2016 election season—regardless of whom people voted for during that time, one thing is indisputable: that time was incredibly toxic. It’s not that Philippine elections are normally calm because they are always far from being so. It isn’t unusual to hear candidates or members of their families or campaign entourage getting involved in an election related violence. But 2016 was different from all the other previous elections in a way because the poison stemming from the strong opposing political beliefs spread so overwhelmingly not solely among the candidates but the voters themselves as well. Social media platforms, which used to be generally an avenue to share fun posts, suddenly became a hotbed for fake news, arguments, threats, and insults. Slowly, people started muting, unfriending, and/or blocking each other online. Outside social media, heated political discussions permeated lunch breaks of colleagues, family gatherings, and dinners with friends, causing some ruptures in social and personal relationships. While some preferred to keep quiet, many were armed and ready to bring out the guns when the occasion arose. Even artists, who are seen by others as people who should be apolitical, were very vocal. Personally, I don’t have any problems with this. Their being artists shouldn’t hinder the expression of their political beliefs. They are after all citizens, too, and they have the same right to air out their opinions as much as everyone else does. There was a specific bunch of musicians whom I was waiting to speak, though: Dicta License.
Known for their socially relevant songs, Dicta License were in hiatus at the time because vocalist Pochoy Labog was pursuing higher studies in the US. Although I had an idea of whom they were supporting, I couldn’t be completely sure. There were a number of musicians who surprised me by supporting a particular candidate I didn’t approve of. However, I wouldn’t even have to look very far because in my own social circle and among my relatives, there were those who were ready to defend to the death their presidential bet, which honestly shocked and disappointed me because I thought we shared the same values. But as one of my friends told me, there was nothing we could do about it—it was their right to choose their leaders no matter how frustrating their choices may be.
Just a few days before the May election, a surprise arrived: Labog posted a song titled Diktador with the caption “Para sa Pinas” on his personal Facebook page. Although the title has a negative connotation, I still wasn’t sure of his stand because for all I know the message that he wanted to put out was that the country needed one; the first four lines, however, immediately cleared everything up. And honestly, upon hearing them, a smile formed on my face, and I felt so relieved to know that we were on the same side.
Diktador had a strong hip-hop vibe but with only light instrumentation; the lyrics, straight to the point. Anyone who didn’t even have much knowledge of the presidential candidates could tell right away who Labog was referring to even without mentioning any name. Already I could tell that this song was different from the other Dicta License tracks. Apart from the rawness of the music itself, the lyrics were sharper. Though Dicta License songs have always been socially relevant, they are written as commentaries of what’s happening in society in general. The lyrics of Diktador, however, referenced a specific government official, which, as expected, earned the ire of his followers. Despite this, Labog remained unfazed and wrote more songs this time with the help of other fellow Dicta License members guitarist Boogie Romero and bassist Kelly Mangahas. The political climate of the time had set the tone for a work that would later on be the band’s long overdue sophomore release, Pagbigkas.
Released on Day of Valor, April 9, 2021, Pagbigkas came 16 long years after their debut, Paghilom. 16 years is definitely an unbelievable length of time to follow up a debut! To be completely honest, I learned not to get my hopes up anymore whenever the topic of releasing a sophomore album came up. Don’t get me wrong: For a long time, I waited for that second album to be birthed (as early as 2007!), and even in 2016, I wanted them to be able to finally produce it especially since I felt that thought-provoking music based on the sociopolitical conditions was lacking at the time, and that their voice was needed to be heard. But when a band splits up after saying that they are already working on the next album, and then reunites years after only to go on a hiatus and then regroups a couple more times, it’s just better to be cautious not to be so hopeful. Even when they dropped the singles Bagong Bayani (2018), a reworked version of Diktador (2019), Salita, and Inosenteng Bala (both in 2020), I was delighted about the new material, but I tried not to set any more expectations about a future album and told myself to believe it only when it was already released. So, when the band started dropping teasers of Pagbigkas in early April, the first thing that popped in my mind was Wow, for real? Finally!
