Filipinos’ hip-hop anthem
Hey, man, all of you listen
Here comes the real Filipino
Came from the barrio -- Sapang Bato
Went to L.A. and labored
In order to help my mother
Because life is so hard
But the disposition’s still bright.
SO begins the story of Allan Pineda, a member of the hip-hop band the Black Eyed Peas, who two years ago wrote a song about his journey from a poverty-stricken district in the Philippines to Los Angeles’ Atwater Village.
The lyrics were personal, written entirely in Tagalog, the dominant language of the Philippines. Pineda wanted to recount his experience as a Filipino American but wasn’t sure how much the song would resonate with others -- especially the Black Eyed Peas’ teenage fan base.
The song, “Bebot” (Tagalog slang for “hot chick”), appeared on the Black Eyed Peas’ multiplatinum-selling album, “Monkey Business,” released in June 2005. The album contained several chart-toppers, but “Bebot” -- as Pineda expected -- wasn’t one of them.
But over the last year, “Bebot” has become a phenomenon in ways Pineda, 31, said he could never have imagined.
The musical story of his immigrant experience has become an unlikely rallying cry in California’s Filipino American community.
With its choppy beat and shouting chorus of “Filipino! Filipino!,” the song became a showstopper at weddings and birthday parties. Teenagers -- many of whom don’t even speak Tagalog -- choreographed dance routines to it.
But it was the lyrics, not the beat, that had lasting resonance.
The Filipino American community is famous for putting its cultural identity behind assimilation. Though they’re the second-largest Asian group in California behind the Chinese, they have never established set “Filipino” neighborhoods -- the equivalent of Monterey Park for Chinese Americans or Little Saigon for Vietnamese Americans. There is a historic Filipinotown west of downtown L.A., but the U.S. census found that less than 15% of its residents are actually Filipino.
Many Filipinos arrive in the United States speaking English, immediately making assimilation easier.
“Part of the problem is we blend in so well,” said Winston Emano, an executive at an L.A.-based public relations firm and a community activist. “We have a rapid rate of assimilation. Put a Filipino in Antarctica, and in one month they’ll be one with the penguins.”
For Emano and others, “Bebot” is a vibrant reminder of their cultural past, an easy-to-digest history of their shared experience.
“It’s a cultural bridge,” Emano said. “Kids say, ‘Hey, he’s talking in my parents’ language.’ ”
Pineda was surprised by the passions “Bebot” stirred. So, early this year, he financed two music videos for the song.
The first paid homage to Stockton’s Little Manila, which was the largest Filipino community outside the Philippines in the 1930s and ‘40s. It showed how migrant workers toiled to provide money for their families back home and offered a glimpse of the racism early immigrants encountered.
The second video showed Pineda’s early days hanging out in L.A. with his bandmates and mostly Filipino American friends.
The videos were big hits among Filipinos, who plastered Web links to them on MySpace and YouTube.
But Pineda now had a bigger goal. Though his record label felt the videos had limited prospects because they were sung in Tagalog, he hoped to prove the label wrong. He wanted the videos to air on MTV and VH1.
“There’s still a struggle,” Pineda said. “We just got to keep trying.”
When eating, we use our hands
What we eat, chicken adobo
The balut being sold at the
Share the glass already
My friend, let’s start drinking.
PINEDA grew up in a slum outside Angeles City on the island of Luzon. His mother was Filipino. He never met his father, who was an American in the U.S. Air Force, Pineda said.
His first connection to the U.S. came when a charity group found him an American sponsor, who started sending him the equivalent of 7 cents a day to help pay for food. Pineda had problems with his eyes, so his sponsor -- a lawyer named Joe Ben Hudgens -- wanted to adopt him so he could receive better medical care in the U.S.
His mother agreed, and after seven years of waiting, he arrived to live with Hudgens, a deputy Los Angeles County counsel. It was 1989; Pineda was 14.
Hudgens was living in the Wilshire district at the time but decided to look for a neighborhood where there were mostly Filipinos. The best he could find was a block in Atwater Village, a diverse section of northeast L.A. that included some Filipinos.
“I didn’t want him to be lonely. I suppose I was thinking, ‘Let the neighborhood help raise him like they do in the Philippines,’ ” said Hudgens, now 69.
Hudgens, a single parent who spent long hours at work, encouraged Pineda to have friends over any time. Soon, they were practicing rap and dancing.
“I still don’t quite know how all this happened,” Hudgens said of Pineda’s fame. “He has a performer’s instinct. He loves to entertain.”
Pineda attended John Marshall High School, which, like the surrounding neighborhood, was a mix of cultures. Despite the cultural shift, he was thrilled to be in America. By 16, he was immersing himself in the local hip-hop scene. He went to parties at homes and nightclubs across Southern California, where he made connections that led to the formation of the Black Eyed Peas. The group rose to prominence in the late 1990s with an upbeat brand of rap and stunning dance moves. Their multiculturalism -- Filipino, Latino and black members -- set them apart.
