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As the 7,641 islands of the Philippines rose last Friday to celebrate its Independence Day, Jo Koy, one of the archipelago’s most famous exports to America joined them by releasing his stand-up special, Jo Koy: In His Elements on Netflix.
Joseph Glenn Herbert, better known as Jo Koy, is a renowned American comic in his own right, and he returns to his roots in this hour-long special filmed in Manila, bringing with him a few other famous (and semi-famous) Filipinos for what can only be described as a stage party.
I tuned in for what I anticipated to be a standard stand-up special with a few added elements of flair, but this was definitely not that. I have watched and enjoyed Jo Koy’s immigrant family jokes but this was not that either.
For one, Jo Koy’s own humour is not the focus here. Instead, he is more of an emcee, introducing the world to the Filipino culture, with an added emphasis on the hip hop subculture that has emerged from globalisation’s most rampant by-product: American cultural imperialism.
And every culture is comprised of five core elements – music, art, dance, food and literature. Sub-cultures usually have at least three of these fundamentals, which is what Jo Koy highlights in this special.
After a 10-minute rehash of some of his old humour as well as introduction to this semi-documentary, Jo Koy brings up his first guest - Ronnie Abaldonado, better known as a break dancing b-boy by his first name.
Ronnie then leads a dance class in The Tenement, which is alluded to as the equivalent of the American hip hop culture’s The Projects. While the break dancing is top notch as well as some of the knowledge imparted, like the importance of the freeze in the dance style, I found the reality TV style of filming this particular component quite ingratiating.
There were obviously rehearsed emotional outbursts and reactions, taking away from the authenticity of the work, but nevertheless, it served as a good intro to a stage performance by Ronnie’s Full Force Super Crew dance group.
With the dance element established, Jo Koy then introduces us to the literature, expressed in the form of stand-up comedy by three up-and-coming Filipino-American comedians - Joey Guila, Andrew Lopez and Andrew Orolfo.
With stand-up, the audience is just as much a part of the show as the person in the limelight. And, what surprised the comedians, was that the show’s Filipino audience understood their humour.
While it comes across as a heart-warmingly pleasant surprise, personally, I am getting tired of the American-centrism and for lack of a better word, contempt that this sentiment reflects. Almost every comedian who goes overseas seems to be surprised that people, who have watched their shows online, understand their humour.
But perhaps, that’s just me nit-picking. The third element of the Filipino hip hop culture we are introduced to, and perhaps the cornerstone, is the music, produced by Filipino-American producer Ramon Ibanga, better known as Illmind and stylised as ‘!llmind.’
This, by far, is my favourite part of the cultural experience. As Ramon works with a host of Filipino hip hop talent, it is fascinating to watch him layer beats, infusing the familiar percussive beats of hip hop with local flavour and let it rise with a spectrum of Filipino voices.
All in all, this is a love letter, not just to Filipinos in and outside the country, but to a much larger culture that has played a significant role in Diasporas around the world – hip hop.
Over the last few weeks, as the Black Lives Matter protests continue, I have read several posts decrying comedians and artists from immigrant backgrounds for whom hip hop is a core part of their identity. They are accused of cultural appropriation and being politically insensitive.
But what many of these comments fail to understand is why and how the hip hop culture has spoken to entire generations of oft-marginalised kids going through culture shock. The lyrics, the music, the graffiti and the dance of hip hop’s forefathers have become a cultural capstone for the immigrants and the racially-marginalised around the globe.
And Jo Koy: In His Elements proves that, by showing us how an American product like hip hop can become so uniquely Filipino when imbued with the right love and spirit.
That being said, while the soul and heart of this special spoke to me, its mind was a mystery, meandering between different filming techniques and humour that was too derivative of much better works. But, I would still recommend it to any that are interested in celebrating or learning more about Filipino culture.