money home to help their family and come back every few years. Even when I went to the Philippines last summer, although I was born in the U.S., my family would say, “Oh, you’re going back home.”
The melody of the Apl Song is based on “Balita” (news) by a popular 1970s Filipino folk rock group Asin. Apl was a big fan of this group, and the content of “Balita” which pays homage to Asin’s hometown in Mindano corresponds to Apl’s provincial homeland. The chorus of the “Apl Song” is actually the same as the opening verse of “Balita.” Sung in Tagalog, the chorus translates as “come closer my friends and everyone listen/ I brought news from my homeland/I'll tell you how we live and what goes on/ from my beloved homeland.” Asin was one of the few Filipino folk rock groups to make it into mainstream u.s. culture, and Apl speaks to the generations before him who might have listened to Asin, and draws a melodic continuation of history in his music.
In our reading of Kun, we talked about reflective musical nostalgia – where we use the past to structure the present. Kun also talked about how music can temporalize space – creating a congealed history – one of many layers represented in a single song. Apl uses the sepia-toned imagery in the music video, his lyrics that reminisce and idealize his homeland, and his melodic tribute to his favorite 70s Asian rock band, as ways to reflect on his underground musical and ethnic roots within the space of his mainstream pop music.