WATCH: ‘Save Our Seas,’ hip hop anthem for ASEAN solidarity
Love for hip hop brought Tu Pham of Vietnam and Marx Sickmind of the Philippines together as friends and collaborators in Australia.
Their shared hope to raise awareness about China’s aggressive posture in Southeast Asia led them to create what has become the hip hop anthem for Southeast Asian solidarity.
Their rap song “Save Our Seas” which was posted in November 2019, has been viewed more than 65,000 times on YouTube. ( I wrote about how it has gotten more attention since Chinese authorities put out it’s propaganda ‘One Sea’ music video aimed at Filipinos.)
Tu and Mark, as Marx Sickmind is also called, recently shared their story in a Zoom interview with me and filmmaker Grace Simbulan. They talked about being part of the diaspora, their passion for hip hop, and why they collaborated on a rap song on China’s bid to claim pretty much all the waters around Southeast Asia.
Tu was born in Australia to refugees from Vietnam on boats in the 1970s and 1980s. Mark was born in the Philippines to a Scottish father and a Filipina mother who brought him to Australia when he was two years old.
They were each drawn to hip hop as teenagers, to the music of artists like Tupac and Public Enemy.
“It’s a medium which is accessible to a lot of people who don’t have formal musical training,” Tu says. “So in a sense, it’s kind of democratic. And it’s like anyone who has access to the music.”
Mark found rap an effective medium to express his political beliefs. One of them is advocating for mental health care. That’s where his rap handled, Sickmind, comes from.
“I’m a bit of an advocate,” he says. “Along with politics, mental health is also a topic that I like to bring awareness to.”
Tu and Mark have remained passionate about hip hop to this day even as they keep busy with careers. Tu is now a doctor. Mark works in corporate security.
They met around five years ago when they became friends and collaborators. Mark likes to tell this quirky story about how that happened: “So I was involved in Asian street gang and when our members would sustain injuries like a slash or a stabbing, Tu would be the doctor who would treat us so that we wouldn’t have to go to the public hospital.”
“I’ve never heard of this before,” Tu says, laughing.
In fact, Mark had seen Tu’s work online and reached out to him about working together. And they did, writing songs, performing together and producing videos.
The idea for “Save Our Seas” emerged last year. That was when it became even clearer that China, under the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, was determined to dominate the waters around Southeast Asia.
Tu said his community and his own parents were becoming more worried.
“I can see that they’re very upset about it. I can see that it was quite unfair, and that it was really important that Vietnam has its sovereignty respected. Then I realized that a lot of other small countries are also in the same boat.”
Tu reached out to Mark, whose homeland was also feeling the pressure of Beijing’ aggression. They worked on the song together. It included the chorus, “SOS our neighbor, save our seas. Hope our friends won’t let them take the great south east. …”
Initially, Tu sang the chorus which he said, “I didn’t do very well.”
“I thought I probably should involve someone from another ASEAN country,” he said. That led him to Mei Lee, an accomplished Malaysian singer with whom he had gone to the same medical school.
The three of them worked on the tune with producer Petrofsky, mixer Gareth David, and on the video which was produced by Dolan Funk and Chris Harding.
The result is a catchy hip hop anthem and a YouTube video that has attracted more than 800 comments. One of them says: “This is the kind of unity we want and need!”
That underscores how Tu and Mark want people to take away from “Save Our Seas,” that it is a song about unity and raising awareness. It is not, they stress, about hatred or the rejection about another country or people.
“It’s important to know that government and people are not the same,” Tu says.
“We all have friends of multiple races. We have Chinese friends, I have Filipino friends, American friends, I have family in America. It’s important that we speak truth to power. Some entities have more power than others and with power comes great responsibility. It’s important that mistakes or aggressions committed by those in power get called out. We need to learn the mistakes of our history.”
Mark says they hope to come out with a follow up song, to clarify and amplify what they want to say about what’s going on in Southeast Asia.
“It will be a bit more upbeat,” he says. “It’ll have a different energy. And I will clarify in that song that it’s, it’s not about being against anyone, or blaming anyone or hating anyone. It’s just about respecting one’s own sovereignty.”
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