Blog Post

Flippin' Poets in Funny Places

I've been following developments in Filipino rap culture over the past few years, in part because I enjoy listening to rap, but also because there's this fascinating way that the rap battle format has certain similarities to the Filipino tradition of poetic debate called Balagtasan, so that battles in the Philippines incorporate certain elements of that tradition. For instance, I've seen battles on YouTube where each round addresses a topic rather than the American format of straightforward insult, which I in my academic way find more philosophically interesting.

So I was at first a little bit dismayed to find that the most popular battle in the Philippines right now is the FlipTop Battle League, which uses a format that comes from the US. Many of these videos have gone viral, with some logging more than 2 million views even though they're almost entirely in Tagalog. They eschew the topic format in favor of the standard insult format, which I wasn't as interested in until the format founder, California-based Dirtbag Dan, battled FlipTop host Anygma, the first time I've seen a battle between an American and a Filipino, and found myself witnessing one of the most direct assaults on American neoimperialism I've seen expressed in verse.

I embed the video at the bottom of this post, but first I want to quote my favorite section, which appears around the 6:00 mark:

I need not be nationalistic to manhandle this bitch tits, 
but I am Pinoy
so I know you manage to dis this.
But do you really think you can insult Filipinos in your verses
when anyone you love or know
that's terminally hurting
is serviced by at least one of our nurses?
Serviced by our nurses
and that they won't feel the urge
to pull the plug on purpose?
Any relatives of future children ain't safe too
if an OSW* maid chooses to raise them
to hate you.

*overseas worker

Working within the rap battle parameters, Anygma makes a number of savvy arguments that address questions of cosmopolitanism, class, and identity, which are relevant in ongoing political and cultural debates both within and outside the humanities. In the first line, he expresses his ambivalence about nationalism, but also argues that we cannot ignore the ongoing effects of inequality based on national identity. He also cautions Americans to be careful of a purely economic logic that consigns many Filipinos to the role of caretakers, because money alone without humane treatment cannot guarantee that their loved ones themselves will be treated humanely. Having spent many an afternoon on the Upper East Side section of Central Park watching and talking to Filipina nannies, I find the image of those women imbuing the children of the New York elite with class consciousness particularly thrilling.

It's also worth noting that Anygma is close to tears for most of the battle, which goes entirely unremarked by his opponent, the audience, or the judges. He also launches into a diatribe against Christianity and theism in the third round around 10:22, which I've never seen in a Philippine context, given the country's longstanding Catholicism as a result of being colonized by Spain. In another video, he tells people who complain that videos aren't being uploaded soon enough, to "open a book" and "kalimutan niyo na lang yung FlipTop, mabuti na lang na mag-aral na lang kayo [just forget about FlipTop, it's better if you study instead]." It seems that learning is not just relevant for it's own sake; it's also good for rap.

Graduate Student, Cornell University
Meredith Ramirez Talusan is a graduate student in the comparative literature program at Cornell University and Managing Editor of Arcade Conversations. She is also a writer, visual artist, and occasional designer.