SHNTI: “Adults pass a lot of shit onto the youth… The things that they don’t heal from become ours to deal with”

The 19-year-old Filipino rapper defends her underestimated generation with effortless bars over lo-fi hip-hop loops. NME talks to her ahead of the release of her debut EP, ‘Element’

Sometimes life gon’ be like hell, but here’s a word from a wise teenager – little girl – pretty disaster,” SHNTI raps knowingly in the first verse of her latest single, ‘Goodie Goodie’. “Always get your major dreams / Go and prioritise / Even if you a minor, don’t even go and think twice / Chase opportunities, swerve away from the pretty lies, pretty faces in disguise.”

With these lines, the rapper born Ashanti Bulanadi summarises her artistic modus operandi: uplifting and empowering her fellow Filipino youth over dusty lo-fi hip-hop loops, delivering timeless wisdom even though she’s not yet 20 years old and still holed up in her bedroom.

SHNTI’s speaking to NME from said bedroom in Metro Manila, surrounded by walls covered with lockdown doodles of her own making. Another pandemic pastime of hers has been working on her debut EP, ‘Element’, produced by Calix, the go-to man behind the decks in underground Filipino hip-hop.

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The seven songs on ‘Element’ don’t follow any central theme, as the budding lyricist just wanted to get the music out and “test the waters” for a wider audience. “Each song is pretty different from the other,” she says. “I just wanted to explore my skills as a musician, while maintaining some kind of SHNTI formula to it. To me, that’s having fun with the process and keeping in mind what to say and how listeners can learn something.”

And SHNTI wants her listeners to learn – especially the adults. Named Ashanti by her father after the R&B singer, Bulanadi has been waiting for her voice to be heard all her life. She chafes under the dismissal of elders who think she’s too young to know anything – even as they fail to hold themselves to their own values and standards. “I just wanna remind adults about the morals that they’ve forgotten,” she declares, ambitiously. “They teach us stuff but forget how to act later on.” The kids remember, SHNTI’s saying – and they hold the ideas and keys to a vibrant counterculture. “Listen to us!” she exclaims at one point in the interview, like she were addressing an invisible villain.

SHNTI started writing verses in high school, singing and rapping them to her classmates during breaks. After that, she started a band with two other girls, playing bass and singing mainstream hits like that of Paramore, Rico Blanco and Rivermaya. That didn’t last long, though: She fell in love with hip-hop, her adolescence coinciding with the advent of Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Jon Bellion.

SHNTI dropped her first song, ‘OH NO PH!’, on SoundCloud in 2019. In Filipino and English rhymes, she slyly mocks President Rodrigo Duterte’s bravado and ambitions of a police state: “Presidente natin mabait / mabangis / pero binebenta us like langis / joke lang po / wag kayong makulit / baka makaabot ito sa pulis”: “Our President is nice / cool / but selling us out like oil / that’s just a joke / don’t be naughty / the police might hear us.” On the hook, she challenges the listener to pay attention to what’s going on around them: “It’s better to be socially aware, do you care?

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Spreading her work online was how SHNTI first caught the attention of local gig organisers. “It felt great to be heard!” she enthuses when asked about her first performance in 2019. “As a child, I never felt that in my family. I was 17 then. My mindset was just that I didn’t want to be labelled for my age. So when I got on stage, I was trembling, but by the second song, the crowd was vibin’.”

Though she’s recorded a few virtual performances, SHNTI hasn’t really rapped to a live audience since 2019. “Live gigs are fun but it’s exhausting, it uses up my social battery,” she admits. “During this pandemic, I’m taking the time to work on myself, my craft and I’m enjoying the time in my room. I reflect on my own shit and what I really wanna do with my music.”

SHNTI’s songs have a raw charm that belies how much work she’s putting in to hone her skills. “I’ve been sharpening and trying to improve my vocab as well during lockdown and the writing process of the EP. I needed to look up so many words in English and Filipino,” she says. She doesn’t think she’d have been able to regroup like this if the pandemic hadn’t happened. “I wouldn’t have a solid idea about my own sound.”

“For me, we women are just that good that we need to be taken as a whole other class of rapper”

SHNTI wants a sound that is truthful yet playful. Instead of overplayed bars about money and bravado, or gritty, desolate sketches of life that might compound listeners’ stresses, SHNTI would rather spread uplifting messages about achieving one’s dreams. As her latest release, a remastered version of her 2020 song ‘Goodie Goodie’, puts it, she exudes “goodie goodie energy” that should “keep away my enemies”.

And if SHNTI does have enemies, they are the old farts who keep the youth down – “Adults pass a lot of shit onto us. It opens our eyes to realities at a very young age. The things that they don’t heal from become ours to deal with” – and those in power who behave with impunity and incompetence, brought sharply into relief by the pandemic. In August, the Philippines was one of five countries in the world that hadn’t started in-person classes since the pandemic began. (The government has since approved a small pilot programme, allowing 120 schools to hold classes face to face.) For students like SHNTI, each day of being denied a substantial education is an affront. On ‘Bright’, the EP’s opening track, she declares: “I deserve everything, I deserve all my dreams.” She delivers it like a chant she’s asking you to join in.

An artist who tries to keep the pulse of her generation, SHNTI is on a wide-ranging crusade. She wants everything from economic inequalities to crippling disillusionment discussed out in the open and then banished. Earlier this year, she contributed three tracks – two of them solo – to ‘Pasya’ (‘Choice’), a compilation album by female artists about decriminalising and destigmatising abortion. On ‘Free’, she raps over a soothing instrumental: “My body, mind is not an item for them / It’s mine, it’s mine / Sucks to be you, looking like a fool / Fighting for something that brings down fellow women.”

SHNTI has strong opinions on what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated genre, and is particularly unapologetic about claiming the label ‘femcee’. “We need the term,” she asserts. “For me, we are just that good that we need to be taken as a whole other class of rapper. Bars!” SHNTI laughs.

The world will get a taste of SHNTI in her ‘Element’ when the EP drops later this year. NME can’t help but ask about her moniker’s similarity to Shanti Dope, one of the most popular rappers in the country. Did she think that would affect her profile and that of her EP? Finding SHNTI on Google can be a bit difficult, she concedes, revealing that her label – the independent, Makati-based hip-hop label LIAB – even asked if she wanted to consider a rebrand.

But she refused. “I take that as a challenge and claim my own name and my own space,” she says. “I thought of [‘SHNTI’] spontaneously and fell in love with it.”

‘Element’ previews the more conceptually cohesive full-length album that SHNTI is gearing up for. It is still a solid and dynamic offering in its own right, crafted an astuteness that belies her age. As our interview draws to a close, SHNTI mutters a mantra to herself, a personal prayer of sorts that’s kept straight her through the lockdown and consolidated her convictions: “Do good and the good things will become better.”

SHNTI’s single ‘Goodie Goodie’ is out now, with EP ‘Element’ on the way

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