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Rapper MBNel’s Fil-Am upbringing shows in his music

Charmie Joy Pagulong - The Philippine Star
Rapper MBNelâs Fil-Am upbringing shows in his music
Filipino-American rap artist MBNel, born Jhonel Dongon: ‘The way I do my music, it’s just personal. I talk about the struggles, the losses, the wins, the ups and downs. I like to put (that in) my raps and singing.’

MANILA, Philippines — Rapper MBNel’s Filipino-American upbringing in the “rougher part” of the US, specifically south side of Stockton, California, played a huge part in his songwriting and music process. Music for him is a “form of self-expression.”

“So, the environment was a little bit harsher for kids and teenagers to maneuver around certain lifestyle. The way I do my music, it’s just personal. I talk about the struggles, the losses, the wins, the ups and downs. (It’s) just very personal and emotional. I like to put (that in) my raps and singing,” the artist, whose real name is Jhonel Dongon, told The STAR in an exclusive Zoom chat.

He treats music like his “personal journal” that allows him to openly express his emotions and feelings.

“Music is the perfect way to express that. Doing that allows people who also don’t have a voice to speak about it or relate to it or let them know that they are not alone in it whatever their circumstance or situation is. There’s plenty of people going through the same stuff mentally,” he added.

MBNel just released a “very personal” ditty titled Fadeaway, a tribute to a fan who battled with depression and later on, took her life. “I met her (fan) personally a couple of times, so when I learned about the news, it kinda strikes a lot, a part of my heart, because you know… I’ve seen people around me dealt with it in different ways.”

Half of the earnings from the track will be donated to a mental health facility that specializes in suicide prevention. Among his previously dropped singles are Opulent, Shooting Stars and Manifested. He is currently working on an EP called Started in the South, which “represents the birth of MBNel” and is composed of four to five songs “for now.”

He had collaborated with fellow Filipino rapper P-Lo before and soon with EZ Mil, whom he just met in Los Angeles.

MBNel’s mom hails from Cebu, while his dad is from Siquijor. He got his “music ambition” from the latter who used to a have cover band. As a kid, he would hear rock stuff like Bon Jovi and Journey from their garage because of his dad and bandmates. He got interested in rap music because of his friends and some kids around him. He turned his room into a studio and created his first song there.

The rapper-singer grew up speaking Bisaya. “I spoke Bisaya a little bit when I was a kid ‘coz my mom, my parents, they just talked Bisaya. They’re not really good at English. But as I got older, the Bisaya kinda faded away. Like I just became more just speaking English. I just spoke to them in English. I still understand it a lot. Very good. But growing up, culturally, you know, your average Filipino family, the parties, the food, very old-school Filipino.”

At first, his parents were “not as supportive much of his music career because they didn’t know how serious it’s gonna be. They came from the Philippines, they wanted me to have a better life and they want me to go to school, you know the average Filipino thing to be a nurse, stuff like that. But I went after the music thing.”

But now, seeing how far MBNel has gone with his music, his folks are more supportive of his career.

Moreover, he’s been to the Philippines twice — when he was around five to six years old and when he was 11. He plans to return to the country soon with his family and experience more of the culture, connect with his roots and of course, stage a show.

“I wanna go back and perform there. I like doing different types of charity work and stuff. I wanna do something with the kids out there. Maybe give them some shoes out or food or something. (That’s) something that I wanna do… Something you know for the community. I just wanna give back some way, somehow.”

He frequented his mother’s hometown when he was there and recalled, “I just remember the neighbors. They had lot like other kids my age. They were playing stuff and just like exploring around.”

He would get around the city riding a motorcycle with his uncle. “You know the food, the snacks, it was very different. That’s one thing the stood out. It was always busy on the street, so much things going on.”

He also remembers going to the beach. “I remember it was storming, not storming, but it was like raining super bad. And then, we’re just still swimming on the beach ‘coz the water is still warm. (It) still feels good even though it’s pouring ugly outside.”

MBNel loves a variety of Filipino dishes, such as lechon, humba, dinuguan, pancit, lumpia, sinigang, halo-halo, sisig and ginat-an.

He concluded the interview with a simple reminder for his Filipino fans: “Don’t let certain circumstances hold you back. Always strive to aim for your goal or dream because nothing is impossible.  If you believe in something and you truly do, go after and chase after it ‘coz we only have one life. And you won’t find out, you can’t find something out unless you try, so whatever it is, just go out there and try.”

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