MANILA -- Gunshots cue the start of an orphan boy's retelling of his father's death in an anti-drug sting, one of many stories on the Philippines' drug war that are woven into a rap group's mix of art and protest.
"Papag," which details the killing of a drug suspect inside his home, is a song from Sandata (weapon in Filipino), a sextet that aims to surface stories of human suffering behind the war on drugs.
"Let's talk about lives – ito yung sinusubukan namin sa album. Pag lumabas kasi sa news ang kwento ng mga biktima, una, ang dali niyang mabrush off," said group member Mix Villalon, who is also a playwright.
(Let's talk about lives -- that's what we are trying to do with this album. When these victims' stories make it to the news, it's easy to brush off.)
"Fake news yan kahit sabihin mong ganito na kadaming tao ang namamatay. Hindi malaki yung impact," he said.
(It's called fake news, even if you say that this many people died. The impact gets watered down.)
In one cut from the group's 12-track album "Kolateral," a boy recites a poem on how he cleaned his father's bloodied remains after masked assailants left their home.
"Pula pa rin ang papag kung saan siya namatay, pulang mantsa na ala-ala ng aking itay" the boy says in the poem.
(The bed where my father died is still red, the blood red stain is what's left of my father.)
The war on drugs is the centerpiece program of President Rodrigo Duterte, a former Davao City mayor who assumed office in 2016. Security forces repeatedly denied wrongdoing in the drug war despite criticism from human rights monitors.
Philippine National Police data recorded 6,600 drug war deaths from July 1, 2016 to May 31, 2019, but Human Rights Watch claimed there could be as many as 12,000.
Amnesty International earlier this week called on the United Nations to investigate the drug war, accusing authorities of systematically claiming that the fatalities either fought back or resisted arrest.
"Kolateral" is the first Filipino hip-hop album to include data and narratives of the drug war's orphans, according to Sandata. Aside from Villalon, the group includes hip-hop artists Calix and BLKD, and researchers and social workers Tanya Quijano, Abbey Pangilinan, and Ica Fernandez.
They said the group came together to fight how social media is being used to spread misinformation about the drug war.
Another song, "Distansya (Distance)", tells the story of an OFW whose disabled son was shot dead after being tagged as an addict. The weeping mother had to beg and kiss the feet of her employer just to go home and make it to her child’s wake.
"May mga kwento sila, may mga buhay sila. So, hopefully pag may supporter ni Duterte na makinig ng album, unang-una di nila pwedeng sabihin na fake news kasi backed by research," Villalon said.
(They have stories to tell. They have lives. Hopefully, when Duterte's supporters listen to the album, they won't say it's fake news because it is backed by research.)
Villallon recalled a "tipping point" during the making of the album, when the group had to stare at Excel files of drug war casualties and realized just how many lives were lost.
"Habang patuloy silang nagscroscroll down, nerealize ko na ang bawat line ay isang buhay. Narereduce to just one entry,” she said.
(As I scrolled down, I realized one entry meant one life that was reduced to just one entry.)
ART AND POLITICS
Kolateral snuck in 20-minute presentations on the drug war into their gigs as they prepared to release the album, the group said.
“Itong ginawa namin, as much as possible wala talaga siyang simbolismo. Nilagay namin dun yung actual na rinig namin – kwento ng mga pamilya, aktwal na nabasa namin mula sa research team at mga kaakibat na grupo na nagreresearch din,” said group member Calix.
(What we're doing, as much as possible, does not have symbolism. We include what we hear -- stories of families, actual research.)
“Mahirap labanan minsan yung simbolismong walang laman. Madali lang kasing magtoken at magsymbolize ng something eh, pero kung yung simbolismo mo ay hangin lang, wala talaga siyang bigat."
(It's hard to fight with empty symbolism. Token symbolism is easy, if you draw symbolism from thin air, it's weightless.)
Calix said fellow rapper Shanti Dope's tussle with authorities over the title of his son "Amatz," which translates literally to getting high, showed that government recognizes the influence of hip-hop music.
Rapper BLKD said artists should speak up on political issues such as the drug war.
"All art is political," he said. "Kung pa-abstract ka lang, meaningless yung art mo (If you're abstract, your art is meaningless)."
"At siyempre pinaka-epekto nun, sadyain mo man o hindi, tumutulong ka lang na mamaintain yung status quo," he said.
(What's the effect? Whether or not it's intentional, you help keep the status quo.)
Calix said his involvement in Sandata showed his being an artist and Filipino at the same time.
"Tanggaling mo yung pagiging artist, tanggalin mo yung persona, wala kabang gagawin bilang Pilipino?” he said.
(Take out your being an artist. Will you not do anything as a Filipino?)
Editor's note: Ara Eugenio is a BA Journalism senior at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication. She is an intern at ABS-CBN News.