Aprilene S. Dionisio
December 16, 2004
Entertainment and the Filipino American
One of the biggest factors in how individuals of our society define themselves is found on the basis of culture. For the children of immigrant families, many find themselves in a struggle between the American way of life and their family’s origin. Such is the case within the Filipino community as parents born in the Philippines raise children in the United States, further distinguishing the difference between two generations. Often the children in these relationships must learn to be fluent in Tagalog and English, obtain a decent understanding of Filipino traditions and American holidays, and more importantly the overall culture of both countries. After much exposure to the American way of life, numerous Filipino Americans have found a balance between these two cultures and have used the entertainment industry as a means to express and share their experiences with others.
An example of a young Filipino American actively using entertainment to express himself as an individual is Michael Brito whom I interviewed this past November. Prior to the interview, my knowledge of the process that Filipino Americans go through to establish and share their work was limited so I entered the interview with virtually no biases but a high expectation to understand the entertainment industry more. The interview took place in Brito’s garage, where we used his homemade recording studio to conduct the interview. The level of interaction was overwhelmingly higher than I expected as Brito thoroughly reflected on each question I asked and provided a sufficient answer to each. My follow up questions were limited to few as Brito meticulously answered questions regarding how his family immigrated, why they immigrated, how the Filipino culture has been engrained into his life, how music was introduced to him and most importantly how he has used his Filipino American background to build his musical career.
Upon my reflection on the course of the interview, I was able to fit Brito into a specific sub-culture within the Filipino American community. Michael Brito’s family immigrated to the United States during the late 1970s in an attempt to escape the power abusive Marcos administration. His grandfather was one of the primary advocators of retaining the Filipino culture in his family’s life by emphasizing the importance of religion, the history of the Filipino people, celebrating various Filipino holidays and insisting that his grandchildren be able to understand Tagalog. Brito explains that one of the things that played a major role in his life was the existence of music at family gatherings. Thus, his love for music was established and he later incorporated it into his life by joining an R&B group and producing his own music.
Before exploring Brito’s involvement in the music scene as well as other Filipino artists, it is necessary to detail his background in order to better understand how his experiences fit into the overall history of Filipino Americans. Knowing that Brito’s family came to the United States during the late 1970s, I was able to place his family within the post 1965 immigration wave. His grandfather, who played an essential role in his life, was one of the many Filipinos who fought alongside Americans during World War II, bringing up one of the biggest controversies facing Filipino Americans today. The children and grandchildren of these World War II feel that their loved ones have been cheated as Filipino American veterans fight for their benefits from the American military forces after they loyally served the United States’ purpose. Until this very day, these veterans still do not receive the benefits that have been awarded to their equally deserving American counterparts, something that many Filipino Americans are bitter about. However, Brito does admit that his grandfather’s participation in the army did make the hassle of being able to become a naturalized American citizen easier, thus allowing him to petition for his entire family to immigrate to the United States.
The Filipino culture in Brito’s life played a significant role in incorporating music into his life. Brito explains that due to his family’s emphasis on religion, he was able to join his church’s youth choir and perform in front of an audience not composed of his family for the first time. Brito also explains that through the Young Filipinos Entertainment club, he was able to carry on his love for the spotlight. In his teenage years, Brito joined the Bay Area R&B group ComposurE which used their status as Filipino Americans to their advantage by targeting that audience. This meant performing at Filipino festivals such as Filipiniana, Himig, Splash and other festivals where their audiences were primarily Filipino. By doing this, the group established itself within the Filipino American community and built a fan base.
Filipino Americans in general have grown up in a society that tends to idolize entertainers. Growing up as a Filipino American forces one to not only attain a certain level of knowledge for both cultures, but be able to incorporate the two into one heritage as well. A prime example is how Filipino Americans grow up in an environment that idolizes singers, actors, dancers, comedians and other entertainment artists. While Chinese Americans had Bruce Lee, Cuban Americans had Gloria Estefan and Japanese Americans had Kristi Yamaguchi, Filipino Americans lacked role models in the entertainment industry that reflected their own culture. The situation forced many to become the role models that they sought for themselves. Filipino Americans began to abandon the traditional career paths pre-selected by their parents to follow. Many invested in careers as filmmakers, actors, rappers, singers and turntable artists.
