Miss A knows the power of awareness—all too well. In 2021, she released a video titled “Islamophobia,” where she raps about the discrimination many Muslims face and its destructive impact from a very young age (“When they go to school Islamophobia’s in the streets / Even in their classrooms, even teachers forced a preach / And they’ll be going home from school and cry themselves to sleep / Thinking what they’d do wrong was it cause of they beliefs”).
The Morobeats rapper and visual artist is impassioned about the vital role of culture in creating our art, and that meant taking pride in our own but also working consciously to challenge perceptions and educate whenever possible. “It’s always your choice to change what you see and perceive,” she raps in “Islamophobia,” which she defines as both fear and belittling of Muslims.
Alongside her sister Fateeha, they represent a perspective not always seen and heard in the media, which has traditionally shown a majority of Catholic and Luzon-centric (specifically Metro Manila) narratives. For Miss A, hip hop is the perfect medium to share her—and her people’s—stories in the most authentic way possible. “We are not strangers to poetry if we know our roots,” she says.
In a HipHopDX Asia exclusive, Miss A tells us about how she first started as a rapper, her influences, and how she thinks Pinoy hip hop ties into her roots and in general, with Filipino culture.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hi, Miss A! Can you introduce yourself?
Hi, I’m Aaliyah, a.k.a. Miss A or BURGS. I love painting and rapping, dogs and cats, diving into our culture and roots. What I love best is being in my most natural habitat: BOOKSTORES!
As someone who’s named after the late icon Aaliyah, how would you describe your musical background? Is it a huge thing in your family?
My musical background gravitates towards my dad [DJ Medmessiah] playing different kinds of vinyl every day [as well as] scratching and having different people from different musical backgrounds play or share their own taste in music and such.
Growing up in a very diverse musical environment only brings me down to one narrative” we’re all connected because of music. My family is all of the above, hahaha! [They’re] musicians, artists, musically inclined and of course huge fans of music—dancers, painters, you name it! Family to me isn’t just by blood though.
You alluded to late ‘80s/early ‘90s hip hop as influences, growing up their music in your track “Wit Tha Funk.” What made you gravitate towards this era more than other artists from other decades?
Everybody knows that my father is a huge hip hop head, which naturally explains why most of my and my sister’s influences in music come from that era. Which we’re also really thankful for.
How did it start for you, making music?
I started writing poetry and essays in my elementary days. My dad would encourage me to freestyle in exchange for treats at McDonald’s when I was 9, embarrassingly.
From then on, I took interest in poetry, having Edgar Allan Poe as one of my main influences. In my pre-teens, I dove into more poetry and books, where I usually took some of my references from songs. I would list down unfamiliar words every day and try to use them in a sentence and implement them in conversations, songs, etcetera.
I naturally took interest in rap when I turned 15 and did my first gig in underground venues in Cavite. Back then, money wasn’t really a concern for me, it was more of this yearning feeling of having to see my name on one of the posters—that meant everything to me. That joy would last the whole trip home as I recall. Even until the next day. It really grounded me as a person and as an MC.
You often allude to your youth in your songs but make it clear that you’ve always been a fan of music before your time. What do you think of hip hop today? Are there particular contemporary artists or styles that interest you?
Today, hip hop leaped [a long way] from before our time. Everything has changed: even with lyrical formats, rhyme schemes, and rhythm. It’s evolving into this eccentric style that we’re all still getting to know and I’m excited to see more of it.
One artist that really interests me is Kendrick Lamar, and how he composes his songs and albums. Everything in his album is such a banger and a lyrical masterpiece, almost as brilliant as André 3000.
Rihanna and Beyoncé also interest me—no explanation is needed for these queens and their greatness in the industry. With that said, I try to explore more genres and artists like alternative, indie, shoegaze, blues, jazz, and all sorts of crazy, mixed genres out there.
You’ve strongly addressed multiple pressing issues in your songs, including islamophobia, sexism, and misogyny. Given that the latter two are especially rampant, and often favored, in hip hop’s machismo structure, what do you think we should do to address these historically gendered notions and roles in hip hop today?
Just do you! Because when people appreciate your music, it doesn’t matter what gender you are. Anyway, people are more accepting nowadays when it comes to gender issues.
A lot of famous artists like Lil Nas X, Doja Cat, Sam Smith, and Kehlani, to name a few, draw inspiration by breaking out of the mold of society’s social constructs and gender norms. Even hip hop artists here in the Philippines are breaking out of that mold by just simply being their authentic selves.
What do you think is hip hop’s unique role within Philippine society?
In my opinion, there are a lot of varieties here in the hip hop scene that make us striking and distinctive. We have one race but diverse languages, and rich culture, and the youth here are also able to express their political views freely.
