Gingee is a Filipina DJ who uses indigineous Filipino instruments and hip-hop to create world beat music. After she headlined the 2016 Chinatown Music Festival, CCCSF Research Fellow Victor Liu had the opportunity to sit down with her.
Victor: Could you talk a little about your music and the thought process behind that?
Gingee: In my music, there a lot of different elements that I grew up around in LA, where I was exposed to Latin music like Salsa dancing and Cumbia, as well as hip hop culture and also spoken word poetry, which was my entry into performance. My music also blends together Filipino instruments and also global and world music cultures in general.
But in particular, I incorporated the gulandang, which is a traditional instrument from the Philippines. There's a lot of gongs found within the Philippines in general, and also in Southeast Asia in general, but the gulandang is indigenous to the central Philippines. My first exposure was through Balinese gamelan, which I took classes in for three years at community college as well as in the dance. I also traveled to Bali to experience it. But then I also found that there was a Filipino version of it, which just wasn't available at the school at the time.
I ended up purchasing Filipino gongs and incorporating them in my music. I was very fascinated with because they're an instrument that existed before Spanish colonization. I have to specifically seek them out – these classes, these books, it's still very rare to find materials on Filipino music. Usually when people think Filipinio music, they think of music with a Spanish kind of influence to it, using guitars, or very vocal But pre-colonization, We have a really rich cultural legacy, and I'm thinking, “Why not incorporate that into my music?”
I also am aware, and I'm sure you are too, that Asian Americans aren't very well represented within popular culture, and music especially. I want to actually consciously take something of my culture and use it. I was thinking, what is my sound, and what is the Asian sound? This is an instrument that I can really embrace because it's in my roots. It's part of my culture, but it’s a modern interpretation. I'm bring the sound into what I grew up with. I'm not taking traditional melodies and remixing them. I'm just playing the rhythms that I make up. There's a distinction there. There's people who have studied the actual traditional way of doing it, which I have immense respect for. But I just reinterpret it and blend it with the sounds that are around me.
I also have the whole poetry and spoken word element, which was always a part of my expression. I've just put it together and tried to translate it through sound. Electronic music is very popular, almost everybody in the world likes electronic music, So I see that as this universal music in a way.
There’s a bunch of DJs making world bass, so I’m like, “Why can't we be part of that as Asian Americans.” Why not use this format or template as a way to expose people to our culture. They’ll know there’s such a thing as Filipino gongs. It’s an entryway into people learning more about Filipino culture, or realizing that Filipino-American music exists.
Victor: Yeah, well, I'm all for it. So it's clear from what you're talking about that your music definitely has a very social justice oriented agenda ,with your emphasis on the history of colonization, traditional music, representation – and I was wondering if you could kind of talk about where your social justice instincts come from and why you think it's important to have this kind of representation in the music world.
Gingee: I was exposed to feminism very early on and then like via even before then I was already at feminist, probably just from my mom and my grandma. You know, being exposed to strong women. My sister's a drummer. My whole family loves music. In particular, I was exposed early on to the Riot Grrl movement, made of young women creating their own culture. The whole DIY Do-it-Yourself culture, creating your own publications or zines, which I did back in the day, with poetry and art. You can make your own thing.
I was also exposed to what you can call the Asian American movement, but through the arts and Filipino American artists. I was exposed to people who mentored when I was young, this Filipino movement of like people involved in organizing and exploring identity issues and speaking out about injustices. Then I just kept learning more and more about it and college.
I went to a very liberal college, Pitzer, where they allowed me to make up my own major in “Women of Color Activism and World Cultural Traditions,” looking at Anglocentrism and white supremacy, and even at the structure of the school itself. I go into a music theory class, and I'll open the first page, and it says, “Western music is the most superior of all music, and they’re the most worthy of studying.” I wanted to like question all that. At the same time, I was friends with a lot of organizers who were working with the workers in LA, you know, people who were organizing the hotel workers, the janitors, the people doing labor, and I helped out with a couple of those actions. Playing the drums out of outside of hotels to tell people not to go in and stuff like that.
