More than What You Made of Me
How Beyoncé's “Listen” became the Philippines' unofficial national anthem
By Gaby Wilson
shroud (dancer of reinvention and light), 2023, acrylic and gesso on canvas, by Marigold Santos. Photographed by Blaine Campbell. Courtesy the artist and Patel Brown
Even after sunset, it's ninety-three degrees in Houston. With humidity, it feels closer to one hundred. I’ve been chugging water, hoping to replace the fluids I’ve sweated out all day, but also, because I’m anxious. The shock of ice cubes grounds me as I scroll through the karaoke song catalog, torn over what to enter into the queue. I’m so nervous I forgot how uncomfortable it can be to sing on a full stomach, how a meal can obstruct the diaphragm and inhibit vocal control. But Giovan, who runs this restaurant with his friend Mark, ordered half the menu for me, and I really can’t imagine where I’d get longganisa tots and brisket kare kare back home in New York.
The air is charged with that restless August feeling, the one that follows when you realize there are only so many Saturday nights left in a summer. To my right, a couple shares a cocktail the size of a fishbowl. To my left, cheers and Top 40 song fragments from a pair of lively private party rooms occasionally spill out into the rest of the space. Flecks of colored light dance on the frosted glass partition that separates the revelers from the rest of the dining room. But the main event tonight at Be More Pacific, one of Houston’s buzzy new Filipino restaurants, is open mic karaoke. The participation of everyone within earshot is encouraged.
Giovan, who was born and raised in Houston, introduces me to his sister Regina and at least seven of their cousins. Their mom is Ilocano, which means she’s from the same region of the Philippines as mine, though they tell me a bit sheepishly that they haven’t visited as much as they’d like. We start trading stories about the VH1 Divas Live anthems our relatives pressured us to sing as children. We talk about cotillions and debuts and other performance rituals that follow you from youth into adulthood. We hardly notice when the house DJ (another cousin) officially kicks things off. Suddenly, a voice slices through our conversation. My eyes search the room, then land on the source: a young man, tucked unassumingly into a corner high top, who is effortlessly belting the final chorus of “Just the Way You Are” (Bruno Mars, not Billy Joel).
“Oh, that’s a real person!” Regina exclaims. “Oh my god! To me, that was the radio!”
We’re speechless—mouths agape with stupid smiles, eyes shiny with delight—until her friend leans in.
“We’re not following him, that’s for sure.”
“Just a couple more drinks in you, and you’ll be good!” Regina chirps back.
I scan a curated list in the song catalog called “Easy for Women” and take a long swill of the cocktail Giovan’s just put in front of me, opting for its rum afterburn in lieu of a proper vocal warm-up. Despite a lifetime of performing in talent shows, choirs, and cover bands, I remain intimidated by public karaoke, but when the haunting arpeggiated synth intro of my pick—“Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” by Journey—kicks in, I muster the nerve for my first notes.
There’s a suite of American pop songs you’re almost guaranteed to hear at any Filipino karaoke gathering. Dramatic, syrupy ballads, warbling with big, messy emotions, as impassioned as they are technically challenging. The list includes most anything by Bruno Mars, Journey, Whitney Houston, Céline Dion, Mariah Carey, and ABBA. Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” has near-holy status—to perform it poorly is blasphemy—and at one point became notorious because of a spate of murders authorities presumed were related to unpopular karaoke renditions. More recently, Beyoncé’s “Listen,” from the 2006 movie musical Dreamgirls, has become so ubiquitous and intertwined with a perception of Filipino identity that it’s been dubbed in certain corners of the internet as the country’s national anthem. Somehow, this peculiar piece of Beyoncé’s catalog—not chart-topping “Halo,” not Diane Warren–penned “I Was Here,” not any of the ballads that open her Renaissance World Tour stadium extravaganza—has, in this very specific context, eclipsed all others, more than a decade and a half after its initial release.
For months, my feeds have been littered with memes making this claim in jest:
I’m convinced the Philippines national anthem is listen by beyonce
I bet when you wanna become a citizen of the Philippines they make you sing “Listen” by Beyoncé as the test
what’s the national anthem of the philippines and why is it listen by beyoncé?
