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Material Support: Queens’ New Agitprop Poets

Meet the NYC punks igniting the hardcore scene with powerful songs and profound politics

/ January 24, 2017

Photo by photo by Jjca Photography

I meet up with the members of Material Support in Woodside, Queens—a Filipino neighborhood that’s been known as Little Manila since the early aughts which several members of the band have called home. I first caught Material Support at a sweaty matinee show last summer, blown away by singer Jackie’s unrelenting vocals, the band’s gleeful energy, and the way their politics centered migrant worker experiences and pushed back against xenophobic legislation. Nearly six months later when we meet up at House of Inasal, it’s cold out and the restaurant is done up in Christmas decorations. “Christmas is a big deal for Filipinos,” AJ, Material Support drummer, explains. “We don’t have Thanksgiving, so as soon as it hits the –ber months, that’s Christmas. September, October, November…” adds Simon, guitarist.

Material Support is a powerful new voice in New York punk, influenced in equal parts by the new wave of pinoy (Filipino) punk agitprop and the communities around local punk institutions such as ABC No Rio. As the U.S. gears up for four more years of anti-immigrant rhetoric and the global north struggles with, or simply refuses to take in economic refugees from countries they’ve spent centuries destabilizing, Material Support’s decolonial punk anthems and sharp analysis of transnational power relations couldn’t have come at a better time.

Balikbayan Box EP

Material Support released their debut EP, Balikbayan Box last July on Filipino-American label Aklasan Records, which also carries music by bands like VEILS, Exsenadors, Dog Breath, and AninoKo. Recorded in Broken Box Studio in Brooklyn, the vocals are mixed loud so you can hear every line on the EP­—a blessing, since so many lines are iconic. “Chai latte / soy latte / tastes like democracy,” sneers Jackie on “Bougie Ass White Girl,” ripping into oblivious white feminists in luxury condos: “Bougie ass white girl / Peace Corps to my homeland / offers people band aids / for the blisters on their feet.” (As a counterpoint to white feminism, Material Support does a cover of Filipino feminist duo Inang Laya’s track “Babae.”)  

Two tracks later the same ire is directed at the ubiquitous “Manarchist, Brocialist” familiar to anyone who’s ever gone to an organizing meeting: “manarchist / brocialist / fuck your panel / full of cis dudes dressed in flannel // manarchist / brocialist / fuck your stack / general meetings where you won’t step back.” As the chorus on “Manarchist, Brocialist” makes clear, pseudo-leftist punk scenes can easily perpetuate hegemonic power structures including “patriarchy, transmisogyny, hetero- and homo-normativity,” and Material Support’s call to smash them is undeniably satisfying.

According to the band, “Balikbayan” roughly translates to “returning home”— in this case it refers to a decades-old method for Filipino migrant workers to support families back home via a box filled with supplies. A balikbayan box can take months to get back to the Philippines but is appealing because many freight carriers charge cheap shipping rates regardless of weight, which means people can pack the box with however much of whatever they want. Some people send toys and clothes. Some people send Spam. “The way my family practiced it,” says Jackie, “is we [would] have a box open in the living room and over time you fill it with stuff—old clothes you don’t wear anymore, chocolate, underwear.” AJ recalls a friend in Bermuda who would send back copper gleaned from used appliances, so people back in the Philippines could resell it.

The balikbayan box is explicitly addressed on the demo in a song called “Hands Off,” a fast and furious hardcore track sung mostly in Tagalog except for its eponymous protest chant of a chorus. The title refers to an extortion scheme that took place while Material Support was writing their demo in September 2015. Airport workers planted bullets in passengers’ luggage, then threatened said passengers with arrest unless the passengers paid them off. Under this same scheme, known as “tanim bala” or “planting bullets,” airport workers would also open balikbayan boxes and often pocket the contents. “What kind of maltreatment is that / towards the people you call modern heroes?” reads a translation of the lyrics. “You’re full on remittance tax / while we work hungry.”

The record cover, designed by Nicole Ramirez and depicting an x-ray scan of a balikbayan box containing Spam and an M-16, is a nod to the scam. “It was a play—like, fuck these people planting bullets, but [it was] also a nod to our name,” says Jackie. “Like, this is actual material support. If someone purposefully put an M-16 with bullets in a balikbayan box and sent it back for people to fight with, that would absolutely be material support.”