Pagbigkas is a huge leap from Paghilom in terms of production, style, and in some ways, content. Whereas Paghilom has a traditional rock sound, with electric guitars and drums dominating the tracks, Pagbigkas is made fuller and sometimes atmospheric by incorporating keyboards and synthesizers. The keys in Bagong Bayani and the trumpet sounds in Inosenteng Bala Diktador, and HWFF, for instance, give these songs an interesting twist; some have a bit of a chill (Salita) and peaceful (Pagpupugay) vibe, on the other hand. While the album maintains a rap rock energy especially with tracks such as Kasama, Posas, and Diktador, influences from different genres such as jazz, soul, acoustic, and even a tad of trip hop are also present. There are more layers of sound and different textures in each song this time around. So, no, they sound nothing like Rage Against the Machine here; fans who still want them to sound like RATM would only be greatly disappointed. For me, I am glad about the new direction they took with their sound. It shows how much growth as musicians they have acquired.
When it comes to the album’s lyrical content, Dicta License remain faithful to what they have started with Paghilom: their music is a critical look at what’s happening in Philippine society. However, as previously stated, their music now has been influenced by what has transpired since the 2016 elections. Issues such as extrajudicial killings, activism, online trolling, resistance, the actions and policies of certain elected officials, and the attitude of Filipinos who remain loyal to these government officials despite their obvious shortcomings are evident in many of the songs. Paghilom is an album that can be critical of any period—because unfortunately, the issues raised there have been plaguing Philippine society for a long time already—but the lyrical assault that Pagbigkas has highlights the present administration and social conditions of the country. Included also in the album are excerpts of the poem Sanayan Lang Ang Pagpatay by Albert E. Alejo SJ and speech by the late Sen. Jose Diokno titled A Nation for Our Children, which further boost the message that the band want to express. Pagbigkas is bolder and unflinching, exactly the kind of music that needs to be conveyed today.
However, not all tracks in the album are purely criticisms; they are also injected with hope and encouragement; they dare the listeners to uplift others. Bagong Bayani, for example, searches for new heroes who can rise up to the challenges of the times; Salita begs people to speak up; Elias calls on people to believe in the light within themselves to help others, and Kapangyarihan reminds people that they do have the power to bring forth positive changes to society.
Among all the songs so far, I really like Bagong Bayani, Diktador, Posas, Kapangyarihan, and the ones that take the top spot, Inosenteng Bala and Pagpupugay. The soul, jazzy vibe that Inosente has is smooth. It slightly reminds me of Sinosikat’s Turning My Safety Off mixed with As Tall as Lions’ Love, Love, Love. (The keys in Inosente also sound so familiar, but I still can’t pinpoint where I’ve heard it.) and is a contrast to the rap parts and the negativity presented in the lyrics. I also love how the song comes from the perspective of a bullet, which I find really clever. There’s a certain calm that Pagpupugay radiates, on the other hand, with the vocals so soothing and the lyrics written with such respect and celebration. It’s a song that is for me, akin to Joey Ayala’s musical style. I could be wrong, but I think it is about indigenous peoples.
Dicta License may have released their sophomore effort way beyond the time I have hoped for it to come out, but Pagbigkas couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Their words are more relevant than ever, reflecting challenges that have always been present in Philippine society and the cracks that have been recently created due to differences in political beliefs. Some people may not like what they’re saying now, but more still believe in the honesty and power of their artistry. At a time when some people would rather follow blindly or simply be silent, their music serves as a reminder that people can be agents of positive change, and that we all do have the license to speak.
Mamamatay akong hindi man lang makikita ang ningning ng bukang-liwayway sa aking Bayan. Kayong mga makakakita, salubungin ninyo siya at huwag ninyong kalimutan ang mga taong nalugmok sa dilim ng gabi.– Elias in Noli Me Tangere (Jose Rizal, 1887)