The assertion originates primarily with American observers—some Filipino American, some not—but it has been reinforced giddily by Filipinos throughout the global diaspora, who have festooned the replies with countless supporting examples from the last fifteen years: eyewitness accounts of its performance at birthdays, funerals, and random Tuesdays; clips of Sunshine Corazon’s audition on Glee and of Morissette Amon nailing an arrangement that Beyoncé performed live only once on the Dreamgirls press tour during the 2007 Oscars race.
When Dreamgirls—which is loosely based on the rise of Diana Ross and the Supremes and Motown Records—premiered in 1981 on Broadway, “Listen” wasn’t part of the original production. For decades, the musical’s lone showstopper was “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” the gut-wrenching signature song of Dreamgirl Effie White. It grabs audiences, then hurtles them along on a rollercoaster synced to her breaking heart and transcendent voice. Its enormity has never once failed to close the first act with a thunderous standing ovation. It imbues the role of Effie with an emotional heft and gospel-rooted power that helped to clinch a Tony Award in 1982 for Jennifer Holliday. Holliday’s “And I Am Telling You” isn’t just the original, it set the standard, laying daunting expectations for all future renditions. It was the final scene Jennifer Hudson filmed for her turn as Effie in the 2006 screen adaptation—so critical to the overall performance that production maximized the time she would have to inhabit the role before tackling it. Hudson’s didn’t match Holliday’s, but it was strong enough to earn her an Academy Award.
While director Bill Condon was writing the adaptation, he felt that without another big number to anchor the end of Act II, the movie seemed, as he told the New York Times, like it was “almost over” at intermission. Plus, despite the story’s messages of empowerment, only one of the three young Black female protagonists had any meaningful space to express her feelings about how their career aspirations were rearranging their lives, leaving the other two, oddly, singers without voices.
One of these voiceless vocalists, the plain but pretty Deena Jones, Dreamgirls’ approximation of Diana Ross, was under contract to be played by multi-platinum recording artist Beyoncé Knowles. Deena was a role Beyoncé seemed fated to play, her career to that point almost an exact mirror: girl group beginnings, turbulent lineup changes, the solo breakaway, the swing toward Hollywood. By 2005, her work, both as a solo artist and with Destiny’s Child, had earned her a combined eight Grammys, six number-one hit singles, and a Pepsi sponsorship, but there was so much the Beyoncé who signed on to play Deena Jones had yet to do. This was before “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” before “Run the World (Girls),” before the surprise visual album and Lemonade and the blackout Super Bowl halftime show. That Beyoncé was just coming off the final Destiny’s Child tour. She was doing Crystal Geyser bottled water commercials in Japan. She still did interviews. In certain circles, it was even fashionable to hate her.
Condon’s grand idea was to inject the final act with a new song, written just for the film—an opportunity to further develop Deena’s interiority, to demonstrate her struggle to be heard. To that end, the songwriting team, which included the musical’s original composer Henry Kreiger and later Beyoncé herself, crafted “Listen,” a rafter-raising breakup anthem that crescendos relentlessly to its final emphatic note, blending r&b soul with orchestral theatrics, arena pop with ecstatic gospel. The result of a meticulous process that, according to musical supervisor Randy Spendlove, involved no less than thirty-five different renditions before finally landing on the one featured in the film. Beyoncé was so inspired by her time with Deena, she penned several more songs for her sophomore album B’Day from the Dreamgirl’s perspective.
shroud holding sampaguita, 2020, acrylic, pigment, and gesso on canvas, by Marigold Santos. Photographed by LF Documentation. Courtesy the artist and Patel Brown
“Listen” is a hard-working song that rises to tremendous expectations, and though this kind of melodramatic track has all but evaporated from music charts over the last twenty years, it endures as a rare, beloved, post-Y2K power ballad, especially in the Philippines. Not long after its release, Jake Zyrus, then fifteen years old, started performing “Listen” at local singing competition circuits in his hometown of Cabuyao, an industrial city about thirty miles south of Manila, adding it to an already impressive repertoire of note-perfect diva anthems like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” Céline Dion’s “Because You Loved Me,” and the Jennifer Holliday signature “And I Am Telling You.” Town fiestas quickly led to regional television broadcasts, and a growing fanbase started uploading the videos to YouTube. Eventually, these clips captured the attention of Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, David Foster, and Céline Dion, all of whom were so taken by his winsome combination of talent and humility, they each invited Zyrus to perform on their stages. On the evening of the 2009 Academy Awards, he flitted about Los Angeles singing “Listen” at Oscar parties crowded with celebrities. The next year, he performed it as a cast member on the internationally broadcast season two premiere of Glee. His cover debuted higher on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 than the original.
