From Twitter to theater: When artists get political
The line between politics and art has always been a blurry one, if it even exists at all. Artists have always had something to say about political issues – whether it was through a Spanish-era satirical poem written to poke fun at corrupt friars, songs written to protest martial law, or an installation that criticizes extrajudicial killings.
That is to say: art has always been made for more than just art’s sake. Actor Pen Medina, comedian Mae Paner, performer Carlos Celdran, filmmaker Kiri Dalena – these are only a few of the creators and creatives who have used their craft, their influence, or both, to speak out against social and political injustices.
Among them is veteran musician Jim Paredes, who is known for being a vocal critic of the current administration, and a supporter of the Liberal Party.
On his Twitter – which counts over 1.8 million followers – the musician has slammed many of the government’s moves, including everything from President Rodrigo Duterte’s misogynistic remarks and rape jokes, to the war on drugs, to the government’s relationship with China.
It was also on social media that Paredes defended vice-president Leni Robredo’s election victory by leading the #LeaveOurShadesAlone campaign. The campaign’s name referred to the Presidential Electorial Tribunal’s application of a 50% shading threshold to the vice-presidential ballot recount.
“Politics can be cruel, it can be extremely partisan, but it’s part of our lives and we must engage in it”
Paredes’ views have certainly not gone unchallenged, especially since he airs them mostly on social media, where, under the cloak of a heavily-filtered profile photo and backwards-spelled names, people can be as vicious as they want to be.
Being a recipient of so much anonymous hate has made Paredes more attuned to their language – so much so that even the most violent remarks don’t seem to bother him anymore.
“In my experience, you get a lot of backlash from trolls,” he said in a phone interview with Rappler. “The moment murahin ka or sabihin ‘mamatay sana mga anak mo’ or’ ma-rape sana mga daughters mo’ that doesn’t count anymore.”
(The moment they curse you or say ‘your children should die’ or ‘your daughters should get raped,’ that doesn’t count anymore)
“I know that’s a paid thing, you can almost predict what they’re gonna say. There are certain copy points, certain memos that they follow na pare-pareho (that are the same). Sa akin, balewala lahat yun (To me, that doesn’t mean anything),” he added.
The 'lonely path'
Despite the difficulties that come with criticizing the administration so publicly, Paredes said that it is “part of being human."
“Politics can be cruel, it can be extremely partisan, but it’s part of our lives and we must engage in it,” he said, though he stressed that he understands his fellow artists who don’t do so.
“I don’t criticize other artists who are not speaking out. They’re at that stage in their lives where they really feel, they don’t really care, or they’re taking care of their careers which is perfectly understandable,” he said.
For Paredes, his status as an artist and musician, he said, is something that allows him to amplify his message.
“As a citizen, I’ve been [speaking out] even before. But as an artist, I did so because I knew I had influence,” Paredes said. “But more than ever, I really feel that as an older artist now, and as an older person I realize that I cannot live a life where I’m trying to have everybody love me and please everybody.”
“Sometimes the truth is a lonely path and you have to walk it by yourself or with fewer people,” he said. “As an artist, it’s about being true…you can write great songs, do great movies and everything, but as you get older, you just try to be truer to yourself.”
Like Paredes, Agot Isidro is another artist speaking out from a public platform.
Her body of work as a singer/actress isn’t exactly political in nature – she currently stars in the teleserye Asintado, and is fresh from a theatrical run of relationship drama Changing Partners.
Off-screen and off-stage, it’s a different story. Another long time supporter of the Liberal Party, Isidro is currently being eyed to be part of the LP’s “resistance slate” in the upcoming senatorial elections in 2019.
While it would seem that Isidro is still being convinced to run (LP president senator Francis Pangilinan said as much), she is certainly not wishy-washy when it comes to her opinions on political matters.
When Duterte threatened the European Union and the United States to withdraw aid shortly into his term, Isidro very publicly called him a psychopath. Today, she continues to question current events – from the closure of Boracay, to the jet-ski ride taken by presidential aide Bong Go and son Sebastian to the Philippine Rise.
Like Paredes, her opinions have put her on the receiving end of hate messages from Duterte supporters, and like Paredes, it appears that Isidro has learned to brush off the backlash – no matter how violent it can get.
On Twitter recently, she retweeted the latest of the hate messages she has received: a death wish from Twitter user @marcosideshow, whose profile photo is a caricature of Hitler.
“mamatay ka na pls agot (please die Agot),” the user said, before wishing “massacre” and “rape” on her children.
“Such class,” she said in the retweet.
“Dear DDS, your threats and insults do not do anything to me BUT make me STRONGER. Kaya sige lang (so keep going),” she added in the next tweet.
For Isidro, her being an artist is incidental to her political outspokenness. “Why do I do it? Because kailangan na eh (I need to already),” she said in an interview at a Changing Partners press event.
“People really need to wake up. And I don’t do it because I’m an artist. [I do it] because I feel the injustice against other people, and I know that they can’t speak, so I’ll speak for them,” she added.
Creativity as commentary
While Isidro and Paredes have chosen social media as their platform to air their views and question what they see as injustice in the government, other artists chose their craft itself to do so.
For comedian Jun Sabayton, he takes to both his public platform and his craft to speak out on political and social issues.
