Writer Dino-Ray Ramos
THERE WAS ONCE A TIME when the soul and R&B music scene wasn't dominated by precocious, hair-whipping preteens, leggy Caribbean beauties and fedora-topped, sneaker-wearing crooners with sharp suits and even sharper moves.
In the mid '90s, before Bruno Mars threw his "Grenade" and before the Black Eyed Peas phunked with our hearts, a generous swell of Filipino American soul and R&B music acts filled radio airwaves and concert stages in some major cities, in particular the San Francisco Bay Area, where many of these groups were based.
Among them was the boy band Kai, whose smooth-crooning slow jam "Say You'll Stay" reached No. 59 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1998 and was the second Filipino American act to release an album on a major label, after Jocelyn Enriquez's 1997 album Jocelyn was released on Tommy Boy Records. Fueled by the infectious freestyle club hits "Do You Miss Me?" and "A Little Bit of Ecstasy," Jocelyn hit No. 12 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Other popular Filipino American R&B/pop acts of that era include: Pinay (hit song: "Is It Real?"), Devotion ("When I"), OneVoice ("When You Think About Me"), M:G ("Sweet Honesty") and Buffy ("Give Me a Reason").
While they benefited from the stratospheric insurgence of R&B acts like Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, TLC and Janet Jackson during this period and gained some fame among urban Asian American youth, most of these groups were left unrecognized by the American mainstream. Musicians of that era say that, because of their race, they were unable to vault over the marketability hurdle in the music industry, which was practically insurmountable only 15 years ago — and is still only slowly being overcome today.
In 1993, University of California, Berkeley, students Irma Laxamana, Maylene Briones, Angelica Abiog McMurtry and Jocelyn Enriquez (yes, that Jocelyn Enriquez) formed Pinay. A Filipino American version of En Vogue, the group got its start performing at a Filipino student group event on campus. "We got such an amazing response from the crowd, that we did another event and then another and another," Laxamana said. "It just kept on going."
Enriquez left the band shortly after to sign as a solo artist with local Filipino American-run independent music label Classified Records, and her 1994 debut album featured the hit singles "I've Been Thinking About You" and "Make It Last Forever." Pinay eventually signed to the label as well.
Inspired by the rise of Enriquez under Classified Records, Laxamana said that many Filipino American musicians developed an equal interest in the artistic and the business sides of music, which helped them navigate the industry. "Seeing the success that they were able to make for themselves gave a lot of talented artists the belief that they could really make a go at the music business," Laxamana said.
The Asian American community also fostered a nurturing environment for these acts. "It was a time when a great number of young Asian and Filipino Americans were interested in providing a platform for this talent to be seen and heard," Laxamana said.
Like the women of Pinay, the five men of Devotion — a pop and soul boy band from Orange County, CA, who mixed Backstreet Boys appeal with Boyz II Men harmonies — started by performing at school and community events. In 2000, they released their debut album, Image of Devotion. "There was never a shortage of venues or events to perform at. With that exposure, there were large numbers of people that wanted to hear our music," Laxamana said, referring not only to Pinay but to other groups of that era.
Rodney Hidalgo, a member of Devotion, said that many Filipino American performers of that time were tired of seeing a lack of representation and were eager to prove their talent. "We were very capable of doing the same things as mainstream artists," Hidalgo said. "All it took was one to light the match, and more acts gained the confidence to take their talents out of the garage and onto the stage."
But as Filipino American acts gained attention and support in some markets, there was one obvious obstacle to widespread popularity: ethnicity. Hidalgo said that many radio stations wouldn't give them a chance when they found out they were Asian American artists.
"Music is an expression of emotion, and to make that expression marketable and profitable, it's easier to reach out to the masses by having that perfect image of a person convey that emotion rather than your average joe or even an Asian American," Hidalgo said.
In addition, trying to get an R&B/pop group played on radio stations overrun with gangsta rap proved difficult. One Las Vegas radio station played a Devotion song in a head-to-head song contest where listeners voted for the winner. "The only problem was that our (opponent) was Snoop Dogg," Hidalgo said.
But the rise of rap and hip-hop also opened doors for some Filipino American artists, like Joyo Velarde, an opera-trained soul singer. Velarde has, since the late 1990s, been the go-to songstress for fellow labelmates at the San Francisco Bay Area hip-hop label Quannum Projects, home to acts such as Lyrics Born (Velarde's husband), Blackalicious and DJ Shadow. With the introduction of hip-hop to the mainstream music scene, "many aspiring artists who also happened to be Asian Americans finally found an immediate outlet for them to apply and succeed in using their talents," Velarde said.
In some ways, the Filipino American acts of the 1990s and early 2000s paved the way for many musicians of Filipino descent who have come and gone on the pop music scene since: Nicole Scherzinger, Chad Hugo, Cassie, DJ Qbert and Jasmine Trias, to name a few. And in today's digital age, more Filipino musicians are becoming discovered via social media, among them mini-diva Charice Pempengco and Journey frontman Arnel Pineda.
But, both Pempengco and Pineda were imported from the Philippines. With so much homegrown talent, as demonstrated in the golden age of Filipino American music, the question might be raised: Why outsource? But Hidalgo, for one, isn't doing the asking.
"I think that anyone, from here or there, is deserving of a shot," Hidalgo said. "If they have the desire and the determination, there is no reason they shouldn't have the same opportunities for success."
The time when you could switch on a radio station in San Francisco and hear a Filipino voice may be over, but Laxamana still performs occasionally. Devotion released a new single at the end of last year, and Velarde released an LP last year.
Today, Laxamana encourages more Filipino acts to stand up and grab the limelight, as they did during the mid-1990s. "You could be the most talented person on the planet, but if you don't find or make the right opportunity for yourself, no one will know it," she said.
Dino-Ray Ramos is a journalist based in San Francisco and Hyphen’s pop culture columnist.