As Zyrus’s star ascended, “Listen” developed a reputation in the Philippines as a star-maker, and more videos of homegrown talents cropped up online. In one particularly influential clip from a 2017 episode of the Filipino late-night show Gandang Gabi, Vice!, host Vice Ganda directs a trio of boys in a sing-off set to “Listen.” The boys, Francis Concepcion, Mackie Empuerto, and Keifer Sanchez, were connected by a shared story: They had each narrowly lost a national singing contest for kids the night before, and each already had separate renditions of “Listen” uploaded to the internet. During their TV battle, each boy, not one older than twelve, adds a new, well-timed growl or punctuating melisma during their respective turn. The result is more astonishing than if any one of them had performed it on their own. Their powerful shared rendition launched the boys’ professional singing careers—they now tour together as the TNT Boys—and inspired the viral Listen Challenge, wherein groups of friends and family line up and attempt the song together, passing the karaoke microphone to the next singer at different intervals, decentralizing the performance as an ensemble effort. This, perhaps more than anything else, seems to have solidified “Listen” into the rarefied status of national anthem, because in each video, every person who steps to the mic is clearly familiar with it—its lyrics, its melody, the exact placement of each flourishing adlib.
It’s cliché to note the bigness of anything in Texas, but driving around Houston, I’m stunned by the size of every flag I see. So large they wave in slow motion, as if “The Star-Spangled Banner” might start playing at any moment. Texas was my introduction to America. Because my father was in the military, I had a peripatetic upbringing, moving from base to base, country to country. After I was born (in Australia), San Angelo, Texas, was my family’s first U.S. assignment, and thus, I formed my first memories and impressions of American life in Texas. I loved the idea of being Texan. Searching for fallen pecans in our backyard. Singing loudly along with Selena on the radio. During our first visit to the Philippines after moving to San Angelo, I wore a little red cowboy hat every day—refused to take it off, really. On FaceTimes with my lola, she still notes the funny way I pronounced “Tang” at that age, wedging an extra “y” into the middle with a nascent twang. And yet, I still said other words, like “candy” or “orange,” with a Filipino accent.
Sometimes the history that binds these scattered geographies feels so personal, like it’s the history of my body. My parents, who grew up on either side of the Pacific Ocean, met while my father, a wind surfer from Southern California, was assigned to Wallace Air Station, a U.S. Air Force installation in the province of La Union that had existed essentially in my mother’s backyard since before her grandmother was born. While they were dating, my mother would emcee beauty pageants on base for what was then known as Philippine-American Friendship Day, formerly Independence Day and now Philippine Republic Day. Three angles on commemorating one date: July 4, 1946, when the United States officially recognized the Philippines as an independent nation.
Until that date, the Philippines was one of America’s longest-held colonies, since the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, when Spain ceded more than 300 years of control over the islands to the United States. Under this colonial project, Filipinos found themselves cleaved by the paradoxical desires of the ruling U.S. powers. On one hand, they were given a mandate to imitate American modes of public and private life, a formal policy proclaimed by President William McKinley in 1898 as “benevolent assimilation.” On the other, Filipinos suffered obsessive criticism that Filipino culture lacked “authenticity.” The latter was spurred by Americans’ political investment in distancing themselves from the Philippines’ previous Spanish rulers, and an inability to find anything they felt they could productize as exotic and sell back in the States. Literature from the United States–helmed Philippine Bureau of Education fixates on this idea, insisting “there must be introduced into the commercial product something distinctly Philippine in makeup and design.” Education director Frank L. Crone’s solution: develop an industrial approach to design and craftwork through the public school system. “The ultimate aim is not merely the teaching of the making and selling of an object,” a 1915 report on the project reads, “the child educated as a citizen…and trained as an agriculturist or a skilled craftsman is the real product.” A few pages later, it outlines the profits possible from the items those child craftsmen make. The specter of this definition of identity through commodification and labor haunts both nations to this day.
Industry gave way to mass media and pop culture, and radio introduced American music to the boondocks. By 1969, there were 1.5 million radio sets in the islands, with the advent of sing-along cassettes not far behind. Local Filipino singers like Eddie Mesa and Norma Ledesma started recording their own covers of Motown songs, and suddenly a cottage industry was born. Now, karaoke is a national pastime in Filipino homes and businesses throughout the world, a regular activity at anniversaries and baptisms, shopping malls, sleepy lunch spots, even on public transit.
