I was born in San Francisco, California to parents born and raised in the Philippines. According to the norm of Filipino families, music was an integral part of our daily lives.
We had a large family living relatively close alongside an even larger Filipino community that came with a plethora of adopted aunts and uncles. Each family celebration featured singing, performances by different family members and, as is often the case in most Asian families, a very typical “let me show you how talented my child is” mentality. “. On top of that, my father’s dream was to be a musician, so our house was full of guitars and basses. My dad often invited our neighbors to jam in our garage and he always played music in the house. He loved OPM, original Filipino music and classic rock.
Although I didn’t necessarily choose the music for myself, I gravitated toward it like white on rice, pun intended. My dad swears he heard me banging on the wall when I was eight, so he bought me a Costco drum set. From there I learned guitar, then keyboards, then I started learning production by watching YouTube videos and songwriting by studying my favorite artists. Do you remember those family gatherings? I spent most of them, drumsticks in hand, singing for the adults while my siblings were allowed to play with all my cousins. When my siblings and I were old enough, my dad had us in a family group. I also started playing with a bunch of local bands. I remember I was 15 and 16, waiting outside the bar for our set to start. I went in, I played with the adults, then I had to leave. I basically worked my way through middle school and high school. In those years, my dad was a bit of a dad-ager, hauling our gear, setting up my drums, running our PA system, etc. It seems that my path was traced from an early age, as if I was born and raised to be a musician. However, as is also common in Filipino families, music was not really a worthy career. So, instead of pursuing my passion, I found myself, rather reluctantly, in college on the right track for pre-law.
Honestly, I didn’t think the music would happen to me either. Growing up, I loved artists like Coldplay, Nirvana, Dave Grohl and John Bonham. But the reality was that these artists didn’t look like me at all. When I thought about it, I didn’t see many artists who looked like me “succeeding”.
Now, finally, slowly but surely, I feel like a change is happening. The world is mixing. I see Asian actors directing films. There are more Asian artists coming out. Artists like HER and Olivia Rodrigo. There are also successful K-pop stars in the US, and I hear conversations from labels about how countries like the Philippines are great markets to break into due to their mass music consumption. .
For a while, I drifted away from my culture. I felt suffocated by it all. I didn’t want to be surrounded by my family all the time. I wanted friends outside of my community. I felt disconnected from the Tagalog songs that my parents loved. I craved pizza dinners instead of the homemade pancit my dad made. I didn’t want to be a “Filipino-American” artist. I avoided the Filipino press thinking I might be pigeonholed and it might affect what I wanted to achieve in the mainstream market. Do you remember those Filipino family parties and how I was always the entertainment? Do you remember the constant concerts every weekend during my formative years? As incredible as it may seem to develop my ability to perform in front of people no matter the circumstances, it also gave me social anxiety, something I became known for when I first entered the music scene. I had to figure out, and still do, how to hold myself at a party when I’m not playing. How can I go out without “contributing something” to every event? Who am I without a guitar or drumsticks in hand? Who am I without my parents and grandparents dictating my every move? And how could I make music a career even if everyone in my family insists that I come up with a backup plan (read “go back to school to get a nursing or law degree”) when it did not work ?
I moved to Los Angeles hoping to get away from everything – my family, my culture, all of it – but what the distance did was bring me back to my culture. Although I was beginning to find myself through my independence, I missed my father’s home cooking and found myself asking him to send me his recipes. Now I have introduced Filipino cuisine and restaurants to all my new friends and my team.
When I sat alone in my apartment in Los Angeles watching the news of attacks on Asians, I felt immensely sad, thinking of my parents and grandparents, how this could have been one of them. And yet, they are incredible people who have done what they could to improve their lives and those of their families. I admit that I fell into a little depression because of the cruelty I saw in the world.
I started thinking that people didn’t like me and weren’t going to like me because of the color of my skin – and that I wouldn’t make it because my parents were born in the Philippines. I had skin whitening soaps growing up because fair skin looks better, and I needed to keep my skin clear, so I bought some more. I even found myself avoiding the sun, wearing chunky sweatshirts in the scorching LA summer heat to avoid the dark caramel color I would turn after a few moments of direct sunlight. But after a while, I started to see the support I had from my friends, my family, my team, and most importantly, my fans, many of whom were Asian. I saw communities coming together to defend the AAPI family against such unwarranted hatred, and I began to feel a surge of pride in being Filipino.
Recently, I was asked to go to the Philippines to participate in the Miss Universe Philippines pageant. It was my first time there and I fell in love with the country. I liked being able to speak Tagalog to people. I loved being able to connect with my Filipino fans, many of whom have been with me since day one, and it made me want to do more to embrace my roots.
Don’t get me wrong, I still sometimes struggle with my background. When I look around in most writing rooms, I don’t see many people who look like me. I’ve actually taken a few writing trips to Nashville, and while I love the community there, it’s really hard not to feel like an outsider in almost every room I walk into. I’m on an amazing list with amazing artists, but I’m the only person of color on this list.
There aren’t many Asians on the major playlists and most of the ones I see tend to be half-Asian. However, I think, and I choose to believe, that everything is changing, and it can change.
I also realized that it was up to me to start making that change. So, I started asking my team to put me in rooms with more ethnic communities. Now I jump at the chance to attend events like the recent ASCAP AAPI writing camp, and love finding and collaborating with Asian artists. I look forward to touring more Asian countries and returning to the Philippines. I may not have always enjoyed being part of a marginalized community, but now that I’m on stage facing a sea of faces singing my songs to me, many of which sound like mine, and as I did l experience supporting the AAPI community, especially during AAPI month, I realized how special my journey is. I realized how connected I am to such an amazing and resilient community.
And, perhaps most importantly, I realized how much the world needs to try some of my homemade adobo.