“I ain’t a critic but I’m critical of it,” NINNO raps, looking directly into the camera. “Those who have power should be careful of it.”
It’s a powerful moment in the short but chilling video for the 23-year-old’s song “Simmer.” NINNO’s debut album, Third Culture Kid has been available for streaming for around a year now, but its eleven tracks have only gotten more impressive with the passage of time.
“Simmer,” in particular, has taken on a whole new meaning after the release of its music video last December. Shot entirely in black-and-white, the video cuts between footage of NINNO performing against a plain black background, and tableaus of the rapper playing three victims of three different administrations: a journalist during Martial Law, a soldier during Noynoy Aquino’s time, and a victim of an extrajudicial killing during Duterte’s era.
For a song with such a strong political undercurrent, it’s remarkably toned down. A melancholic guitar track accompanies NINNO’s steady beat — only really building up towards the end, but never breaking into a full emotional crescendo. It’s equal parts requiem and lullaby, and pulses more with frustration than full-on anger. It’s a song that acknowledges how violence persists. But hey, at least we can still make music out of grief.
We sat down with the rapper to get more of a background behind the song and its politics.Rap has a long history of functioning as protest music — be it N.W.A calling out the police or The Black Eyed Peas calling for world peace. How do you see this song (or your music in general) vis-a-vis that tradition of the genre?
Rather than taking it from the perspective of “protest music,” I’ve long seen rap music as a socially conscious form of music, whether it’s in the eyes of an unhappy citizen or a person with so much money that he has to speak in hyperboles just to get his points across.
Music, by nature, is a social process. It’s a way of communicating between an artist and an audience. I suppose, with rap music, it’s a little more obvious since words are a big part of the medium. It wasn’t my intention to create a protest track, but to quote Ice Cube, “Our art is a reflection of the world around us.” All I did was illustrate reality. Nothing more, nothing less.
Take us through the writing process for “Simmer.” Did it involve a lot of tiptoeing around issues, or did you just go for it?
Well, I never tiptoe around issues. I just go for it. Honestly, I wanted to create a track that my girlfriend at the time would love to listen to. She was heavily into more guitar-oriented ballads, and she was a writer by trade. One of the issues we spoke heavily about was the Mamasapano Massacre. I wrote the song with the SAF 44 in mind, which is why there are a lot of soldier references. I wrote it to highlight the frailty of life, based on the discussions I had with my ex. Thankfully, she liked the track.
Is there any particular reason why it ended up being (arguably) more of a rap song than a spoken word piece? And in general, do you write pieces knowing if they’ll end up being rap or spoken word, or do you figure out the medium only after the writing is done?
As a lyricist, I write lyrics specifically for the beat I create (or am provided with, if it’s a collaborative process). Since I started out as a musician, I generally have the opinion that the lyrics should complement the track and not the other way around. Also, I haven’t written a spoken word piece in close to three years, so I don’t think I’ll go back to that world anytime soon.
The lyrics of “Simmer” aren’t specific in their politics, but watching the music video definitely puts the song into a specific context. Was it always your intention to have a music video accompany the song, or are the two supposed to be distinct from each other?
Well, my initial idea for the music video was to wade through a battlefield where people around me fell. The director, Mikey Manalastas, and I came up with a concept that would be relevant to our day and age. The music video is actually a criticism of the three administrations I have the biggest problems with.Given all the violence that’s been going on in the country, do you think musicians and artists have a responsibility to react to our situation in a particular way?
No, I don’t think musicians and artists should even be expected to weigh in on politics or things that they don’t want to talk about. Politics, violence, art—they’re all subjective. There’s no moral obligation for my fellow artists to create a piece that highlights the struggles of today. Like I said, art is a reflection of the world around us. My fellow artists and I don’t necessarily live in the same world. Their reality, their truths, and their politics are probably very different from mine. I don’t expect anyone to follow suit anyway; the intention was never to inspire like that. I’m just creating art, and that’s it.
How do you think today’s young and aspiring Filipino artists should proceed if they want their own art to touch on current politics?
Be authentic. That’s really it. Don’t speak on things you are not researched on, or learned about. Inquire, ask, think—formulate your own opinions through accumulating more knowledge and don’t jump on any political bandwagon just because it’s popular among your friends.
Just like faith, your search must begin and end within. Know yourself, and know what you want to talk about, and be confident with your convictions. Regardless if you create art that’s not hip to your friends’ thoughts, just be authentic. That’s always been the cardinal rule of hip-hop, as well—don’t front.
FOLLOW NINNO ON FACEBOOK AT FACEBOOK.COM/NINNOMUSIC AND STREAM THIRD CULTURE KID ON SPOTIFY.