Giovan and Regina grew up doing karaoke at home with their extended family. Their dad “was always the one that brought the Minus One machine to parties,” Regina remembers—the family’s karaoke steward. During the open mic, I watch her and Giovan take on the role of stage managers, quizzing other customers—When is your song up? What did you put in?—lightly nudging them toward participation. At family-only functions, Regina tells me, it’s another story. “My brother and I hog it a lot.”
On that long ago visit from San Angelo, the one when I wore the little red cowboy hat, I’d spend hours with my grandparents’ boombox and corded microphone. I don’t even remember playing any cassettes, only turning the volume dial up as far as it would go and freestyling “A Whole New World” and “Achy Breaky Heart.”
Though the Broadway show is set in Chicago and its inspiration, the Supremes, came together in Detroit, the city of Houston has played an outsized role in defining the sound of Dreamgirls. The Bayou City’s gospel choirs raised not only Beyoncé but Jennifer Holliday, too—as well as Loretta Devine (the original Lorell Robinson) and Phylicia Rashad (understudy for the original Deena, Sheryl Lee Ralph).
Even if you avoid the sprawling ten-lane highways that stitch the city together, the Houston sites most formative to Beyoncé’s upbringing are within a fifteen-minute drive of one another. The Methodist parish where she grew up in the original power ballad forum, the Black Church. The childhood home in Riverside Terrace where her father Mathew Knowles held performance clinics—modeled after Berry Gordy’s cultivation of the Supremes—for her early singing group Girl’s Tyme. The popular and profitable Headliners Salon owned by her mother Tina Knowles, where Beyoncé cut her teeth dancing for its see-and-be-seen clientele—who were held captive under dryer hoods—and made her first dollars sweeping hair off the floor. The neighborhood park she eventually named her entertainment company after.
In the morning, sluggish from my night at Be More Pacific, I trace these paths, tailing Ford F-150s around curves, awed by every oak canopy that gently interrupts the sun. The church is flanked now by two buildings bearing the Knowles name—a youth center and an apartment building that provides housing for Houston’s low-income and undomiciled residents. The two-story brick home is sweet and appears to be well-kept, nestled in a quiet Third Ward suburb staving off gentrification. It’s not at all the six-bedroom McMansion I watched Beyoncé tour with Kelly Rowland, Michelle Williams, and her sister Solange on MTV Cribs in 2000. The salon has since closed. Every other song on the radio is “CUFF IT.”
Leaving the former parking lot of Headliners, I head six minutes due east toward Hermann Park, an expansive 445-acre public park within the city’s Inner Loop. At its northernmost point, a large bust of Filipino national hero Dr. Jose P. Rizal guards the entrance to a sculpture walk studded with historical figures significant to Houston’s large immigrant communities. On the opposite side of the park, along its southwest border, sits a 2.1-square-mile stretch of hospitals, schools, and research institutions—the world-class Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world. After the center was established in 1945, it actively recruited Philippine-born nurses to allay a growing health worker shortage after World War II, precipitating the first substantial wave of Filipino immigrants to the city.
From there, I drive about fifteen miles south to Pearland, a large Filipino enclave on the southern outskirts of Houston, where a buffet joint called TJ Filipino Cuisine holds court in a cozy strip mall next to a dry cleaner and two hotels. It’s still over one hundred degrees outside, so the blinds are drawn while five ceiling fans whirr overhead at top speed. The counter is stocked with home-cooking staples—fried talong, monggo, lechon paksiw. Steam billows up, catching the light as it swirls in the draft. In the corner, a woman with a bright, gentle voice sings “You” by Basil Valdez in front of a backdrop that reads “Kamusta Y’all,” a bilingual approximation of “Howdy.” Before it became the Lone Star State, the immense stretch of land from Galveston and the Gulf of Mexico to as far west as Odessa was known to the Spanish colonial empire as New Philippines. Now, Houston is home to the largest Filipino American population in the South, with Dallas not far behind.