Victor: I wanted to kind of problematize the Asian American music movement a little bit, actually. I don't know if you have read Kenyon Farrow’s piece, “We Real Cool,” on Asian Americans and hip-hop. It’s a very interesting piece that basically speaks about the way that Asian Americans have been trying to kind of throw off the model minority perception. It pits blackness as a kind of opposite extreme, but what that does is solidify and uphold stereotypes about blackness. It’s not just about Asians wearing black clothing or having an accent, but the very fact that they're using rap and hip hop as a way to seem more funny or edgy or gross that is actively anti-black in itself. Some people are far guiltier of it than others, like Awkwafina. I was wondering if you could speak to the point that they're making in relation to your own music and your utilization of hip-hop and spoken word.
Gingee: We in the Asian American community definitely do need to have a discussion about anti blackness, which manifests itself in all kinds of ways, appropriation being one of them. But hip-hop, it's definitely a black art form but it's also a multicultural art form. Asian Americans have been part of hip hop since its inception.
Victor: Actually the article disagrees. The article is interesting in that it's in a narrative format speaking about his experience at one panel that tried to argue that Asian Americans have been part of hip hop since its inception. Farrow says no, he says it's a completely black form, period.
Gingee: I think we are a part of the movements, regardless. I know that Filipino DJs have been lot for hip hop. I think that there's a distinction that you have to drop between people who are doing it disrespectfully and people who are doing it respectfully. We have the right to be part of hip hop. At this point, it’s a multicultural form. The English language in itself and rhyming, everybody uses it. I ask myself these questions, too. What am I not appropriated? What is mine? So I went to my Filipino group, who’ve problematized me as well, because I’m using the gongs but I’m not from the the Southern Philippines and I haven’t studied with the masters. Well, so what should I do then? What’s safe? The guitar? What’s okay to do?
Victor: That's a very good question. I mean if you really consider all of the history of cultural production and power struggle. I’m sure you can problematize every part of a certain culture. Which is why it's very difficult to say, what is ours? But right now, hip hop we still associated with blackness, whereas we don't associate rock with black music, so one act of appropriation is more violent than the other.
Gingee: All rock originated from black music as well.
Victor: Right, but not a lot of people know that. The damage has already kind of been done. It's like the gentrification argument there like whenever activists are thinking about how to move the move into a certain city, they choose the areas that are already white, because even those those places probably used to be a black, it's white right now. It's not as conscious of an act of violence. It's just like taking into account the present state that you can't really do anything about it.
Because to copy something that is very much still regarded to be pioneered by black folks. it’s like you’re trying to overtake that representation. So if Asian American hip hop artists, even if they're not appropriating any specific cultural signifiers, even if they're not wearing the clothes, even if they're not putting on the accent, the very fact that they are using that form of music takes the spotlight away from black folks, because Asian Americans’ visibility and social mobility is so much more well received.
Gingee: I mean are you telling me I should stop what I'm doing? I mean, lots of Asian American artists, they exist, and they do this, but it's not exactly like you can tell them to stop or anything. We need representation too. How can we do that in a way that isn't hurting anybody? That's what I'm wondering.
Victor: It’d be difficult, but I’d ask someone if they could make a new form of music.
Gingee: Well, that's why I think electronic music is important. Electronic music came from black music, too. It's become almost universal. I mean it is also very associated with white people. What about poetry?
Victor: Well, spoken word is definitely a black form. I mean the roots are very obvious in the kind of call-and-response and its roots in the black church and slave chants. But even though it’s inherently cultural for the black community, the fact that it's popular now is… I'm not sure what to make of it. Because there are all these like white kids with colored hair at poetry slams.
Gingee: It's funny, though, because growing up, a lot of the people making hip hop we're also Latino.
Victor: That’s a much more nuanced conversations, but yes, there is also a history of of Latinos taking on black culture. Of course, because a lot of them are Afro-Latino. But many aren’t. It kind of speaks to the complexity of culture and ownership.
Gingee: There's a lot of blackness within Latino-ness. Filipinos, we have lots of Latin influences too, like most of us are Catholic, and we have Spanish last names. We have a lot of commonalities.
Victor: Yes, but are there black Filipinos? Which would make the conversation a little more complicated?
