Ez Mil dropped ‘Panalo (Trap Cariñosa)’ in July 2020, as part of his album ‘Act 1’, to relatively little fanfare. But the Philippines-born, Las Vegas-based rapper took Filipino social media by storm last week after he performed the track live on the Wish USA Bus in a video that has racked up nearly 30million views since.
The Philippines by and large still considers hip-hop a niche genre, so it’s not surprising that it took this long for people to have heard ‘Panalo’. But as soon as Filipino social media did, they couldn’t stop talking about the 22-year-old rapper’s braggadocious, chest-thumping Pinoy pride anthem – for reasons both good and bad.
Why have fans embraced ‘Panalo’? For one, it’s come at a bleak time when Filipinos need a win, and the song – whose title translates to both “victory” and “winner” – provides just that. It also boasts an earworm of a hook: it samples the Cariñosa, the tune for a traditional Filipino folk dance most Pinoys only hear of in Social Studies class. To hear it in a contemporary hip-hop song in 2021? Jarring. To have it sound good? Practically astonishing. And on the Wish USA Bus, Ez Mil spat his verses with the fire and speed of Eminem – one of his inspirations, whom he shouts out on the track – while seamlessly switching between three (!) languages: English, Tagalog and Ilocano.
Multilingual rapping isn’t new. But what sets ‘Panalo’ apart is how it put Ilocano – the third-most spoken language in the Philippines – in a song that now gets mainstream radio airplay. That means a lot in a country with as many as 182 native languages spread across 7,107 islands. Ez Mil, who hails from the province of Zambales, where Ilocano is widely spoken, gets a lot of love from Ilocanos because he represents them the way Karencitta represented Cebuanos when she dropped ‘Cebuana’ in 2017 and rapped a verse in their native tongue, Bisaya.
And yet Karencitta didn’t go viral the way Ez Mil did. That’s because of the lyrical content of ‘Panalo’, starting with Ez rapping that Filipino hero Lapu-Lapu was beheaded in the Battle of Mactan from 1521. But Lapu-Lapu wasn’t beheaded in that clash: in fact, he emerged victorious after he and his warriors famously defeated and killed Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan.
Nonchalantly taking artistic liberties with historical fact to get attention is a terrible look for a young rapper
Ez Mil has since claimed that he took artistic liberties with Lapu-Lapu’s story because of the rhyming pattern leading into the next line – and because he wanted the deliberate inaccuracy to get people talking. In a reaction video that his manager uploaded after the Wish USA Bus performance went viral, Ez asked, “Am I gonna close it out with absolute truth, or am I gonna make people talk about it? That’s me putting an exaggerated term in a ploy to drive traffic and talk.”
Though Ez Mil has apologised for the Lapu-Lapu lyric, he has also since said, in a Wish USA media conference, that he will not be changing the verses: “I do not intend to have a corrected version of the song because I feel like that ruins the integrity that I had within recording it. It blew up because it made people talk, and I will let it stay that way.”
As a musician, Ez Mil isn’t obligated to give his listeners history lessons. But nonchalantly taking artistic liberties with historical fact just to get attention is a terrible look for a young, up-and-coming rapper. We live in a post-truth world where information is readily available at our fingertips – except it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish fake news from actual facts.
It’s especially dangerous here in the Philippines, where uneven access to proper educational channels is an endemic problem. It’s much easier for the average Filipino to access ‘Panalo’ using their free Facebook or YouTube mobile data allocation than to pay for data – or a history book – to research the subject.
In the reaction video, Ez also explains the controversial line “I’m not Tisoy, I’m Pinoy!”, where “tisoy” refers to someone of mixed Filipino and other foreign ancestries. Ez said that he was teased a lot growing up because he “looks like a Caucasian Pinoy”. He found it difficult to fit in among other kids as he grew up in the Philippines because they thought that they had to speak to him in English due to his fair complexion.
Let’s unpack that layer first: Ez’s childhood experiences are understandable given the Philippines’ complicated relationship with the English language. Though the Philippines recognises English as an official language and employs hundreds of thousands in the business process outsourcing industry, it’s not uncommon for Filipinos to feel intimidated when speaking to a foreigner in straight English. That inferiority complex stems from the colonial mentality that has been part of Filipino culture for generations, after being colonised by Spain for over 300 years and then by the U.S. and Japan. This mentality manifests in English speakers being considered more intelligent – in contrast, if you can’t speak a lick of English, you’re considered dumb.
But colonial mentality also manifests itself in how the mestizo – a term synonymous with “tisoy” – hold more social, cultural, and economic capital in Filipino society than the moreno (Filipinos with brown skin).
Generally speaking, if you have Eurocentric features because of European origin, you’re mestizo, a term that eventually got shortened to tisoy. Mestizo is a term whose context dates back to the Spanish occupation, but today, mestizo are highly regarded as attractive and are considered artistahin, a local slang term that means “suited for showbiz”.
