Hip hop has always been about freedom of creative expression. In the Philippine hip hop scene, colonial and geographical factors generated linguistic differences that manifest themselves in the industry until today. This diversity might be a divisive factor at first glance, but it paved the way for a more genuine expression of the richness of the Filipino language and culture.

Prevalence of Tagalog Rap

Hip hop began in the Philippines as a colonial influence from American music. From then on, it went to develop its own identity through the innovations of pioneer artists. The beats may have been replicated from foreign styles, but Filipino hip hop artists over time chose to rap in their native languages, the most common of which is Tagalog, the primary language in Manila, the country’s capital. Since the commercial and industrial center lies in the city, the most popular hip hop songs were written in Tagalog.

Artists who use the native language have more direct access to media platforms and connections that enabled their songs to be popularized across the country. (Editor’s note: While English is also an official language in the Philippines—apart from Filipino—approximately 82 million Filipinos speak Tagalog. In a 2015 data cited by the British Council in the Philippines, English is reportedly spoken by more than 14 million Filipinos. The country has been touted as the third-largest English-speaking country in the world, next to the US and the UK, which appeals tremendously to and largely fuels the trade industry.)

Two of the most iconic hip hop songs are sung in Tagalog by rap legend and Pinoy hip hop pioneer, Francis Magalona, popularly known as Francis M or Kiko (a popular Filipino nickname for Francis).

Although the rap king generally sung and rapped in both Tagalog and English, his two classic hits “Mga Kababayan” (My Fellowmen) and “Tayo’y Mga Pinoy” (We Are Filipinos) in the 90s, remain to be the most popular nationalistic rap anthems in the country today.

The prevalence of the use of the Tagalog language in Pinoy hip hop enabled the artists to sing about social and political issues that are well understood and experienced by the masses. A known politically vocal hip hop artist today is Aristotle Pollisco, professionally known as Gloc-9. His songs such as “Upuan” ft. Jeazell Grutas, “Kalye” ft. Yosha, and “Sirena” ft. Ebe Dancel, talked about various issues such as crimes, homophobia, political power play, and drug abuse. The brilliance of his storytelling was amplified by the use of language that spoke about the lives of the people, to the people.

Tagalog rap is also popular in rap battles that are known for resembling the traditional Filipino balagtasan, which is a poetic form of debating thoughts using verses. The most highly known rap battle of today is FlipTop, established in 2010 by Alaric Riam Yuson, also known as Anygma. With tens of millions of subscribers in its reach—and remaining steadfastly independent—FlipTop was able to promote to the public the contemporary Filipino hip hop culture by featuring both underground and mainstream artists.

Its most-viewed battle now has over 51 million views and features rappers Loonie and Abra against rappers Shehyee and Smugglaz. The battle dominantly used Tagalog that incorporated street slangs (and slurs) which further hyped the extremity of emotions brought about, often by solid banter-style rapping or at times, in the same cadence and energy as spoken poetry. The impact of such battles is deep and far-reaching, and completely reflective of the realness of the artists’ messages.

Bilingual vs Conyo rap

Despite the naturalization of Pinoy hip hop, its colonial aspect never fully disappeared, as in the general Filipino culture. As of this year, Filipinos hold the second-highest spot in Asia in terms of English proficiency. Most Filipinos are bilingual (Editor’s note: There are more than 120 languages spoken in the Philippines), which translates into their music, especially in rap which almost always includes English words and local slang derived from a foreign language.

The term ‘Taglish’ was coined to refer to code-switching, or alternating between the English and Tagalog languages. Such form of speech is applied in almost all forms of self-expression, not just in music. However, mixing English and Tagalog in speech has been downplayed negatively by some as being conyo. The word is slang that refers to urban elites who manifest arrogance.

Conyo talk pertains to supposedly their habit of mixing Tagalog and English while using excessive phatic terms such as “oh my god” and “like parang” (like, for example). Because of the negative implications of the term, Taglish rappers have been accused of conyo rapping which, to most, is indicative of their social status and class.

The artists, in turn, aggressively deny such accusations, arguing that bilingualism does not automatically translate to being conyo. Contrary to the negative connotations, bilingualism is a powerful tool for bringing an artist’s message beyond just the country.

For instance, Taglish is being used by the growing Filipino-American hip hop community which is bringing the country’s culture and music to the international scene. Artists such as Ruby Ibarra, Rocky Rivera, and Klassy have been rapping about themes of empowerment and stories of Filipino women that should be heard.

Regional rap (Non-Tagalog rap)

Despite Tagalog and English rap being the mainstream preference, more regional artists are taking the stage with songs written in their own dialects or languages. But because of mainstream influence, regional music is being exoticized for its uncommonness. To combat this, both artists and labels or agencies are being more proactive towards promoting the country’s diversity.

Nowadays, it’s not considered too uncommon to hear Pinoy hip hop music sung or rapped in Bisaya, Cebuano, Chavacano, and Ilocano, among others. For instance, Pinoy boy group ALAMAT debuted in 2021 with their single “kbye” which features words from seven Filipino languages namely, Bisaya, Hiligaynon, Ilocano, Bicolano, Tagalog, Kapampangan, and Waray-Waray.

In an interview about their concept as a group, they said “We’d like to bring along bits and pieces of our heritage in our fashion, choreography, and music videos. The idea is that when the Filipino people, especially the youth, see our culture being used in modern entertainment, they’d feel a sense of prestige towards their own culture.” More regional hip hop artists include Bisaya rappers CLR, Cookie$, and Dhyanna Mitta, Cagayan de Oro’s Ace P, and the Waray group Agaron.

Bilingualism, and even multilingualism to some, are cultural trademarks of being a Filipino due to the country’s archipelagic structure and colonial origins. In the hip hop community, it is very important for rappers to be able to present themselves authentically. It all boils down to whether they are more comfortable rapping in English, Tagalog, a mixture of both, or other languages. The Philippine language should be showcased in its richness and in its ability to tell stories reflective of how far Pinoy hip hop has come.

Header image credit: All artist photos sourced from respective Facebook pages of Loonie, Gloc 9, Francis M, CLR, and Ruby Ibarra