Dicta License on new album ‘Pagbigkas’, their biggest risk to date: “Now’s the time to speak out”

The Filipino rockers return, older and wiser, with a righteous record that takes on the Philippines and its politics

On April 9, 2021, Dicta License released ‘Pagbigkas’, their first album in 16 years. The release date was no coincidence: the project arrived on Araw ng Kagitingan, or the Day of Valour, the date when the Philippines commemorates the Filipino and American soldiers who fought against the Japanese during World War II. On April 9, 1942, over 76,000 Filipino and American soldiers were surrendered to Japan and put through a 140-kilometre hike from Mariveles, Bataan to Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. Thousands died along the way, and the event would be remembered as the Bataan Death March.

And before the full release of ‘Pagbigkas’ (‘To Speak’), the band dropped their three singles on other significant dates in Philippine history: ‘Salita’ (‘Words’) arrived on June 12 last year, as the country celebrated its first Independence Day in the pandemic era.

Meanwhile, ‘Bagong Bayani’ (‘New Hero’) and ‘Inosenteng Bala’ (‘Innocent Bullet’) were both released on September 21 in 2018 and 2020, respectively – the date marking former President Ferdinand Marcos declaring Martial Law in the Philippines in 1972, setting off a bloody 14-year period in the country’s history defined by human rights abuses.

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Vocalist Pochoy Labog doesn’t want to make too much of Dicta License’s historically literate album rollout, pointing out that the Day of Valour commemorates a battle against foreign oppressors. “With the themes of the album,” he explains, “it’s an internal oppression that we’re trying to address and are trying to push back against.”

Specifically, ‘Pagbigkas’ represents Dicta License’s stand against the Duterte administration and its policies, including its ‘drug war’, the controversial Anti-Terror Law, and the government’s response to the pandemic, which has led to one of the world’s longest (and ongoing) lockdowns. “I would consider it a sin of omission if you don’t take a stand now,” Labog says, “especially if you have a band whose name means ‘license to speak’.”

That license to speak carries a level of risk in the Philippines, which under the Anti-Terror Law has expanded the definition of “terrorism” and now punishes individuals for an offence called “inciting to commit terrorism”. Under this law, urging people through “speeches, writings, proclamations, emblems, banners, and other representations tending to the same end” could be punished by a 12-year jail term. The Philippines has also continued to slip down the World Press Freedom Index.

But Dicta License – Labog, bassist Kelley Mangahas and guitarist Boogie Romero – and their producer Jorel Corpus were well aware of the risks. “I approached everyone and told them about possible consequences,” Labog calmly shares with NME. “I told them that I’m gonna be in front of this, and I hope attacks would be directed [at] me.”

It’s a considered comeback from Dicta License, whose first album ‘Paghilom’ (‘to heal’, but also ‘to quiet’) came out in 2005. Those songs carried the edgy post-grunge sound of the time – reminiscent of Rage Against The Machine, an influence the band openly recognise – with lyrics that evoked nationalism and hope.

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In the years since ‘Paghilom’, Labog graduated with a Juris Doctor degree from Ateneo de Manila University School of Law and worked for the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center, a local grassroots nonprofit organisation that supports the rights of indigenous people. “I’m turning 40,” he sighs. “I’ve seen a lot in terms of policy, and now’s the time to speak out.”

“‘Paghilom’ is elementary compared to how we are [now] when we talk about issues,” he adds. “Back then, I was in law school, living a sheltered life. It was only after years working with communities in the human rights sector, specifically indigenous peoples, that I saw how things are in society. I bring that experience with me in the making of ‘Pagbigkas’.”

“It’s an internal oppression that we’re trying to address and are trying to push back against”

Dicta License have also learned a lot about expression since ‘Paghilom’, Corpus says. “If you’re listening to somebody who’s just shouting for 40 minutes, I don’t think that’ll be very compelling,” explains the Los Angeles-based producer, a longtime fan of the band who played in the band Kjwan with Mangahas and Romero until 2009.

‘Pagbigkas’ is “the band growing up and realising just because you’re delivering an angry message, the way you dress it with the song doesn’t necessarily have to be angry”, Corpus elaborates. “For example, you have to tell somebody that you’re angry, sometimes delivering that message might be even more chilling if you deliver it pragmatically.”

On ‘Inosenteng Bala,’ Dicta License directly tackle extrajudicial killings, an issue that has been linked to President Rodrigo Duterte dating back to his time as the mayor of the Southern city of Davao. “That was inspired by a spoken word poem I heard about the assassination of Malcolm X,” shares Labog. “The bullet was going, ‘No, not me! Not me!’ and I wanted to do that in the context of the ‘drug war.’”

Meanwhile, the ballad ‘Elias’ features Labog singing on top of a nylon guitar intro, much like a traditional Filipino kundiman. It slowly develops into a contemporary song – complete with 808s in the beat – as the frontman raps the story of Elias, a revolutionary character in Philippine national hero Jose Rizal’s magnum opus, Noli Me Tangere.

“I would consider it a sin of omission if you don’t take a stand now, especially if you have a band whose name means ‘license to speak’”

On the surface, one would think Labog was inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. But the ballad has been in the songwriter’s back pocket since 2004, when he was inspired by a political campaign jingle. Its lyrics “May bagong umagang parating” – “A new dawn approaches” – immediately made him think of Elias’ death in the novel, Labog says: “It’s both frustrating and hopeful because he died saying, ‘don’t forget about us who fought for our country’s freedom’.”

Labog wrote a song about Elias because of what he represented in Noli Me Tangere vis-a-vis its main character, the young and naive Crisostomo Ibarra – who Elias sacrifices his life to save. “[He] debates with Elias, and Elias has great ideas about how society should be and human dignity,” Labog explains. “That’s why I wanted to complete the song, and the message is: let’s listen to Elias. Let’s look back on these gems that we have as a people – our books,” referring to Noli and its sequel El Filibusterismo.

Dicta License also want ‘Pagbigkas’ to prompt reflection in their fans. “Hopefully, [the album] will make people think more,” Romero says. “Maybe it will give people courage to ask the questions, to act.” Mangahas adds, “When you start thinking about what’s going on, there’s an underlying kind of pessimism, and there’s a lot of different things that people are feeling. We read all the comments and what people are saying, that it’s put out at the right time.” Indeed, Dicta License have impeccable timing: the next national elections are a little over a year away, with voter registration campaigns ramping up even amid the pandemic.

“People are feeling something,” Mangahas asserts. “We’re hoping to get the music out to as many people as possible.”

Dicta License’s ‘Pagbigkas’ is out now

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