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Can Hip Hop Survive in the Midst of War?

by Rica Aquino

With songs that speak mostly about drugs, girls, and money, hip hop, as a genre, does not garner much respect in the country. Neither is it a lucrative industry. However, its foundations can be traced to the ‘urban renewal’ program and its corresponding social policies in Bronx, New York in the 1970’s. These predominantly affected African-Americans and Latinos which then spurred an entire cultural movement. During this turbulent decade, the youth simply wanted a creative outlet to pass their time and was seeking for a freer and more flexible form to express themselves. These conditions gave birth to the genre that we know now as hip hop.

Last April 17, the U.P Center for Ethnomusicology, in cooperation with the U.P College of Music, hosted a talk titled “Can hip Hop Survive in the Midst of War?” featuring Maranao hip hop artists Mohammad Hamdanie Shiek aka Dark Soul and Mohammad Yasser Gambao aka Bugs’t, two members of the hip hop group Bangsamoro Family. Founded in 2011 in Marawi City, Bangsamoro Family’s songs talk about stereotypes on race and religion, corruption, politics, and the war in Marawi. Other members of the group are Cardawi Hadjiamer aka Cardi, Raiyan Laguindab, and Norhanifah Marohomsalic aka Aifah.

In the hour-long talk, Hamdanie and Yasser shared their story of survival during the war in Marawi, which not only took lives and destroyed households, but also displaced survivors who now have to rebuild their lives from nothing. And while other hip hop artists fled from Marawi to live in refugee camps, Yasser moved to Manila while Hamdanie evacuated to Iligan. Their modest recording studio was reduced to ashes, leaving them with no equipment for recording their music. Worse, they had to leave their homes without saving any of their belongings.

Even before the war in Marawi, Hamdanie and Yasser were already living in a tumultuous place and time and they wanted to tell the rest of the world their harrowing story. Called the “Islamic City”, Marawi faced the same problems that plague the entire nation- drugs, poverty, corruption and senseless killings. Singing about these issues, Hamdanie and Yasser tread in dangerous territory and they know it. They are aware of the perils that face them each time they sing or rap in public, saying that they felt as if “isang paa namin ang nasa hukay” (one of our feet is in the grave). Nevertheless, when asked why they continue to do it, they answered- “Gusto naming na mamulat sila” (We want them to wake up to reality).

They shared the difficulty of relaying their incendiary messages in an unfavorable medium. “Kulintang lang ang genre sa Maranao” (Kulintang is the only genre among the Maranao), Yasser explained. It seems that culturally and socially, their music was not acceptable in all facets of Maranao culture. If there is anything acceptable as music in Marawi, it is the traditional music, kulintangan. Also, because music is taboo in Islamic culture, Hamdanie and Yasser’s music was often met with much skepticism, or even worse, outright rejection. However, they found solace in their Lumad brothers and sisters, whom they said understood their sentiments. They also credited Waway Saway, whom they fondly call Tatay Waway-a teacher and artist at the Talaandig School of Living Traditions, for mentoring them.

Hamdanie and Yasser admitted that they did not know how to play the kulintang. They also felt that they did not belong to the rock and alternative genre that was rising among the younger generation because they did not play instruments. These impelled them to try rapping their songs. Incidentally, hip hop and rap was more amenable to the message that they want to tell the world – the real situation in Marawi.


By creating trilingual songs, in Tagalog, English, and Maranao, they hope to get their message across a more diverse audience – to other parts of the Philippines and eventually, the rest of the world. However, rapping in Maranao language is still something they want to do, saying that hip Hop, despite language differences, has the power to talk straight to the heart.

The talk was attended mostly by Musicology and Asian Music Majors who, after the short but meaningful encounter, still wanted more of their stories. In the question and answer portion, audience members asked about their recording technique, their creative process, the meaning of their songs, and their artistic goals. Although it is uncommon for regional popular music to be discussed in an academic setting, the talk is a precursor to more and better discourse on this overlooked genre.

Hamdanie and Yasser brought hip hop back to its roots- to the struggles of the ordinary people. However, another war is far from over. Hamdanie and Yasser now have to find a way to rebuild their studio, and to continue creating music in the midst of other tribulations- poverty and displacement. At the end of the talk, the question of whether hip hop can thrive in the midst of war was answered - it is precisely the conditions of war that makes the genre thrive and, consequently, it is through continuous struggle that transformation and creation begins.


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