“Patawanin mo muna yung mga tao, humalakhak na sila at bumukas na yung bibig nila, yun na yung chance mo para isubo mo sa kanila kung ano yung totoo na hindi harmful.”
Sabayton was particularly active during the 2016 presidential elections, when he starred in a voters’ education campaign, playing a candidate running under a party called Bagong Alyansang Ayaw sa Walang Hiya or BAYAW (literally: a new alliance against the shameless).
His character satirized the election culture in the Philippines, where many voters easily fall prey to flashy political ads and overreaching, empty promises.
For the most part, the satirical message got through to the audience – though at the time, Sabayton still had to clarify that he wasn’t running for president. Some simply didn’t understand the spoof – which is only one example of the challenge of using art to talk about politics.
Political satire in particular has been part of our history and culture (Sabayton named Marcelo H. Del Pilar’s Aba Ginoong Barya and Graciano Lopez Jaena’s Fray Botod as examples), though these days, Sabayton said that anything he says can earn violent reactions.
“Sa totoo lang, sa panahon ngayon, kahit magsabi ka ng totoo, aatakihin ka na dilawan ka bayaran pa, kahit naman dun sa dati pa, PNoy administration, GMA administration, nag-iingay na rin kami sa pamamagitan ng art,” Sabayton said in a phone interview with Rappler.
(The truth is, these days, even if you tell the truth, you will be called ‘dilawan’ or ‘biased’ even if you’ve been speaking out through art since the PNoy administration, the GMA administration)
The reactions he gets are so severe sometimes, with people threatening to kill him or hurt him, but this is why he continues to use humor to get his point across.
“Pag nagsabi ka ng truth na nagpapatawa ka, matatawa sila, pero andun yung truth in a way na parang hindi siya mabigat, pero alam mo na yun yung totoo (When you tell the truth using humor, they’ll laugh, but the truth is still there in a way that it isn’t heavy, but it’s clear),” he said.
“Patawanin mo muna yung mga tao, humalakhak na sila at bumukas na yung bibig nila, yun na yung chance mo para isubo mo sa kanila kung ano yung totoo na hindi harmful (make people laugh, let them laugh hard and when their mouths are open, that’s when you can feed them the truth in a way that’s not harmful),” he added.
Like Sabayton, the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) frames their political critique and social commentary through their chosen art form.
Born in the Martial Law era, PETA has always had political theater at its heart so that even when Martial Law ended in 1986, the group kept its political spirit alive as it went from the sweeping narrative of fighting for freedom, to discussing other social issues.
PETA’s roster of plays through the years says as much – from plays that paint the horrors of Martial Law such as 1988’s Macli-ing Dulag, to musicals like Rak of Aegis that pay tribute to Pinoy pop culture while talking about the resilience of Filipinos in the face of disaster.
In late 2017, PETA returned to “more quintessential PETA political theater” as artistic director Maribel Legarda puts it, when it staged Game of Trolls, a musical that aims to educate the youth on the Martial Law.
As Legarda shared, the play took at least a year to write – and involved a lot of focus group discussions with the target audience. It was a challenging process, one that sums up the the difficulty of balancing creativity and social commentary.
“It’s hard. [We do] content-driven theater, but it should be aesthetic,” she said, adding that the audience is another major consideration when they’re creating plays.
“Our audience is very important because were message driven, we don’t just go out there and perform to make ourselves feel better. We want to be able to communicate with our audience and create a forum where they can communicate back,” she said.
While their liberal views sometimes earn them accusations of being biased, for PETA, being critical of the government and of societal injustice is just something they do – no matter who is in power.
“I just feel like I want to be able to tell truth. I didn’t vote for PNoy. I have no color, except black because that’s the color of production,” Legarda said. “That they’ve turned that conversation into a binary ‘you or us’ thing in itself is already dangerous.”
“People can say what they want to say but there’s nothing about what we’re doing that has anything to do with anything partisan…we’ve consistently been critical since the time of Marcos of things in government or Philippine society that we don’t agree on,” she said.
Ultimately, what PETA is fighting for through theater is democracy and freedom.
“Ang [pinaglalaban] naman dito yung democratic process, yung rule of law (What we are fighting for here is the democractic process, the rule of law). All of those are supposed to be pillars in our institution that have to be kept,” Legarda explained.
“The problem is, we’re in love with personalities rather than the nation. Our loyalty should be to our country, not to a man or woman who runs it. Those people they can come and go but the country has to live forever, so those democratic institutions have to be foolproof. Whoever is there, you should question,” she said.
Essentially, these artists are simply exercising their freedom of expression, even as it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so. As Legarda said, it’s not even about changing the world – it’s simply about having a conversation.
“Part of a democracy is the right for you to ask questions, to rally, or to be critical, and now that’s looked upon as something that’s wrong. That’s very problematic because now you can’t have a conversation,” she said.
“It’s just about one person telling us what to do, and my god, so much has happened, we’ve struggled so much for us to get to this point. We shouldn’t allow our freedoms to be taken away from us.”
One way or another, artists may be some of the most critical players in a time of smoke and mirrors, where truth is so easily bent or obscured. When democracy is threatened, courage, creativity, and honest, open conversation may be more powerful than we think. – Rappler.com