'Is this the new Filipino life?' Manila rappers blast Duterte's war on drugs

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Story highlights

  • Metro Manila rappers express their anger, frustration and loss through their music
  • The group, One Pro Exclusive, were friends with Micheal Siaron, whose drug war killing was highly publicized

Pasay City, Philippines (CNN)The death of Micheal Siaron last July might have gone unnoticed; just one of the over 7,500 lives -- so far -- claimed during Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs.

But on the night of his killing, his partner, Jennilyn Olares, hurried from their shared shack in the Pasay City neighborhood of Santo Niño.
    Upon seeing his body she pushed aside police officers and curious onlookers and instinctively drew it to her chest.
    The waiting gaggle of press photographers had their shot. The next morning the image of the grieving woman and her partner, seemingly shot by vigilantes, was splashed across the front pages of the nation's newspapers.
    They called it the Philippines "Pieta" photo, a nod to Michelangelo's sculpture of the same name, in which Mary clasps the dying Jesus.
    The 'Pieta" photograph, in which Jennilyn Olayres clings to the body of her partner, Michael Siaron, who was shot dead by an unidentified gunman in Pasay City, Metro Manila, in July 2016.

    Gone, not forgotten

    If not for the searing image, Siaron might have been forgotten. Olares moved away after their home -- which had perched on stilts precariously over a stinking, trash-filled canal -- was demolished.
    The shanty home -- now demolished -- of Jennilyn Olayres and Michael Siaron, who was shot dead by an unidentified gunman. The image of his body being cradled by Olayres was seen around the world.
    But even without the notoriety of his death, his memory might have lived on in another way.
    Members of a local rap group called One Pro Exclusive, whose cramped home studio is in a tenement in the neighborhood where Siaron once lived, have paid tribute to their slain friend with hip hop.
    The song is called "Hustisya," the Tagalog word for justice.
    "When I wrote the song ... I was thinking of my friend, who was just trying to earn a living as a pedicab driver, but became a victim of the war on drugs," says Justins Juanillas, the group's main rapper.
    The group also hail from Santo Niño -- the same "barangay," or neighborhood -- as Siaron.
    Just like in the early days of hip hop in the Bronx, rappers in the poor neighborhoods of Manila draw from their background -- its poverty, powerlessness and arbitrary injustices -- for inspiration.
    And the deaths meted out in the name of the war on drugs, which critics say disproportionately targets the poor, are a target for the country's artists.

    'Justice'

    Juanillas, stage name Jay, is wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the word "Hustisya" and the hashtag #stopkilling.
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    The t-shirt uses the scales of justice as part of the typography, forming the "t" of the word. He says he decided to honor his friend in the most natural way for him as possible, through music.
    "He's a close friend," the slight, wiry youth says from the group's makeshift studio, up a couple of narrow, rickety flights of stairs in a cramped neighborhood building.
    The production desk is an old computer, and the tiny recording booth is lined with the amateur studio builder's best friend when it comes to soundproofing: egg cartons. When Jay steps inside the tiny, stifling room, no bigger than three or four square feet, sweat pours from his brows.
    "Michael is good, he's not a pusher. He used drugs but he's not a pusher," he says, still referring to his friend in the present tense.
    He died a pusher's death though, gunned down by an unknown assailant, a crude cardboard sign left by his side. It read: "drug pusher huwag tularan" — "I am a drug pusher, don't imitate (me)."
    It is an all-too common MO of the vigilantes who have added to the body count in Duterte's war on drugs. The killing remains unsolved.

    Limited chances

    Producer Stephen Bautista, who goes by the stage name Alek, says that Siaron was his friend's older brother.
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    "We weren't that close but I always (saw) him in the streets. It's really a common feeling when your friend is grieving for someone which is why I (produced) these songs."
    As with the origins of hip hop in the west, the song goes some way to expressing the anger felt by poor youth.
    They see their options as limited, and the outrage at what they see as unfair, discriminatory -- and often deadly -- policies visited upon their equally poverty-stricken peers.
    The song, "Hustisya," which Jay wrote about Siaron, features lines like these:

    Is this the new Filipino life?

    I'm just a poor man, and I'm a man who lost someone

    I'm still mourning, because what happened cuts deep

    Is there still justice? No one can say

    The lives were just part of a "quota"

    Taken down because of links to drugs

    They weren't given a chance to change

    Killed, just like that, treated like animals

    Duterte has mocked the "Pieta" image.
    In August, he said in a televised address: "If you don't want to die and get hurt, don't pin your hopes on priests and human rights (groups). They can't stop death.
    "Then you end up sprawled on the ground and you are portrayed in a broadsheet like Mother Mary cradling the dead cadaver of Jesus Christ. Well, that's very dramatic."
    But for One Pro Exclusive, it's no joke.
    "Hustisya" won't bring their friend back, and it's unlikely that their protest music will slow down Duterte's bloody campaign for even a second.
    But, as has been seen time and again, the young and the poor turn to music to voice their anger at policies that ruin the lives of their friends and upend their communities.