It’s a quieter, after-church crowd here at TJ, and something about it—the clatter of flatware, the warm smell of cooked rice—coaxes me to speak what little Tagalog I know. Rather than open karaoke, the singer, whose name is Jean, functions as host and entertainer for the dining room. She takes requests, sometimes sharing the stage with customers, but mostly, she is a one-woman band, running her own sound system, moving through her setlist of tender Filipino and American hits like “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer and Ronan Keating’s “When You Say Nothing at All.” At one point, she relinquishes the stage to a man I noticed earlier bussing tables and refilling plates at the buffet station. He sings a song I don’t recognize in a rich, velvet baritone that somehow sounds like Texas. I learn later that his name is Tony and he’s one of the owners.
Tony moved to Houston by way of Laredo in 2001 for his wife’s job—a nurse at the Texas Children’s Hospital—but when he was younger, he tells me, he was a musician in the Philippines, and for two years, before he got married, he performed as a cover artist in Japan.
“I worked in a bar,” he says. “I don’t know if you call that professional, but they were paying me.”
A late bloomer, he only discovered he could sing around age sixteen, when a spontaneous Elvis Presley impression earned him a more glowing reaction than he expected.
Whether via karaoke, singing contests, or overseas employment arrangements, vocal ability is understood by many Filipinos as a cogent pathway to financial possibility in a national economy that relies heavily on remittances. But even Filipino vocalists who have managed to capture the world’s attention, like Jake Zyrus, still struggle to drum up interest in their original music, so an emphasis on covers persists.
Tony’s voice is far too low for “Listen,” so I submit my request to Jean, who I hope is game to belt through its key change before lunch. “Listen” is a formidable song to cover, emphatically not for the meek, but if done well, it can be an impressive canvas on which to showcase rare ability. I had asked about it at Be More Pacific, too, but all the friendly strangers I spoke with became quite shy whenever I brought it up, which is a completely understandable response. (I’m not confident enough in my upper belt to perform it outside of the shower.)
“Listen” tests singers’ physical limits, their stamina, breath support, melismatic dexterity, and range, which has made it a favorite for a class of singer known in the Philippines as “biritera,” largely defined by a propensity toward all of the above. The word “birit” was first introduced in the early 1990s on a long-running afternoon variety show called Eat Bulaga!, which regularly airs singing contests with specific themes, like “shy singing” (judged blind) or “love singing” (duets). Birit emerged functionally at first, as a way to categorize songs like “Listen” that are prohibitively challenging, but for better or worse, always elicit a reaction. Eventually, though, it grew to take on greater significance.
While researching birit, James Gabrillo, a musicology scholar and assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Butler School of Music, conducted interviews with people instrumental to its genesis—Eat Bulaga!’s production crew and hosts, the New Manila Sound band Aegis, audience members, critics, and cultural officials—over a combined twelve months in Manila. His studies and fieldwork revealed birit’s formation as a cultural reaction “due to a collective need to reclaim power that had been lost as a society” in the aftermath of more than five hundred years of foreign imperialism and nearly fifteen years of homegrown dictatorship. Swinging away from the earnest protest folk that came before it, birit’s emphasis on spectacle and sensation over disciplined ability, Gabrillo argued, signaled a turn against the authoritarian snobbery of upper-class tastes and toward working-class Filipinos “assert[ing] their Filipino-ness through a form of mass culture that embodied their hopes and insecurities, their strengths and flaws, as a people.” Perhaps less rash populism and more subversive tackiness.
Jean informs me after her set that many of TJ’s patrons, like me, request those big, showy ballads, full of vocal pyrotechnics. “I want to sing Whitney Houston, I want to sing Céline Dion,” she says, “but my voice, I feel, is not meant for those songs.” She confesses that her vocal range is “one of [her] biggest insecurities,” that it even kept her from entering singing contests in the Philippines. For every punchy testimonial about the last time someone bodied “Listen” at karaoke, there is another wistful admission in the comments section that reads something like, “I’m Filipino but didn’t get the singing gene.” A reminder that these videos and memes, while entertaining and even at times empowering, when taken as bald fact, can promote a stereotype that all Filipinos can sing. Contrary to that belief, vocal ability is not some sort of essentialized Filipino trait.
“Maybe you can sing?” Tony asks me, and I offer that I know exactly one Tagalog song: “Sana’y Wala Nang Wakas” by Filipina megastar Sharon Cuneta, which I usually reserve for family parties.
“Oh wow, that’s a nice song,” he replies, singing it quietly to himself. “They will be happy.”
