When Krishtine De Leon—who is better known by her stage alias “Rocky Rivera”—was growing up in San Francisco’s Excelsior District in the late 1990s, there weren’t any rappers or MC’s that looked quite like her.
But Rivera, along with her other contemporary Pinay rappers, are changing that for future generations to come.
On March 8 (International Women’s Day), Rivera, fellow Bay Area Filipina MC Ruby Ibarra, Los Angeles-based MC Klassy and Pinay poet Faith Santilla released the music video to their single “Us,” an empowering track that reclaims and celebrates the role and resistance of women in FIlipino culture. The song’s English-Tagalog hook, which starts “Island woman rise, walang makakatigil [nothing can stop you] / Brown, brown woman, rise, alamin ang yung ugat [learn your roots],” sets the tone for an unapologetic four-and-a-half-minute lyrical assault on patriarchy and colonization.
“It’s not just a collaboration track. It’s about really having a stake in what we’re talking about, wanting to make a different kind of future for our kids,” Rivera, 35, told El Tecolote. “I love music like that. It’s very angry, very militant, very… not cute, which is the opposite of what people would think when they see three Pinays, that are all under 5-foot-4, on a microphone. I think that the edge, the hardness, the frustration, but also the camaraderie, the love, the respect for each other, it culminated in that song.”
“Us” is a fan favorite from Ruby Ibarra’s latest album “Circa91,” which was released on Oct. 3, 2017. Ibarra, who was born in the Philippines but raised in San Lorenzo, was the creative force behind the video, doing an open call to recruit to dance troupes, Pinays of all ages as well as asking for indigenous Filipino dresses. The filming took place in Rivera’s old neighborhood of the Excelsior.
Born at Clark Air Force Base in Angeles City in the Philippines, Rivera’s Navy father moved the family to Naval Station on Treasure Island when she was four before moving to the Excelsior. But in moving to the U.S., Rivera lost her native Kapampangan language.
Throughout the song, Ibarra and Klassy deliver blistering flows in the Filipino language of Tagalog, much to the appreciation of Rivera, who sees artists like Ibarra and Klassy as carrying the torch.
“I think that’s the beauty of being a hyphenated American. If you are able to speak to both communities in that way with the same message, it’s all the more impactful,” Rivera said. “[Our language] was usually a source of shame, like, ‘You’re a FOB [fresh off the boat], try to speak the most perfect English that you can.’ Now that’s really changed to, ‘I’m proud of where I come from, I’m proud to speak this language.’”
A former journalist (she interviewed the likes of Wu-Tang Clan and Soulja Boy while was pregnant with her first child) and current youth educator in Oakland, Rivera has ancestral ties to the Katipunan, the Filipino revolutionaries who fought to gain independence from Spain. That revolutionary spirit is one that thrives in Rivera’s music.
“A lot of times when we immigrate, we tend to lose our culture. We tend to just look at the colonial side,” said Rivera. “A lot of the costumes that I remember were not Filipino costumes, they were Spaniard costumes that the Philippines adopted. And I was very opposed to wearing anything that any of the Spaniards wore.”
For the video shoot last month, Rivera—who was six months pregnant at the time and is now on maternity leave—wore a traditional Dugso dress, which is worn for a maternity dance celebrating the birth of a tribe’s male heir.
“We’re talking about history, we’re talking about post-colonialism, we’re talking about war, and these are things that Pinays will constantly have to reconcile with in terms of who we are, our identity,” Rivera said. “And I think that’s why people got emotional watching it. Because it’s not just the Tinikling [a dance from Philippine Spanish colonialism], the cute little colony dances that people do. This is our culture that we’ve retained through oppressive colonialism through Spain and the U.S. And to be able survive that, the resiliency of that, I think is why minorities really felt something with that. It wasn’t just for Filipinos, it was for anybody that has ever lost their culture through colonization and now gentrification.”
The response to the video has been overwhelmingly positive with only a few exceptions, such as the online commenter who took specific issue with Rivera’s lyric: “I kill a pig in a white hooded suit on the low … for my country,” which takes obvious aim at White supremacy and its historical ties to law enforcement.
“If people want to catch feelings about it, then obviously my music is not for them,” Rivera said “But to have it resonate with people emotionally, politically, ideologically, that’s something that I don’t think we intended…I knew it was going to be epic, but I didn’t really understand how much the community would come together to help us shoot this video.”
The song closes with the lyrics “Isang bagsak,” which translates from Tagalog to, “one down.” It’s a line that pays homage to the shared history between Filipino and Mexican farm workers in California’s fields. When ending a work day in the fields or to signal the end of a UFW meeting, the two groups would do a unity clap, and end with saying “Isang bagsak.”
“It just shows that we all start together, we all end together,” Rivera said. “One song down. On to the next.”
Rivera’s latest album is being sponsored by Women’s Audio Mission, a San Francisco nonprofit that teaches young girls the art of audio engineering and recording. It’s scheduled to release later this Fall.
Story by: Alexis Terrazas