Ez is asking us to forget all the privileges and advantages that come with being mestizo today
The association between fair skin and attractiveness is so ingrained in our society that it’s even taught in school textbooks. If you’re tisoy, chances are your parents or aunties and uncles are likely to envision you as an actor or celebrity of some sort. It’s precisely why the majority of models and actors here have mestizo features and why whitening beauty products are still in high demand.
These observations aren’t meant to invalidate Ez Mil’s lived experience – if he says he was othered or even bullied because of his skin colour, that’s his reality. But being called tisoy isn’t “discrimination”, as he raps in ‘Panalo’: “Ever since bata ako [I was young] I’ve been kinda discriminated in my own home country / Sure, some would be like: ‘Luh ang puti puti mo, tisoy!’ [‘Yo, you’re so white, tisoy!’]” In fact, given all the social capital that comes with being tisoy, it’s an aspiration rather than an insult.
Ez comes across as someone telling people to overlook his mestizo background and just see him as a Filipino like everyone else. The problem with that logic is he’s also asking us to forget all the privileges and advantages that come with being mestizo today, especially in the entertainment industry where he’s trying to forge his career. The line “I’m not Tisoy, I’m Pinoy!” is attracting ridicule because Ez Mil fails to reflect on his own privilege in a society where white privilege and colonial mentality endure.
Another line from ‘Panalo’ that’s drawn considerable attention is the line “Wag nang pag-usapan ang mga negatibong pangyayari”, which translates to “Don’t talk about the negative things going on”. Netizens have called out this stubbornly one-sided attitude on social media, with some labelling Ez Mil a DDS – a Duterte Diehard Supporter – for brushing aside criticism in the way many accuse the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte of doing.
In the reaction video, Ez Mil is visibly upset when that subject comes up. “DDS – are you kidding me?” he asks, going on to explain, “I discuss problems. That’s just being on a positive note sometimes. We don’t have to always discuss problems, bro.” The line in question means, he says, “Let’s not discuss the problems just for the time being. Let’s just have a good time, right now, in the song. But of course, I’m gonna talk about problems.”
Ez Mil got tagged as a DDS because toxic positivity and dismissing criticism are part of the current administration’s playbook
By and large, though, Ez Mil’s attitude evokes toxic positivity – defined by American clinical psychologist Dr. Jaime Zuckerman as “the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset”. An example of toxic positivity is that family member or friend who doesn’t really listen to you when you’re upset, because you should just “be happy” or “have a positive outlook no matter what”.
The term toxic positivity might be unfamiliar to Filipinos, but it’s very present in our lives and religious society. I think about a common refrain from my parents or elders: “Anak [my child], stop thinking about all the negatives and just focus on your blessings from God.”
This mindset encourages people to suppress their feelings and avoid addressing a concern for the sake of staying positive. In choosing not to pay it any mind, the situation festers into something worse, because the initial problem was never addressed.
Ez Mil got tagged as a DDS because toxic positivity and dismissing criticism have become part of the current administration’s playbook since they were elected into power. It’s come into greater relief since the pandemic began: last March, after a photo of exhausted Philippine frontliners went viral, Duterte said medical workers “could be helping, but all you do is complain”, while in June 2020 the Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. told Vice President Leni Rebredo to “please stop complaining” about increased military presence in Cebu City.
Also playing into a larger atmosphere of toxic positivity is the “Filipinos are a resilient people” narrative that has been pushed ad nauseam for generations, as if to imply that we should be used to living with less than we deserve because we’ll persevere regardless. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque was blasted for toxic positivity last August when he trumpeted the resilience narrative, expressing relief over a social survey that said only 45 per cent of Filipinos lost their jobs to the pandemic – because, he said, he’d expected the survey to yield a result of 100 per cent.
So when you have a rapper whose Pinoy pride anthem includes a line that tells people to stop being negative, the assumption naturally becomes, Oh, you’re one of them.
It’s ironic that Ez Mil urges one-sided optimism when you consider how hip-hop has always been a powerful vehicle for nuanced political discourse. Ez’s own idols, Eminem and Kendrick Lamar, have not shied away from tackling political issues in their music. The runaway virality of ‘Panalo’ is perhaps an indication that some Filipinos do want an uncomplicated, patriotic anthem, but hip-hop that acknowledges negativity and takes it head-on feels more appropriate in the Philippines in 2021.
From the pandemic keeping us all apart to the myriad other issues that our country is facing, there’s a lot of warranted and justified anger brewing among Filipinos. Thumping one’s chest with national pride given current circumstances just seems out of touch – which is perhaps not surprising if you factor in that Ez hasn’t lived in the Philippines for the last five years.
I’m not writing this to say that Ez Mil is a bad rapper or that the song sucks. Neither of those is true. In fact, ‘Panalo (Trap Cariñosa)’ kicks down doors in both the Filipino music scene and in the hip-hop genre, and that’s a good thing. It just happens to come with misguided lyrics whose treatment of deep socio-political issues can only be called superficial or careless. Ez Mil is 22 and, thanks to the success and controversy of ‘Panalo’, has a bigger audience than ever. How he moves forward from this point on will go a long way towards determining whether his career will ultimately be an L or a W.