But Pineda said that despite the success, he still felt a yearning to write and sing about his culture.
He wanted to pen a song about his roots that people could dance to. It took him about two days in the band’s sound studio in Atwater Village. Bandmate Will.I.Am, the group’s producer, came up with the beats and started Pineda on his way by chanting “bebot, bebot, bebot” in the cadence familiar to fans today.
He struggled with the right words, so he called a friend’s mother for translations.
“It was a hard task,” Pineda said. “I’d never written a rap in Tagalog before. It’s hard to rhyme.”
The song is filled with cultural references central to Filipino American life: They celebrate by sharing beer, using their hands to eat the nation’s signature dish (chicken adobo) and swallowing balut, fermented duck eggs still in their shell.
“Every Filipino can relate,” Pineda said.
In the modern video, the band arrives at a party riding a Jeepney, the ubiquitous mini-bus seen in the Philippines. An opening scene shows a doting Filipino mother asking one of Pineda’s bandmates if he wants chicken adobo.
The historic video resonated in other ways. Set in 1936, it begins with Pineda working in a Stockton asparagus field. Pineda said he wasn’t aware of Stockton’s history until he learned about it from the videos’ director, Patricio Ginelsa.
“I was overwhelmed,” Pineda said. “I could relate. They were farmers doing the same thing they do in the Philippines. And their main objective was sending money back home too.”
The Little Manila Foundation has been trying for years to generate interest in preserving the Rizal Social Club and other structures on the decaying Stockton street that once was filled with Filipino farmworkers.
Dillion Delvo, the group’s president, credits the video for a recent surge of interest in his district and efforts to preserve it.
“It’s very powerful for kids to see images of people who look like us from the past,” added Emano. “It opens up an entirely new world to them, one that they certainly can’t find in their history books in school. And it’s come from arguably one of the world’s most successful pop bands.”
Observe all the beautiful girls
Your beauty really drives me
The sweetness that is never
You’re the only one I want to be
UNTIL the song was released last year, the word “bebot” was something of a relic, even in the Filipino American community. Both the modern and the historic videos are filled with beautiful Filipino women dancing.
But as the song became a community touchstone, it also set off a backlash.
Some Filipino women objected to the portrayal of women in the modern video -- both the sexy dancing “bebots” and the nagging mother.
Pineda said the portrayal of women in the video is a loving one, based on his memories of growing up.
“That’s the trait right there,” he said. “Go to a Filipino household and the mom is always trying to feed you. They’re always trying to advise you.”
Liza Marie S. Erpelo, 33, a language arts professor in Northern California, said it felt stereotypical to her.
“The mother was doing all this screaming,” Erpelo said. “I giggled at first; then I thought, ‘Why am I laughing?’ ”
One of Erpelo’s classes at Skyline College in San Bruno deals with Filipino stereotypes and the cultural isolation many Filipinos feel here. She is now using “Bebot” in her class, prompting heated discussions about the value of Pineda’s song as a rallying cry for the Filipino community.
“What merit does that song have, saying, ‘Hot chick, hot chick’?” she asked.
Whatever the effect, the videos’ sexy look definitely had an MTV flavor. And Pineda and director Ginelsa felt the videos had a shot at both MTV and VH1 despite the fact they were sung in Tagalog.
The “Bebot” team got excited when MTV sent a correspondent to do a segment on the making of the videos.
But the report ran only on MTV Chi, a year-old niche channel aimed at Chinese Americans.
By the fall, Pineda was more sanguine. He was pleased the song was a hit in Asia. He also was touched by the way “Bebot” was embraced by the Filipino community.
“I hoped it would be played in the States, but it is more popular in Asia, which I appreciate,” he said. “The main purpose was to get this out to the Filipino community. People don’t realize there’s a huge one in America.”
You’re Filipino -- shout it out
If you’re beautiful -- shout it out
If your life is valuable -- c’mon
Thank you for your support.
ON a recent Saturday night at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A., Pineda accepted the Role Model Award from the Filipino American Library during a formal gala attended by hundreds who dined on chicken adobo made specially by the hotel kitchen.
Pineda was introduced by fellow Filipino entertainer Tia Carrere, who said, “His story is the American dream.”
“Bebot” began blaring from the P.A. system and the guests jumped to their feet to cheer as the famously fashionable Pineda bounced to the stage in a navy blue suit, pink tie and glossy white sneakers.
After a few words of thanks in Tagalog, Pineda dedicated the award to his Filipino mother and adoptive father, both of whom beamed from the audience.
“I want to thank the Filipino community for embracing me as a Filipino artist in this game,” he said. “I represent Filipinos every day, every second. I’m a proud Filipino.”
Pineda shimmied and leaped offstage as once again “Bebot” filled the room.