Ghost Mode

2022 was a good year for Al James. The Filipino rapper dropped some solid tracks that racked up views, he did some high profile collabs, and he’s been touring. But none of that was guaranteed, since he didn’t release any music for two years. Artists who aren’t Frank Ocean usually have to steadily drop music and stay visible once they’ve caught a wave or risk falling off. James is luckily not one of them. “I was really down and unable to create during the pandemic. But the people nagging me online and creating memes, that was funny. It kept me going,” he says while chilling in the Secret Fresh, a gallery at Ronas ART Center where he made some of his earliest moves as a kid. “I was worried I might lose traction but I kind of accepted it because that’s the consequence. I was shocked that the people were there waiting when I came back. I’m really grateful.”

During the first year of the pandemic, James was still a visible presence online. Although he wasn’t releasing music, he was doing virtual events, streaming for two hours for gifts and stuff. Some performances were pre-recorded and others were live, unplugged sessions. While he didn’t really enjoy the virtual stuff, it introduced him to some new ideas. “I jammed with a band who recorded their own stuff in their rooms. It’s different way of performing and I enjoyed the sound of my music with a live band.” It stuck and he’s been doing some recent shows with a band.

A year into the pandemic, he was starting to build a home studio when his whole family caught COVID. This was before the vaccine was available in the Philippines and there wasn’t really any medicine either. “My mom got it the worst and we had to take her to the hospital, but it was full and they weren’t accepting us,” James recalls. “After that, we just never left the house. Like, ‘That’s never going to happen again.'” Instead, he chose to spend time with family and took a yearlong a break from social media.

James’s absence did not go unnoticed. People were constantly mentioning him on social media and asking him to release music. A meme also started, with fans spreading joke theories about why he disappeared, saying that he was actually created by the government or that he was a ghost. Even other rappers joined the fun, like Filipina artist Zae. “It made me feel good that they kept me in their thoughts,” he says with a shy smile. “The fans made me appreciate my work more.”

At the end of 2021 the Philippines started opening up again, with James alongside the rest of his kababayan. “When I got back in the studio the adrenaline was there, but I had to catch my breathe and warm up my vocals,” he says with a deep sigh. The “PSG” video was meant to be his bounce back project, a warm and reflective cut with a Delorean in the sleek video, partially shot at Secret Fresh. His anxiety about making a comeback was compounded by the fact that the “PSG” demo got leaked on Spotify two months before the release date. “I didn’t know at first, good thing I was still awake. It was around midnight and I got a notification congratulating me on the new track. I was like, ‘What new song?'” They got it taken down immediately, but people kept reuploading it to YouTube. They reported every upload they could find but there was no hope putting it back in the vault. Fans liked it, but some were questioning the quality of it, since it was just a draft version. In the end, the leak ended up working in James’s favor and it has 42 million views as of writing. People kept talking about it, asking where it went and if it was legit. They were curious. “Some people thought I did it on purpose but we were really stressed about it,” he laughs. “The reaction from people who had been waiting for so long was great.”

James said it felt like starting from scratch with performances too: “My first show after the pandemic felt like performing for the very first time all over again. I kept that to myself tho!” The crowds are different as well, with lots of new faces and many of the old ones missing. “I’m seeing a lot of young kids in the crowd, the TikTok generation. They’re even more online.” While the visibility that’s possible with TikTok is great, he says some of the interactions are shallow. “They used to know the whole song, now they only know the TikTok part.” And those fleeting attention spans take a lot of extra work to capture, work that falls outside the scope of creating music.

But to James, these are just challenges, not drawbacks. “Young people are starting to get creative at an early age. The new generation are also creators, they’re not just listeners anymore. It’s a good sign for the community.” He also sees more women in the scene, a trend that started before the pandemic. These new crowds are open to mixing genres, which presents an opportunity to try out new styles like el movimento sounds. “I like the island vibe, it would fit well in the Philippines.”

Long term, James would like more international momentum. Lots of fans leave YouTube comments asking for English translations, which he thinks is a good sign. And he has lots of listeners in the US and Middle East, where the Filipino diaspora is concentrated. “They could be the bridge to reach an even wider audience,” he says. He jumped on a remix with Filipino-Canadian group Manila Grey before their recent homecoming show. And he’s been introducing a bit more Taglish as a way to reach new fan bases. “Even in Filipino places like Cebu and Davao, their second language is English, not Tagalog.” But it’s not time for just him to grab the global spotlight, it’s time for the Filipino scene as a whole: “We deserve it.”