Gingee: There are Filipinos with dark skin and kinky hair, called the Negritos, or the Igarots. I’m obviously not one of them, but, yeah, Filipinos occupy a very broad spectrum. But, if the Latinos can do it, I feel like we can do it too. Yeah, if people are acting like a fool, I’m not down if they’re disrespectful. Yeah, these are all very interesting questions and they’re questions that I think about while making my music. I keep thinking, what would Filipino-American music sound like? Like, if I close my eyes, would I know if music were Filipino or not? I’m just creating that sound as best I can. But problematicness, should we really use that as a way to keep each other silent?
Victor: Well if we don’t watch out for problematic behavior—
Gingee: Right, you could justify anything. I know what you mean. But do you know what I mean? That we shouldn’t just shut up and be quiet and not do anything because we don’t want to offend anyone. We shouldn’t just have nothing because we’re afraid to use anything.
Victor: It's a difficult situation for a lot of Asian Americans because of a lot of us are kind of defined via two extreme, the white extreme and the black extreme. It can be hard to navigate..
Gingee: That's why I feel like using our cultural heritage is the answer. You’re Chinese, right?.Do you know much about Chinese music? If you were in artist, would you sample Chinese music? Would you feel comfortable saying that was yours? What is yours? What you grew up around? I feel like all the sounds that were around me are a part of me.
Victor: Well, what I grew up around is definitely a part of me whether I reject it or not. I'm not sure if it's exactly mine.
Gingee: What if you've been singing or wrapping in a language if something that was imposed upon as the English language? What then? Rather than dwell on that, I think it's more important to move forward and create. We have to make art. And do it in a respectful way and have these conversations. You have to make a distinction between the people who mock it, and the people who’ve read about it and studied it and know about it. You have to look at it case by case.
Victor: Yeah, I think I'm more of your opinion that there's a spectrum.
Ginger: What aren’t we appropriating? I can rock out, but what if rock doesn’t speak to you? I prefer beats. I love hip-hop. I think percussion is a part of Filipino culture, not something that we stole from black people, but something that's part of my tribal like culture, with pounding drumbeats. I mean, they're probably not rapping, but they're doing some kind of poetry or chanting. I think it's all about learning about your own culture and your own music as much as you can, appreciating it, and bringing it to the present day.
Victor: I think that's really interesting the way that you are connecting beats rapping to Filipino culture. I think that is something a lot of Asian American artists don't actually think about. Like Aquafina is like, a Korean girl who grew up in New York, and then she decided, “Hey, I want to do hip hop.” but it's not like any of the elements really resonate with her genealogy in any way.
Gingee: Yeah, I saw her Margaret Cho thing.
Victor: I hated it. [laughs] What did you think?
Gingee: I mean, I thought they were little things in there that were funny, but for the most part, I kind of found her a little bit problematic. Maybe not for the same reasons. I mean, it was all about her pussy.
Victor: She’s using blackness to throw off the model minority trope. She doesn't need to have cornrows to be insulting black people. She’s saying that she can only be funny, gross, loud, and edgy as long as she emulates black people and black art forms. She’s imbuing blackness with those negative traits.
Gingee: I get what you mean, and I appreciate it. It’s stereotyping, but still, change happens and evolution happens in stages. It's like, the whole call out culture leaves us frozen. We can't do anything. Like might as well not create. I might as well not do anything, or someone's going to be offended. I think we just have to keep pushing and creating, and we don't agree with it, okay, let him know. Like I'm glad they fucking exist and are making this. I'm glad there's an Asian American woman out there rapping because that's a step in the right direction for us to start existing out there. Civil Rights movement didn't all just happen at once. So let's just keep creating and keep moving forward.
Victor: Right, at the end of the day, I'm glad you're here and that you’re loud and you're speaking and you're creating and you're making music. All the little critiques that I have about other people are secondary. One more question. Could you speak about the intergenerational diasporic connection, like you were talking about with the Filipino American artists mentoring you when you were young?
Gingee: Yes, that’s very important to me because we just have to keep passing on the the traditions, the knowledge, the networks, the infrastructure that we’ve created in this whole movement to keep it going. We can't be selfish. I actually taught DJing for nine years to middle schools and high schools and after school programs. So I've passed on this DJing thing to a lot of kids and have given them this opportunity to pursue music. I think it’s really important to give back.