- Lost in Translation:Filipino Diaspora(s), Postcolonial Hip Hop, and the Problems of Keeping It Real for the "Contentless"1 Black Eyed Peas
Music critics have almost universally snubbed the pop hip hop power group the Black Eyed Peas in both their preachy earlier incarnation ("the world's most boring rap group," raved Rolling Stone [Hoard 2005]) and their more recent Fergiefied forays into poppier terrain (which are "so . . . unoriginal," sighed Pop Matters.com [Taylor 2005]). This critical response is telling, not just because it may be an accurate assessment of a group that hawks ice-cold Dr. Pepper as readily as lukewarm social consciousness, but because of what gets left out of all the haranguing: The last two Peas albums each contained a mainstream American pop anomaly—a track that is at least partially in Tagalog (the dominant language of Manila and the areas surrounding it, and the lingua franca among diasporic Filipinos), co-written and fronted by the Peas' Filipino MC, Apl.de.ap.
The Peas' penchant for mixing up bits and pieces of various and sundry sounds and subcultures into number one hit after number one hit provokes the ire of critics and prompts former fans to cry sell-out. But it is also precisely the group's mainstream success and their genre-hopping aesthetic that afford Apl the position to create tracks like 2003's "The APL Song" and 2005's "Bebot," songs that begin to address the elision of Asian Americans and Asian American experiences from pop music and of Filipinos from American culture and history.
This essay will address Apl's attempts to tell alternative stories from within the margins of mainstream pop. But it will also examine the ways in which Filipino American fans build on the Peas' music and their consumption of it to recount their own diasporic narratives and develop projects meant to clear a space for Filipino expressive identity in the United States and reinsert Filipino experiences into American political, cultural, and hip hop histories. Crafting counter-hegemonic discourse out of the music of a group that is unabashedly commercial and whose mainstream success at least partially pivots on a heavily commodified multiculturalism is, of course, extremely complicated. It's also a tactic that, born of diasporic experiences and rooted in the aesthetic language [End Page 108] of Filipino strategies of colonial resistance, speaks to both the need for alternative ways of studying the engagement of underrepresented groups with popular music and the stories that "contentless" mainstream pop can tell.
Making the Band: The Black Eyed Peas' Story
Apl.de.ap's (or simply Apl, as he is usually referred to) portion of the Black Eyed Peas' story is something of a grandiose, star-studded version of the narratives that shape and fill the crisscrossing circuitry of the Filipino labor diaspora, the network of Philippines nationals who live and work abroad, often supporting their families and the Philippines' struggling economy with remittances sent back home. Apl was born Allan Pineda in a barrio in the Pampanga province of the Philippines, the son of a Filipina mother and a Black American soldier who left before Pineda was born. During Pineda's childhood, an American man named Joe Hudgens began sponsoring him, eventually brought him to Los Angeles, and offered to formally adopt him. Besides giving him access to specialists who could treat an eye condition he has, the adoption and the move to the United States also seemed to Pineda, like so many Filipinos who live or work abroad, like an opportunity to earn money to help his impoverished family back home. He agreed.
Pineda met fellow future Pea William Adams (a.k.a. Will.I.Am) through Hudgens, who was friends with Adams' uncle. Adams already had a reputation as an artistic eccentric that helped him, and later Pineda, to navigate the racial, cultural, and social geography that defined a childhood growing up in the projects of East Los Angeles and being bused to a predominantly white school. Together, they began hanging out at a club called Balistyx where they would enter rhyming and breakdancing contests. An early rap group they formed called Atbann Klann was signed to...