Badass rapper with a heart of gold

SINGAPORE - Mohawk, sunnies and silver and gold sneakers.

In a sea of dark suits and sedate dresses, Apl.de.ap stands out like a ruby in a black man's ear, to pinch a phrase from Joni Mitchell's That Song About The Midway.

Yo, wassup dawg? What's a badass rapper from The Black Eyed Peas doin' at the Raffles Hotel at a forum for do-gooders?

To deliver the keynote address of Credit Suisse's second Philanthropists' Forum, believe it or not.

Apl - who is of American-Filipino descent and whose real name is Allan Pineda Lindo Jr - was in town last week to wave the flag for his Apl.de.ap Foundation. Set up in 2008, it funds education for under-privileged children in the Philippines and Asia.

"I'm here to learn how to make my foundation sustainable. And I'm here to champion education. When you have an education, you can make anything happen," he tells The Sunday Times at the hotel's Casuarina Suite.

Education certainly gave Apl a leg up, lifting him from a life of poverty in the Philippines to fame and fortune in the United States.

He was born in Angeles City in the district of Pampanga to a Filipina and an African-American airman stationed at Clark Air Base.

"I never met my father. He left before I was born," says the rapper, 37. He was raised by his mother, who remarried and had six other children.

Life in his village in Sapang Bato was harsh. There were no sanitation services, and no electricity in his village until he was five.

He started helping out in the fields as a boy, farming sugar cane, corn and sweet potatoes with his grandfather. "I also took care of the water buffaloes. I milked them, I rode them," he recalls.

Fortunately, his mother was entrepreneurial and put food on the table by running a charcoal store in front of their shack.

"She'd put them in packs and I'd tag along with my stepfather when he delivered them to the sari-sari in our village," he says, using the Tagalog word for convenience stores.

His mother also signed him up with The Pearl S. Buck Foundation, which helps abandoned or orphaned American children. An American child abuse lawyer in Los Angeles named Joe Ben Hudgens sponsored young Apl's education and helped with his living expenses through a 75 US cents-a-day programme.

"In return, I would write him letters showing him my grades and what I bought with the money he gave. I would also tell him how my grades were sometimes low because of my nystagmus," says the musician, who was born with the condition, an involuntary movement of the eyes which results in blurry or limited vision.

"I have more control now but back then, my head used to move a lot. I had to follow the movement of my eyes in order to be able to focus on something," says Apl, who is legally blind and cannot see people or objects more than 2m away.

Classmates used to laugh at him because he had to move his chair to the front of the classroom, right under the blackboard. "Some teachers used to worry and ask me, 'What are you going to be when you grow up?'"

But the feisty boy did not let it drag him down.

"It just made me look for other skills," he says.

In his teens, he discovered break-dancing and rapping while attending middle school in Angeles City.

He saw youngsters dancing in street corners and started listening to American hip hop acts like N.W.A and Beastie Boys. "I told myself, hey, I can do that too. I can see the floor when I break-dance, I don't need to use my sight. And I could write (rap lyrics) in my head forever. Music gave me hope," he says.

In 1986, when he was 12, Mr Hudgens applied for him to go to Los Angeles so that doctors could examine his condition.

He was taken to Universal Studios and Disneyland, and Mr Hudgens asked if he would like to be adopted and settle in the country. He said yes, after discussing it with his mother.

"Everybody in the Philippines was looking for an opportunity to go abroad. I wanted it too, so that I could help out my family and take them over there too," he says.

Two years later, he landed in Los Angeles and ran smack into culture shock.

"I remember being amazed by power windows; I couldn't press enough buttons," he recalls with a big laugh.

Two weeks later, however, the euphoria wore off.

"I was so homesick. I couldn't sleep at night so I asked my dad if he could send me home to the Philippines," he says. "My dad said, 'Oh no, son. The papers are final. You're old enough to remember your family. Once you make something of yourself here, you can always go home.'"

Fortunately, he soon met William James Adam, who was to become fellow Black Eyed Pea will.i.am.

Mr Hudgens - a single parent - had arranged for will.i.am's mother to keep an eye on his adopted son after school.

Apl recalls: "So I'd go to their house, and I'd get to hang out with Will. I remember our first conversation. He said, 'So you're from the Philippines? What do you guys do there?'. And I said, 'I just learnt this new dance move called The Running Man.'"

They became thick as thieves, and formed a break-dancing crew called Tribal Nation, which performed in clubs, house parties and colleges all over Southern California.

Both enrolled to study fashion design at the Los Angeles Trade-Technical College after leaving high school.

"In break-dancing, you create your own style. We were shopping at thrift stores, cutting off suit jackets and mixing them up with cardigans. So we thought we would study fashion and make our own clothes," he says.

