Rapper Knowa Lazarus explores Filipino roots through hip-hop

This story is published in partnership with SoJannelleTV, a magazine show about Filipinos in North America.

The Filipino immigrant story usually begins with someone born in the Philippines seeking greener pastures abroad. For rapper Knowa Lazarus, his road to enlightenment brought him from the United States to his ancestral homeland of the Philippines.

The Queens, New York native, one half of the iconic Fil-Am hip-hop group Q-York alongside DJ and producer Flava Matikz, had already established himself stateside but felt the call of his motherland too irresistible to ignore.

"I also think it's like Jose Rizal said, 'You'll never reach your destination if you don't know where you came from,'" said Lazarus in an interview with Filipino-American media pioneer Jannelle So Perkins for the latter's So Jannelle TV show.

His parents, who had relocated to the States in search of a better life, were initially resistant to their son's plans to buy a one-way ticket to the Philippines but Lazarus immediately felt at home in the country. Everywhere he looked, there were people playing basketball in the streets, many without shoes on their feet, and there was music everywhere: in the malls, the bars – it was unavoidable.

Lazarus traveled to the Philippines with big expectations, which brought with it significant scrutiny.

"We said, 'If we can't make it in the Philippines, our motherland, then maybe we should stop doing this.' But things kind of worked out," said Lazarus.

"The local scene was like, 'These Fil-Ams are trying to come here to take over.' It's understandable, there's that struggle. For us, we had to just keep showing up to the events, show that we're not doing this to take over, we're trying to learn our culture. People got used to us and said we're cool."

Despite not speaking Tagalog, their career was taking off in the Philippines. The Q-York song "Mainit," whose video featured a collaboration with the Philippine All Stars fresh off their repeat win at the 2008 World Hip Hop Dance Championships was burning up the charts and getting significant radio play in the country. They were becoming mainstream stars in the country, appearing on major shows like ASAP.

Success at a young age can breed complacency, and Q-York was no exception to that. 

"We learned lessons, we started really high, living in the moment, thinking this is going to last forever," remembered Lazarus.

Then, due to business mismanagement, Lazarus went broke and had to return to the United States with his daughter to start over.

But Lazarus wasn't ready to give up on his Philippine Dream just yet.

He returned to the country in 2013 with just $200 in his pocket, staying in a friend's spare room. Low on cash, he began working as an English teacher to earn a living. That's when recording artist Jay-R approached him with an opportunity to make money writing songs for other artists.

Lazarus ended up collaborating with major recording stars like Yeng Constantino and Elmo Magalona. Then, in 2014, Q-York got an opportunity to MC and DJ for the FIBA 3X3 basketball tournament, which was taking place at Robinsons Place in Manila. Without a scrip and with just a few notes to follow, they created the lively atmosphere that has come to define the tournament and has been their driving force on the microphone and turntables since then.

Lazarus said that his ups and downs have taught him a number of lessons that he can pass on to other artists, the most significant of which is to never stop believing in yourself.

"Don't be afraid to bet on yourself. You're gonna be scared and you're gonna be like, 'What am I doing?' There were times when I looked in the mirror like, 'Am I crazy? Is there something wrong with me because why am I the only one who sees this?'" said Lazarus.

Lazarus said the next steps in the group's journey would be to establish their own record label and continue sharing their stories, perhaps through a documentary. 

"I feel that the more that we tell our stories, the more we will be able to build bridges to each other globally," said Lazarus. – Rappler.com

Rappler is partnering with Jannelle So Productions Inc (JSP), founded by Filipino-American pioneer and Los Angeles-based journalist Jannelle So, to publish video and written stories from SoJannelleTV about the journeys, successes, and challenges of Filipinos living in America.

Check out @SoJannelleTV for more stories about Filipino-American History Month. 

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