Before I can back out, he flags down a server named Rebecca, who whisks me over to the stage. As Jean hands me the microphone, I become acutely aware of my heart throbbing behind my ribs and into my throat.
Sana’y wala nang wakas
Kung pag-ibig ay wagas
The first lines come out dry and shaky as I acclimate to the monitor levels in real time and avoid eye contact with a table of thirteen that I overheard was gathered to celebrate a thirty-eighth wedding anniversary. I know this song well enough to coast on autopilot for a few bars as I gain composure, converting the idea of performing impromptu for a dining room full of strangers into something freeing, fleeting, and rare.
Paglalambing sa ‘yong piling
Ay ligaya kong walang kahambing
My nerves settling, I slip into the story of the song—a schmaltzy plea for a love without end. It’s nowhere near as strenuous as “Listen,” but “Sana’y Wala Nang Wakas” is, funnily enough, the eleven o’clock number for a 1986 Filipino movie musical about a trio of singers whose friendship is tested by their pursuit of fame. I wasn’t thinking about the parallels to Dreamgirls at the time; it’s just the song I know that materialized in the situation.
The original version of the Philippines’ actual national anthem, “Lupang Hinirang,” had no lyrics. It was composed in 1898, during the last months of the Spanish-American War, and there have been at least six variations since. A romantic Spanish version with mandolins. An English version that sounds militant and rushed—the one my lola sang in school. Meanwhile, the current Filipino lyrics, written in 1956 and only codified as law as recently as 1998, play up the composition’s theatrical potential with bold dynamic variations and Wall of Sound harmonies.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” has a similar history. Its tune was cribbed from an existing British drinking song and wasn’t adopted as the official U.S. anthem until 1931, well over a century after the country’s founding. Before that, it was just one of many patriotic songs in popular rotation, like “America the Beautiful” and “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” albeit markedly more difficult to sing. It wasn’t until artists like José Feliciano and Jimi Hendrix dared to unsettle its stodgy, standardized arrangement in favor of something more soulful and unorthodox—in some cases, at great personal cost—that the song exploded into the canvas for exemplary patriotism that many consider it to be today.
Most national anthems earn their status many years after their country’s formation. Usually, they’re popular songs that citizens already know, but they’re declared official at pivotal moments, ones that demand patriotic cohesion, such as in times of war. This joking designation of “Listen” as the Philippines’ national anthem is, of course, quite different. Unofficial, unserious, and conferred by one country onto another. And yet, its proliferation alongside current expanding U.S. military presence in the Philippines hardly feels insignificant.
On the phone with Christine Bacareza Balance, author of the book Tropical Renditions: Making Musical Scenes in Filipino America, she pulls out specific lyrics from “Listen”—I’m more than what you made of me, I’m not at home in my own home—which present a deeper reading of the song, not just as a national anthem, but as a post-colonial anthem. She reminds me about an archival image of Dean Conant Worcester, an American zoologist and pro-imperialist who was influential in depicting Filipinos to an American audience during U.S. colonial rule. The ethnographic photo, titled Entertaining the Kalingas, pictures Worcester at the center of a scene, playing back recorded audio for a large group of rural Filipinos. It’s evocative, perhaps deliberately, of the Francis Barraud painting His Master’s Voice. In a post-colonial framework, the “Listen” memes, Balance says, feel “almost like a late 20th, early 21st century [perspective] talking back to that image.”
The narrative arc of the song follows Deena’s push toward independence. Manipulated, commodified, confused, and fed up, she conjures a revolutionary rage, willing a change in her circumstances. “Listen” finds its ideal originating voice in Beyoncé, herself a girl group breakout whose manager-father’s cutthroat business decisions, which often privileged his daughter, routinely made tabloid headlines in the early aughts (she cut professional ties with her father in 2011). And while she’s been careful to distance her reality from Deena’s in public acknowledgements, it’s not hard to see how Beyoncé might identify with many of the character’s circumstances and channel those feelings into her evocative interpretation of the lyric.
Through attention to the meaning rooted in Deena’s words, “Listen” forms a siphon for each singer’s own latent indignation. Like Deena manifesting her autonomy from within her manager-husband Curtis’s recording booth, when Filipinos perform “Listen”—absorbing, gestating, and proffering it as their own on global stages—they live out the song’s rallying cry of self-determination and demand an audience for themselves. They claim the microphone and insist that everyone else listen.