Material Support: “we wanted to reclaim it”

The band’s name was thought up by Jackie and Miles, bassist, while attending CUNY Law and representing Muslim, Arab, and South Asian folks targeted by post-9/11 policies. It refers to a federal charge legislated as part of the Patriot Act. Allegedly meant to condemn those providing material support for terrorism, the statute has been criticized by civil rights advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, for being vague enough to extend to speech, conduct, and humanitarian aid to charities doing lawful, non-violent work. In one famous case, student Syed Fahad Hashmi was arrested in 2006 on material support charges for letting an acquaintance crash at his house with a suitcase of socks and raincoats, after the acquaintance was detained for delivering said suitcase to members of Al-Qaeda. (Hashmi was held for four years before trial, much of it in highly surveilled solitary confinement, then sentenced to 15 years in supermax.) According to the band, the charge has also been leveled against people sending money home to families if their families are in countries designated as at-risk for terrorism by the Secretary of State.

The band name came before the band. “Wouldn’t that be so risqué?” they joked. “To name our band after this federal crime of helping terrorists? But,” Jackie explains, “as I say at our shows, we wanted to reclaim it. And really stand for the fact that we can give material support to liberation movements [and] any movement where people are genuinely fighting for self-determination, no matter how the United States classifies it.”

Outside of music, many members of the band live their message by organizing with BAYAN USA, an anti-imperialist, anti-fascist movement which started in the Philippines during Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship and formed U.S. chapters in 2005. BAYAN is part of the larger national democratic movement in the Philippines, which advocates for national agrarian reform for landless peasant farmers as well as an end to U.S. military and economic influence left over from the half-century of U.S. colonial rule in the region. “The way the economy and society has been run is to fill the economic need of the United States,” says Jackie. “The [national democratic] movement seeks to dismantle that system and ensure that the majority of the people in the Philippines have land to till to sustain people inside the country. The other thing we’re fighting for is national industry so we can make our own cars and our own products so people will have meaningful jobs and not have to leave the country.”

Currently, the Philippines is one of the world’s top sources of migrant workers—a direct result of Marcos’ labor export policies in the 1970’s, which sent hundreds of thousands of migrant workers abroad in order to boost the economy through remittances and mitigate domestic unrest due to large-scale unemployment. The culture of migration has had destabilizing effects as young, highly educated workers (many of them nurses, due to international demand) leave families behind to work abroad, often finding precarious working conditions in host countries and leaving a brain drain in their wake. Jackie’s mother came to the States as part of Marcos’s initial wave, spurring a personalized investment in resisting the economic structures forcing such mass migration.

Through her work in BAYAN, Jackie met Gary, an activist and member of legendary pinoy punk band Kadena (meaning, “chains”). “A lot of the punk bands in the Philippines are activists in the national democratic movement,” Gary had taught her. “Punk for those folks is both a creative outlet and a propaganda machine.” One fateful day in 2014, Gary suggested that Jackie and Miles go to the Ding Dong Lounge in Harlem to see pinoy punk band Namatay Sa Ingay (“death by noise”) play their first show. It was one of those shows that’s legendary in no small part due its banality—3pm on a Sunday, less than a dozen people in attendance. NSI slayed, Jackie and Miles hit it off with NSI members AJ and Simon, both of whom had recently moved to New York, and before long, the four formed Material Support.

Veterans of the Filipino punk scene

Prior to moving to New York in 2012, AJ and Simon both made names for themselves playing and booking punk shows in the Philippines. AJ, from Bulacan in the north, hung out mostly in the Manila scene, where punk first coalesced in the 80’s and 90’s, under the specter of martial law. AJ would book 24-band gigs using rented equipment from party rental companies. “In the Philippines shows aren’t as frequent as in NY—we wait for like two months, three months, for a very good show,” he says. “It’s hard to find a venue, it’s hard to set up a sound system. Whenever we do the show, the guys from the sound system company [are] always complaining—‘hey don’t make it too loud you’re gonna fuck up the amp,’ ‘‘hey hey hey turn it down.’”

