When Frankie Quiñones speaks, his soft voice carries a surprising weight. He speaks solemnly, choosing his words carefully. Even at Filter Coffee House in Hillcrest, with its bright yellow walls and huge windows welcoming the Sunday-afternoon sun, his placid voice betrays a seriousness, like he's a spiritual guide relaying truth to a disciple.
These days, Quiñones, who raps as Odessa Kane, has more reason than ever to believe his words have weight. Born in Tijuana and raised in Paradise Hills, the half-Filipino, half-Mexican is now a member of Kabatang makaBayan (KmB), an organization that seeks to fight injustice in the Philippines. He's what KmB calls a "cultural worker," someone who educates through art. Kane is no longer just a rapper's rapper; he's also a people's rapper.
"I knew about my history, but I never really acted on it," he tells CityBeat.
But when he learned more about the "impoverished state that the Philippines are living in," he says, "I was, like, I gotta speak out.'" Kane's a vet in the local hip-hop scene, coming up in the 1990s with Masters of the Universe, the crew that claims artists such as Gonjasufi and Orko Eloheim. Last year, a few strong singles got him nominated for the Best Hip-Hop category in the San Diego Music Awards. In December, he teamed with his brother, producer Infinity Gauntlet, to drop the politically charged Cuetes & Balisongs EP.
The Philippine Revolution ended colonial rule in the country in 1898. But, Kane says, wealth has been concentrated among the few, and poverty is rampant. The CIA World Factbook shows that the country's poverty rate is roughly double that of neighbors China, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Kane's new EP is a rebirth and a response. Previously, he'd been content with what Public Enemy calls "rhyming for the sake of riddling"—creating art for art's sake. But Cuetes & Balisongs reveals a renewed purpose: The cover features the Bangsamoro Muslim Fighters, a rebel force that fought for sovereignty in the Philippines. The title itself combines Spanish and Tagalog, translating to "firearms and butterfly knives." The music, then, is a cultural weapon, used to fight for the same freedom as the Bangsamoro.
"We might be a little bit comfortable" in the U.S., Kane says. "But we're still suffering as a result of foreign occupation in the Philippines." He hopes to "expose people to the criminal activities and the illegal policies" both in his homeland and here.
As a weapon, Kane's lyricism is deadly. He comes from a background in battling, with similarities to once-famed battle rapper Canibus. Kane's lyrics are often cerebral, taking cultural references and twisting them into a puzzle of an insult, like on "Payback":
"Fuck a spaceship, to keep up you need / To have mastered flux capacitors and be in my passenger seat / Fluctuating jigawattz anytime my pen bleeds / On a low-rider bike, knocking trendy toys off their 10-speeds."
But Kane grounds himself in revolutionary rhetoric on the new EP, arriving at the fiery attitude of political rapper Immortal Technique, who's known for taking on topics like institutionalized racism and militant revolution. Instead of targeting an imaginary rapper, Kane is "aiming at imperialists, banging on feudalism." And instead of Back to the Future, he may reference, say, Anastacio Hernandez Rojas, a migrant who died while being deported by the Border Patrol in 2010. The case has triggered allegations of police brutality.
"Nobody was convicted," Kane says angrily. "It doesn't matter" to the media. "It does to us. That's why I speak on it."
Kane, now 34, wrote his first rap at 11, a song he crafted with his cousin called "Down-Ass Mexicans." Years later, his friend Kontroversial Black convinced him to form a group together. That group melded with others to become Masters of the Universe.
In early 2010, Kane met community activist Ree Obaña. At the time, Obaña was establishing the San Diego chapter of KmB. She'd heard Kane's music and sensed his nascent activism.
" He needs to organize," Obaña remembers thinking. "He had something bigger to offer the world, the community, something impactful to contribute to our movement through his skill."
She recruited him into KmB in September of that year. Eventually, Kane and Obaña started dating, and they married in January 2012.
Nowadays, Kane has his hands full as a father. When we met in Hillcrest, he had just come from a doctor's appointment for 8-month-old Frankie Simone, who'd been sick. He has two other children: Khalil, 6, and Javier, 4. He cites his kids as another reason for redeveloping his style.
Originally, Quiñones created the name Odessa Kane by playing on the words odyssey and cocaine, presenting himself simply as "a cat exploring the dope." Now, with the help of his wife, he's transformed that into an acronym for "ODE to Strength, Solidarity and Action."
"I think it's when my wife came around that I decided to refine it and not just be like, Oh, I'm gonna spit raw,'" Kane says. "Nah, let's spit raw. But let's let it have a basis. I'm not just trying to rhyme no more."
Kane will hold an album-release party for Cuetes & Balisongs on March 17 at The Roots Factory. odessakane.bandcamp.com
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