The course was not what they imagined and they dropped out to concentrate on making demos and performing.

It was no walk in the park.

"I've lived in closets, slept on couches and in cars. I had to work at construction sites, make popcorn and nachos in movie theatres and do telemarketing to pay the rent," he says of the few years he struggled before achieving success.

Tribal Nation became Atban Klann which became The Black Eyed Peas, but success eluded them for several years.

"But we never thought of giving up. I couldn't bear the thought of not making it; that'd be like failing my dad who took me in and wanted me to succeed. There was no taking no for an answer. We were going to do this until our legs fell off," he says.

The band decided they needed to make themselves attractive to recording companies.

"We decided we needed to create our own following. After every show, we would get everyone's address and compile a mailing list. We'd mail them the flier for our next show."

They got the snowball effect they were hoping for. Two years down the road, their shows would attract crowds of more than 2,000 people. Soon a bidding war broke out between recording companies Sony and Interscope.

In 1998, The Black Eyed Peas released their debut Behind The Front with Interscope. Although this and the second album Bridging The Gap earned critical plaudits, it was their third album Elephunk, in 2003, which made them global superstars.

Featuring the vocals of new member Fergie, Elephunk yielded monster hits such as Where Is The Love and Shut Up.

There was no looking back. They started collecting awards. In 2010, they nabbed three Grammys for Best Short Form Music Video (Let's Get It Started), Best Pop Vocal Album (The E.N.D.) and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for I Gotta Feeling. That year, four of their singles vaulted The Black Eyed Peas to the No. 1 spot on Billboard's singles chart for an unprecedented 26 consecutive weeks.

A decade after he left the Philippines, Apl returned to his home country, famous and successful.

He built a house for his mother and bought her a rice field. He managed to get her a 10-year visa to the US and is working on doing the same for his four remaining siblings. Two of his younger brothers are dead. One committed suicide; the other was murdered.

"After the third album, I'd go home to the Philippines every Christmas. That's when I started to see the difference between the lives of kids in the US and the Philippines. And then it hit me: I was one of those kids too."

On a trip to Manila, he saw a child, barely 10, carrying another child, begging in the streets.

Seized by a conviction that he needed to do something, he picked up the phone and called his mother.

"I said, 'Mum, I need to buy a building. I'm going to come back during Christmas and bring with me 25 laptops and I'm going to put them in the building and all the kids from the neighbourhood are going to go there and learn about computers and the Internet."

And that was how the Apl.de.ap Foundation came to be.

The more he did, the more resolved he became to do even more.

"I've seen students swimming across rivers to go to school. They have to bury their backpacks on the school side of the river, and the only time they can do their homework is when they are on their way to school the next day," says the bachelor, shaking his head.

The foundation now focuses on building classrooms, helping to plug a gaping hole in the country's educational system. According to the Department of Education, the Philippines is short of more than 65,000 classrooms nationwide.

Apl's initiatives soon caught the attention of big organisations. Now his foundation is working with the likes of San Miguel, the Ninoy and Cory Aquino Foundation as well as the Ayala Foundation to not only build schools, but also to drive educational reforms and implement school-feeding programmes.

"I'm just following in my dad's footsteps. That man took the time to adopt a kid from a Third World country and brought him to the US. That is the path I was supposed to follow, and that's why I'm doing what I'm doing now," says the rapper, who makes trips home almost every other month.

Mr Jamie Santos, a trustee of the Apl Foundation, says: "He is passionate because he himself had the benefit of an education. But his break happened by chance. He doesn't want that to happen to other people. His directive is: If you leave everything to chance, a lot of people would be forgotten."

It explains why Apl takes a very hands-on approach. He picks the places to build schools, and has visited every school the foundation has built.

"I like to see it happen, from breaking ground to cutting ribbons and actually seeing the buildings being built. That's what keeps me motivated. I get to meet the kids; they get to tell me stories and stuff."

Besides his philanthropic work, he has also contributed a song - Take Me To The Philippines - to a tourism campaign and set up a record label - Jeepney Music - to promote Filipino musicians.

Two months ago, President Benigno Aquino appointed the rapper an ambassador to promote peace in the country. One of the first things he did was to collaborate with Muslim artists in Mindanao - long the base of Muslim rebel forces - to write a peace song.

Not surprisingly, he is loved by many Filipinos.

Mr Audie Vergara, who works with him on the foundation, says: "Many people leave and forget where they came from. But he left, became successful and came home to spend time and money and give back to the people."

Meanwhile, Apl waves off suggestions that he is a role model.

"I just do what I'm supposed to do and what makes me feel good."


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