Simon, meanwhile, was booking shows in Mindanao in the south. “I booked a festival once in Mindanao, the whole island,” he says. “We were gonna do a skate competition in the morning and a show at night. Skateboarders from all over the island came. This was the first and only show of that scale. We had this venue and as soon as the venue found out we were playing punk music, they canceled the show, last minute. We were setting up and they canceled it.”

“What did they think you were gonna play?” Miles asks.

“Jazz.”

We laugh.

“They heard these were the bands other venues have banned. It was always a problem looking for a venue because we kept getting kicked out of places.”

“Why do punk bands get banned from venues?” I ask, expecting political intrigue.

“Because we wreck shit up. You know, destroy tables,” Simon explains.

After the venue cancelled the gig, the bands picked up their gear and walked into the night until they found an open spot to play. “This was in a rural area, in the suburbs,” says Simon. “We just walked until there was nobody and no one could complain. All the kids just followed, they supported the idea.”

“We sometimes called those kinds of gigs ‘ambush gigs,’” AJ chimes in.

“I like how there’s enough of them that there’s a name for it,” says Miles, laughing.

“We couldn’t use real equipment because it belonged to the venue,” Simon continues, “we didn’t have an amplifier for the bass or vocals. So we just borrowed our friend’s karaoke speakers. This was the show where I fell asleep while playing. I was fifteen years old. This was the first show I ever booked.”

Duterte, Trump, and a new moment for US-Filipino relations

It wasn’t all renegade punk gigs and repurposed karaoke machines. Mindanao was a war zone—Simon reports falling asleep to the sound of bombs and gunfire, friends dying, going into the city and finding body parts littering the streets in the aftermath of recent explosions. The violence is a result of complex web of conflicts between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Filipino government, as well as turf wars between warlords, and historical resistance to Spanish and American colonialism. But to a teenager’s lived experience, it was a bad situation to get away from as soon as possible.

American media coverage of the Philippines has always been grossly lacking, save for a recent high-profile story about new President Rodrigo Duterte’s ruthless drug war, rife with zero-tolerance extrajudicial executions of primarily low-income drug users.

“He’s super authoritarian and violent, we know folks who have had friends and family killed in the drug war. But what irks us about the media coverage is that there have been extrajudicial killings happening all the time by previous presidents, but [it hasn’t been covered because] all those presidents had been in cahoots with whoever was in power in the U.S.,” says Jackie. “This is just the first time the president wasn’t in line with the U.S. imperial project at the moment.” The first president from Mindanao, Duterte campaigned on a promise to kill thousands of “criminals”—a promise he has swiftly followed through on, earning international outrage. However, Duterte has also appointed progressive letists into his cabinet, including Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano, who has given farmers hope for genuine agrarian land reform. “We’re not apologizing for him, his behavior is atrocious, but we have to look at the whole picture. We need to support people who are actually pushing forth positive systemic change.”

With an incoming Donald Trump presidency, the future is even more uncertain. In a December call, Trump voiced support for Duterte’s violent drug war, potentially earning Duterte’s favor. But prior to that, Trump had called to block Filipino immigration, referring to Filipinos as “terrorists” and “animals.” “Trump’s presidency will have an immense impact on our organizing work with Filipino communities in the US,” writes Jackie, a few days after our initial interview. “As a predominantly new immigrant and working class community, Filipinos have been experiencing a rising crisis of wage theft and labor trafficking. Trump’s hate speech and ideology will surely make Filipinos targets of his fascist government. NYCHRP [New York Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines, which Jackie and AJ are involved in] is gearing up to do mass Know-Your-Rights trainings with a few Filipino communities we’ve been building with, so we can arm folks with their rights and build safety networks.”

Meanwhile, the band is making their own plans for the coming year, which include playing two Filipino punk fests (Migra Punk Fest in March, co-organized by AJ, and Aklasan Fest in the summer, organized by Aklasan Records) and recording a debut full-length in March.

We’ve been talking about some of the heaviest topics possible, but the band stays cracking jokes, and the familial warmth and ease with which their energy bounces off each other is analogous to how cohesively they vibe together on stage and on record.

“Material Support—Mindanao tour.”

“Yea that’s not gonna raise any flags”

“We’d never get on the plane”

“‘We’re Material Support, we’re going to Mindanao.’”

“’We’re bringing balikbayan box’”