Filipino Americans have grown up in a culture where stardom is revered but lack the role models to relate to culturally, urging them to seek fame and use their culture to influence and motivate their work. One particular artist that took on this task is filmmaker Patricio Ginelsa Jr. who has repeatedly used his cultural background to influence his work as an artist. Ginelsa, a Daly City native, has heavily participated in the production of milestone Filipino American films. Among his works are the films Debut and Lumpia, both of which deal with the issues of growing up Filipino in the United States. The film Lumpia is more orientated around the issue of cultural identity as Filipino Americans segregate their social circles by dividing themselves between American born Filipinos to those who recently immigrated. The film was influenced by factual events that occur in schools with Filipino American populations. In my own observations, American born Filipinos are heavily critical on those who retain their Filipino accents, going as far as to outcast them in a display of intolerance. The familiar event poses the fact that Filipino Americans not only have to understand their Filipino background but be able to conceal it in their linguistics in order to avoid ridicule. In their attempt to assimilate, Filipino Americans concentrate on their articulation of the English language and sometimes lose the ability to speak their native tongue, which is a situation that I have witnessed more than once. The film Debut is more concerned with the celebration of a Filipina American’s eighteenth birthday. The film incorporates both the American culture and Filipino culture as it focuses on a traditional celebration and the details that have made it Americanized. Ginelsa also directed one of the few music videos that depict the Filipino American lifestyle.
In a song entitled “The APL Song,” rapper Apl De Ap uses his immigration experience to artistically depict his cultural background. Apl lyrically discusses the conditions under which he immigrated to the United States and the family he left behind. The song caused a major stir within the Filipino American community as it was released by the popular rap group the Black Eyed Peas and included a chorus recorded in Tagalog. The song exemplifies the situation of families being separated by the immigration experience as Apl De Ap states how he left his mother behind in the Philippines. Among the topics that he touches on is the poverty in the Philippines, which is one of the factors that have urged Filipinos to immigrate to the United States throughout Filipino history. “The Apl Song” is not only an example of the Filipino American experience but the Filipino American struggle. This piece of work provokes a wide range of emotions with Filipino Americans as it forces one to remember the negative factors that have forced numerous Filipinos to immigrate. On the other hand, it also instills pride within the Filipino community as it is a symbol of the existence of Filipinos in the United States.
“The Apl Song” was monumental to the Filipino American community not only because of its message but due to the music video that followed, which was a collaboration of numerous Filipino American entertainers. Not only was the song included on a hit album but the music video featured significant Filipino American icons such as Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, and actors Dante Basco and Joy Bisco. A massive effort to get the video onto the most viewed top ten music video countdown, which is Total Request Live. In their attempts to get the music video on national television, loyal Filipino American Black Eyed Peas fans stood outside of the Total Request Live studio and advertised their cause on neon colored signs all while enthusiastically jumping and yelling whenever cameras were aimed their way. The loyal display is a testimony to the fact that Filipino Americans have long awaited the arrival of an entertainer that reflects their own cultural background.
While music videos and homemade films may seem like insignificant accomplishments in the eyes of mainstream America, the effect of Filipino Americans on popular culture can be felt. This accomplishment can be attributed to Chad Hugo of the production crew The Neptunes and world renowned DJ Qbert. Hugo’s production group The Neptunes are responsible for much of the infectious melodies released in recent years. The Neptunes sound is strikingly original and yet able to mutate to cover various musical genres. Another widely popular icon is DJ Qbert, a turntable artist who is accredited to be the world’s best dj, repeatedly winning the DMC turntable competition in multiple years. Qbert has become such an important figure in the world of turntablism that a line of turntables have been marketed under his name. Qbert’s success is not limited to the United States but felt worldwide as his status in Japan is comparable to Michael Jackson’s during the 1980s. The remarkable fame exhibited by both Chad Hugo and DJ Qbert has provided not only Filipino Americans with suitable role models but Americans of other ethnicities as well.
There is a stereotype associated with the expectations of Filipino parents in terms of education and career. Many Filipino parents expect, encourage and sometimes force their children to pursue careers in medicine, law or engineering, careers that they find to be secure and relevant. Ironically, many of these same families came to the United States seeking freedom from oppression and a corrupt government only to impose their own wants onto their children. Raised in a society where they must sometimes choose between the American or Filipino way, some Filipino Americans have chosen career paths that reflect what their adopted homeland idolizes and respects. The existence of these Filipino Americans who have chosen to pursue careers in entertainment have greatly boosted the confidence of Filipino Americans proving to them that Filipinos are a factor in American society.