“As an artist, my role is not to conform to what the audience wants me to do. It’s me showing them my world,” says Haniely Pableo, better known as Han Han. It’s a Friday afternoon and the operating-room nurse is enjoying a well-deserved day off. Her voice is raspy with fatigue, but her words are far from weary. “I’m quite aware of what their world is,” she continues. “Especially being in North America, being an immigrant, being a person of colour, and someone who grew up in the East, I’m already immersed here. I know their world, but they don’t know mine.”
In 2014, HanHan released her eponymous EP. It was fierce and honest, rooted in cultural pride, in both the languages in which she exclusively rapped – Tagalog and Cebuano – and its use of traditional instrumentation. Her vocal style defied the stereotype of the sweet, passive Filipina, and her lyrics called everyone out: misogynist, destructive colonial legacies, and divisions among the diaspora. Yet from the beginning, the emcee’s path to music was rooted in an urgent need for self-expression and community.
In 2008 – two years into re-uniting with her mother in Canada – Pableo began taking a poetry workshop. A serendipitous string of events unfolded, guiding her to an artist-rooted community of like-minded poets, musicians, performers, and activists. Her new artistic family helped her create a career in music that she never imagined. Today, even with growing recognition, and her debut full-length album, URDUJA, slated for 2020, Pableo remains unmoved by suggestions she become more “mainstream” and “accessible” by performing in English.
“I read this article somewhere that said crossing over to the Western audience shouldn’t be considered the highest privilege, because the Western audience are the ones missing out on a lot of creative culture beyond the borders of the West,” she says. “I’m different than most of the female artists I’m usually lined [up] with in festivals, but I never feel that I don’t have the power. When I’m on the mic, I have the power.”
And the community she found a decade ago remains her greatest source of power. “I’m grateful that I have [this] community, and it’s primarily women – we do different things, but our values are aligned.”
In her Toronto home, Casey Mecija, the multi-disciplinary artist and new mother, is pondering how integral community and collaboration have been to her own artistry, most notably as the lead vocalist and songwriter for orchestral-pop band Ohbijou. “I’m energized by collaboration,” she says. “Much of my work with Ohbijou was about what music can produce [when we’re] in collaboration with each other.”
Nonetheless, in 2016, Mecija went solo with the release of her contemplative debut, Psychic Materials. “It was an opportunity for me to focus and reflect inward, prioritize my songwriting voice in a way that I hadn’t. It was a channel of autonomy.”
Music as a space for personal exploration and revelation has driven Mecija for much of her life. At first a strategy of integration by her parents, to help their Canadian-born children weave into the fabric of the larger community, it soon became Mecija’s sanctuary. “Music as a form didn’t insist that I knew how to say the things that I wanted to say,” she says. “It’s poetic. It’s about emotion. And for me, sometimes expressing my feelings through words was difficult.”
But as a second-generation Canadian, in a society that often ignores or flattens people of colour in order to fit pre-conceived ideas, she’s faced inherent challenges.
“There’s often conflations of the colour of one’s skin to the sound of one’s music,” she says. “It’s easy to say that someone who’s Filipino, or Filipinx, plays Filipinx music. I don’t displace that affiliation – because I am Filipinx, and what I produce is from my embodied experience – but sometimes I think that that association can be lazy. And, I’m not from the Philippines, so being second-generation can have a disorienting impact on [my] relationship to a geography that I don’t particularly know.” Mecija incorporates what she calls the “messiness” by surrendering the need for neat, easy conclusions about self and society.
“The songs [don’t] arrive at any concrete conclusions about who I am and where I’m from, [or] who I desire,” she says. “My lyrics are in process, they’re in search of something that I know I’ll never find an answer to, which is much like my quest for what my cultural identity means here in Canada. I don’t deal with issues of gender, sexuality, culture, in ways that are too explicit, either. For me, those are nuanced conversations, nuanced experiences.”
For Vancouver-based, multi-disciplinary, gender-fluid singer-emcee Kimmortal, making music that explores identity, dismantles colonialism, and transforms society is a bold mission. And lyricism is their tool. Starting as a dancer, Kimmortal grew to revere hip-hop culture, one founded in resistance and hard-earned self-love.
“I grew up in the suburbs of Surrey, where all the white kids around me listened to Christian rock,” they say. “I saw hip-hop and rap – Black music – as the antithesis to this. I found my style and self in hip-hop. I also learned about my Filipinx community through the lens of rappers like Blue Scholars, Bambu, Rocky Rivera, and Kiwi Illafonte.”
Rap’s insistence on, and even veneration of, authenticity also felt right to them. Their candid, vulnerable music brings an intimacy to hip-hop that’s reminiscent of Lauryn Hill. In 2019, their stellar release X Marks the Swirl showcased a voice impossible to ignore.
“You can tell a wack rapper apart from an awesome possum through [your] honesty, owning who you are, and how you hold your self and story,” they say. “I focus on whatever I’m going through at the time – reflections on my community, on radical love with self and others, [on] doubt and anxieties, as well as the magic and possibilities.” Most importantly, their music is a space for those who’ve long been oppressed. “I speak to the queer and Filipinx and POC community, which is the same community that speaks to me,” they say.
When asked if having the prefix “Filipinx” preceding discussions about their music is inhibiting, the answer is a resounding no. “It’s important to note, because I am who I am: queer, Filipinx, “Canadian” on unceded Indigenous [Coast Salish] land. More Filipinx artists [are] speaking about our diverse experiences, and further complexifying the single narrative. We’re not just [going to] be homogenized as Asian – we have a distinct history.”
And it is these distinct voices that all three artists want championed, while also being cautious about the “new voices” trope. “It’s important to question the rhetoric of ‘emergence,’” says Mecija, who cites an industry that, to this day, prominently focuses on white, hetero-normative artists. “People have been creating music in this city and Canada for a long time – Maylee Todd, Phèdre. There all of these artists that understand themselves as being Filipinx.”
Kimmortal agrees, and finds it heartening that many are looking to each other, not the purported “mainstream” for appreciation.
“Recognition is fleeting,” they say. “Filipinx in the diaspora are tuning into each other through the internet, and our ancient wisdom. De-colonization is something many POC communities are coming to. Many of us are on land that is not our ancestors’. We begin to question our own cultures – like, who the fuck is King Philip, anyways? And what [does] it mean to be Filipino outside of our colonial history?”