Although one thing is for sure, we take advantage of our lineage and ethnicity. Dating way back to our ancestors, the Maguindanaon, Tausug, and even Igorot, who have poetry embedded in their blood.
Poetry was used for rituals, festivities, and tribal gatherings that are carried into this modern world. We are not strangers to poetry if we know our roots. It runs in our veins. Our Maguindanao roots used poetry as a chant called bayokwhich is used to mend rivalries between families, heal old wounds, also for marriage proposals, and more. It just goes to show how words have so much power.
Here in the Philippines, we are all hungry. We strive for the best because we’re all starving to achieve our goals: starving to make our parents proud, to provide for our families, to be heard, to prove a point, and literally a lot of people here are starving. That alone pushes us further to strive not only in hip hop but also in our country. That reminds us of hip hop’s unique role in Philippine society.
How would you describe the current Filipino music scene? And what do you like best and least about it?
The music scene here is progressing at its own pace even under the circumstances of financial challenges, we’re still progressing. We’re not blithe about our environment here [taking a] political stand, that’s what I like most about the music scene.
We also have this shyness in sharing our music with other artists that I think humble us down in the scene, which I really love. We treat other artists like family.
The least thing I like? For one, some Filipino artists understand “progression” in a different direction (when it comes to music). Especially in the hip hop scene, a lot of artists lost touch with their purpose in their music, losing identity as well.
We try too hard to be someone we’re not, to make music that we’re not, just to fit into the standard of people who don’t know the real definition of music or [only] think they do. Our culture is richer than pure honey, gold, and diamonds—we have something that cannot be stolen. Yet we still try to copy other cultures. Some artists have no idea how to use the resources already laid out here in the Philippines. And that’s what’s lacking.
As part of Morobeats, what do you think about the subject of regionalism and/or the Manila-centric focus that dominates the industry and often, the conversation? What are your thoughts on how the community as a whole and power players should move forward?
Here’s the thing: Shit. Happens. All. The. Time. It just happens. It happens everywhere, in every situation. Reality speaks LOUD for everyone. The only thing that’s different Is how you’ll react, and what action you will do next to define that situation.
It’s not uncommon for these things to happen in the industry. It happens to ALL industries where bigger artists tend to overshadow thriving artists. I’ve experienced this both in the art scene and the music scene.
How to move forward? Keep doing what you’re doing, using what you love most, doing power moves into your craft, working harder, and ignoring all the excess noise because they exist for a short time as all issues do. Get up every day and make something out of it! Don’t dwell on something that happened yesterday because all of those are distractions. It’ll die out anyways, just keep focusing on your craft and keep supporting your comrades. And you’ll eventually get to where you aim to be. Move forward not backward.
Morobeats once explained your signature one-take music video style and how it garnered comments such as “repetitive” from some viewers. You said you wanted to deliver a realistic visual accompaniment to your songs, especially since the luxurious lifestyle of hip hop doesn’t apply to you. I think personally, a lot of it is impractical in the Philippines, but a lot of it can be viewed as aspirational. What do you think?
I totally agree. I think a luxurious lifestyle of hip hop here doesn’t apply to Filipinos, not because we don’t deserve luxury, [but it] is not very accessible for everyone here in the Philippines. And not everyone can understand luxury here.
It might come [off] as aspirational for others, however, for others, it isn’t, surprisingly. Because Filipinos are very practical thinkers, we’re always in survival mode. It really comes down on who you’ll ask, everyone’s situation is different.
“Pinoy pride” is a very strong sentiment in the Philippines, and hip hop is not an exception. What does Pinoy hip hop pride look and feel like for you?
For me, Pinoy hip hop pride means you know your roots, and your ancestors, and are in touch with your family. Having that knowledge and being able to channel it in your music is what Pinoy hip hop pride looks like, that we will not change anything in our culture no matter what country we end up in just to blend in with someone else’s culture. It means being uniquely Pinoy!
Take JoKoy, for example, he takes so much pride in being a Pinoy in the U.S. He educates his audience through humor, that’s Pinoy pride.
Aside from music, you mentioned you are also a visual artist/painter working under BURGS. How does this connect with your work as Miss A?
I used to resist [my work as] BURGS being associated with Miss A. But the harder I try, the more it finds a way to unite with each other. I loved art since I was a child. I used to draw disfigured women posing with colored dresses and outfits at 8 years old. Hard cringe but look where it got me.
I’d copy Disney characters out of a coloring book, specifically the princesses. I’m very excited about how I am developing as an artist and working on incorporating more of myself into my character in terms of painting.
My childhood, roots, and experiences are my only influences in art, and other artists I can’t disclose. I’m striving to add more things that could influence my art in a way that would benefit me. It’s a very complex thing to explain when it comes to my art. I’m still exploring, but I have my resources ready. I just need to piece it all together.