Perhaps if I’d had more time in Houston, I might have stumbled on a performance of “Listen” or found the mettle to do it myself. Instead, I spend the flight home to New York wondering if perhaps I had overblown its pervasiveness in Filipino spaces. Or at least Filipino American ones. Over the ensuing month, I watch hours of YouTube clips—compilations of Filipino singers covering the song, American vloggers reacting to the performances—and resign myself to the idea that this digital approximation might be as close as I get.
Then, on a recent Saturday night, my partner and I decide to deviate from the same neighborhood Filipino restaurant we always frequent in Queens (because I know it prepares chicken adobo with the same proportions of vinegar and soy sauce as my grandmother’s recipe) and opt for a new-ish place on Roosevelt Avenue called Kabayan Bistro Lounge and Banquet, open since 2021. The restaurant has none of the hallmarks I’ve come to expect of local mom-and-pop joints—no buffet counter, no capiz shell lights, no TVs blaring The Filipino Channel. Rather, it’s awash in white, quilted leather seating and Lucite chandeliers, like an early 2010s episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The sounds of sizzling lumpia and heated tsismis ripple through the dining room, amplified by the marble floors. On the far wall, a flat screen broadcasts an endless YouTube playlist of aerial b-roll over beaches in Hawaii and the Philippines, and the house band settles down in a corner near the entrance.
The lead singer, a petite middle-aged woman with kind eyes and a cropped haircut, introduces the group as the “Cross My Heart Band” (stylized, I learn later from an Instagram flyer, “X Mai <3 Band,” a play on her name, Mai). Her belt is brassy. She doesn’t shy away from high notes, rendering Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” more vehement than the original. Mai’s lead guitarist, Jaz, is about ten years her junior. He’s dressed in a flat-brim hat, Hawaiian print t-shirt, and cargo shorts, and for the first three songs, I can’t decide if he is effortlessly talented, wildly flippant, or both. During sound check, the drummer occasionally vies for his attention, pointing a finger up and angling his head and chin with it—universal musicians’ shorthand for “you’re flat”—and yet, seconds later, Jaz’s harmonies on Deniece Williams’s “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” are flawless.
Mai and Jaz have only been playing together for a year, but their stories are eerily similar. Both emigrated from Manila by way of brief stints performing with agencies in Japan. Both are now full-time healthcare workers who spend their free Saturdays hosting their neighbors’ nostalgic sing-alongs. Both are blissfully unashamed about never rehearsing. Hopeful about their combination of nonchalance and ability, I decide to give requesting another shot. I write on the back of a kitchen check—Listen by Beyoncé, please! Not celebrating anything, just love the song—and watch intently as a server shuttles it to the band. Immediately, Mai and Jaz laugh and visibly brace themselves for what’s next.
The keyboard, which seems permanently set to “new wave,” lays out the song’s sparkling synth backbone, and it becomes instantly apparent that Mai does not have the same muscle memory for “Listen” as she does for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me).” Still, she soldiers through. Then, something unexpected. Accompanying voices start piping up throughout the dining room, helping her stay on melody and rhythm. At the end of the first chorus, Jaz sweeps in with a crystalline falsetto.
I’m more than what you made of me
I followed the voice you gave to me
For the rest of the song, Jaz and Mai cycle in and out every other measure, battling their way through the song’s upper register, trying desperately to stay afloat, but the voices in the dining room don’t let up. The moment echoes the viral performances of the TNT Boys and TikTok’s Listen Challenge. I recall, too, that in stage revivals of Dreamgirls since the movie’s premiere, the show has adopted “Listen” as a duet between Deena and Effie. Perhaps it’s most itself when sung together.
I don’t know where I belong
But I’ll be moving on
If you don’t, if you won’t
It’s a messier performance than the band would like for an audience request. When it’s over, Jaz quips, “And that was Beyoncé from Walmart!” which, in online parlance, signifies a shopping fail. But the truth is, I loved it. After that performance, everything becomes more participatory. There is line-dancing. Patrons lean into crowd work. At one point, a cross-generational duet of “Faithfully,” sung by two men who were strangers only an hour before, unfurls throughout the dining room and blooms into an exuberant company number. All of us waving our arms and shouting whoa-oa-oa-oa in unison. That plucky, rudderless cover of “Listen” pierced the boundary between performer and audience, collapsing the space between spectacle and crowd as we sway toward midnight.