“As their coffins close” crooned Filipino performing artist Tao Aves, her voice both soothing and cold. A drum and bass rush brings the track back to its chilling, interrogative refrain: “Is justice blind and drowning in blood?”
The youthful audience, some moved to tears by the lyrics, sings along to what all in attendance at the jam-packed club recognize as a scathing critique of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s lethal drug war.
Such was the scene one recent evening at Catch 272, an alternative music club situated in a rough-and-tumble area of Manila’s Quezon City, site of several drug war-related killings in recent years.
While an unknown number of drug war victims’ families have quietly mourned the resolved murders of their loved ones, the country’s hip-hop artists are raging back against the loss, heartbreak and impunity in song.
Local rap artists BLKD, Calix and Mixkaella Villalon recently joined musical forces under the band name Sandata (weapon) to cut a protest album that has taken hard-hitting aim at Duterte’s signature policy.
The 12-track album, appropriately dubbed “Kolateral” (Collateral), takes its name from Duterte’s remarks on child victims of police drug war operations, which he once famously said were mere “collateral damage” of the campaign.
Aves is one of the guest singers on the album, whose single “Hawak” (Hold) is among the most popular of the compilation.
The tragic ballad recounts the tale of Erica “Angel” Fernandez and Jerico Camitan, teenage lovers whose relationship was cut short at the hand of an anonymous at-large gunmen, like so many of the bloody campaign’s unresolved killings.
A few days later Angel was killed in similar circumstances; the young couple were buried beside each other, the song recounts. Police said their killings were related to drugs but witnesses attest the pair never touched illegal narcotics.
“Everybody is a target,” said Villalon in referring to Aves’ popular song.
Released on several free streaming sites, Kolateral has accumulated 108,093 hits on song-sharing site Soundcloud, 404,713 on video-sharing site YouTube and almost a million streams on music-streaming Spotify.
“The idea was to popularize research on the current war on drugs, in a way that’s easy to share or accessible,” explains Calix on the genesis of the album.
He said the album’s artists collaborated with researchers who have compiled background stories of drug war victims.
Calix eschews ambiguity when talking about the drug war’s abuses, saying that “the message of Kolateral is to condemn the war on drugs and to spread the stories that have gone under the traditional media’s radar.”
Featuring several big names from the Filipino hip-hop scene, Kolateral has won rave reviews from both the genre’s connoisseurs and ordinary fans alike.
Nearly all of Kolateral’s songs are sharp and damning critiques of how the drug war has especially impacted the lives of poor Filipinos.
Calix, on the mic, asks the crowd gathered at Catch 272 to support the album and help amplify the call for an end to state-sponsored violence.
He then launches into his album track, “Giyera ng Bulag” (War of the Blind), and the packed house goes berserk, jumping up and down, fists flying in the air.
Still, the killings continue. Duterte’s drug war has ravaged mostly poor communities, racking up a death toll the Commission on Human Rights Commission, a quasi-independent state agency, has estimated as high as 27,000 since the lethal campaign was launched in mid-2016.
Elected on a populist anti-crime ticket, Duterte has explicitly threatened and ordered the deaths of those involved in illegal drugs, marching orders his law enforcement officials have implemented with lethal efficiency.
The drug war has hit hardest the same slum areas where Filipino hip-hop perhaps resonates the deepest.
While the genre has tackled a multitude of social issues and vice, many of them apolitical, the drug war has provided a rich visceral vein of loss, angst and anger local rap has only started to tap with rhymes and beats.
Villalon acknowledges that many hip-hop artists are not naturally prone to read beyond headlines. But a growing number of them recognize the human stories behind the killings are often left untold.
“One thing we observed is that traditional media reports on matters very factually and objectively, the victims start to become represented by mere numbers,” she says, noting how the personal narratives and names of victims are often omitted due to the sheer volume of casualties.
Kolateral tackles the often tragic aftermath of the drug war’s violence, from losing a spouse, to the loss a migrant worker mother feels on learning that her son has fallen victim back home.
All in all, the album is a cry for social justice in what is arguably the largest spasm of deadly violence the country has seen in modern times outside of rebel versus government insurgency.
Two tracks, the artists say, epitomize the album. Aside from Hawak, Makinarya (Machinery) tackles the bureaucracy of the drug war, dropping rhymes that satirize the president and the officials involved in overseeing anti-drug operations.
Highlighting the stories of ordinary Filipinos, especially those with blue-collar backgrounds, was intentional, they say. “If these killings are happening to regular people, it means none of us are separate from what’s going on,” chimes Villalon.
Philippine National Police spokesman Bernard Banac told Asia Times that while expression through music is part and parcel of a free democracy, he urged critical artists to take a deeper look at the difficulty and danger of police operations.
He said that much of the drug war’s violence was necessary, echoing a police refrain that they have only killed in self-defense. “We are able to reach out to the people on our campaign against illegal drugs,” said Banac, noting the drug war’s popularity in opinion polls.
Villalon and Calix acknowledge that their critical tracks would inevitably elicit an official backlash.
They say they have been harshly and even threateningly criticized by pro-government trolls on all the online platforms where their album has been released.
Like other drug war critics, they suspect that most of the critical comments, with supposed different users posting the same verbatim criticism as others, originate from government-backed click farms.
“We made this album in a time when people’s outlook on politics is pretty polarized, says Calix. “So when you condemn the regime and its war on drugs, government supporters are bound to oppose you.”