Loud applause fills the Richmond School gymnasium as the fourth grade class showcases their hip-hop dance accompanying an original song they composed.
Ryan DeGuzman, 30, who goes by the stage name Rubix, helped the class put that performance together when he was invited by the school to teach the basics of hip-hop dance and music for a week.
Watching from the front row, he felt a sense of pride seeing the kids apply their new skills.
After the applause, while everyone was exiting the gym, one of the parents approached DeGuzman, a taller white lady whose face expressed a mix of curiosity and gratitude.
She told DeGuzman how she had struggled for five years to help her son with his writing for English class, including practice and tutors, but nothing got him on track.
On the brink of giving up, she suddenly found pages filled with poetry in her son’s room. She asked DeGuzman how he did it.
“I don’t know how,” DeGuzman says. “All I do is go in, teach them the basics and encourage them and tell them that they can do it.”
That story made him realize he’s “dealing with a powerful tool that can help kids that we don’t even know are going through shit.”
Growing up, DeGuzman also struggled to find his identity as a Canadian-born Filipino who grew up in a predominantly white community. But he found that identity when he became part of the hip-hop community as a locally known artist, and now, he’s using this new perspective to help uplift youth in Calgary.
DeGuzman’s parents hailed from Tondo, Manila, Philippines, located next to the Manila North Harbour Port – notorious for having one of the highest crime and poverty rates in the country. It was also the location for the infamous Smokey Mountain landfill that had about two million tons of flammable and decomposing waste.
“My family grew up in extreme poverty, my grandparents only want what’s best for their kids, and my parents only want what’s best for us,” DeGuzman explains. “They would rather have their kids grow up in North America rather than the Philippines because there’s better financial opportunities and it’s safer out here.”
That led DeGuzman’s mother, Zenaida DeGuzman, to migrate to Canada in 1979, staying in Winnipeg and then settling in Calgary three years later, where his father, Roel, joined her and they started their family.
“It’s crazy because she had to leave her whole life in the Philippines, all her friends and family. There was no internet yet, no Facebook. So I can only imagine how huge of a sacrifice she and my dad made so they can secure a bright future for their kids in Canada,” DeGuzman says.
DeGuzman and his family lived in an apartment in Mission but eventually got a house in Fairview, where he spent the majority of his childhood, to have more room after sponsoring his grandmother’s move to Calgary.
“Everything was pretty Filipino at home: The food that we ate, only speaking Tagalog, the music that my parents would play. And I think that played a role in why, in school, I would feel so alone and disconnected.”
DeGuzman attended St. Matthew, a French immersion school located in the Acadia community, from elementary to junior high school.
He recalls being one of about 10 Filipino kids that attended the school, which came with its own challenges.
“A lot of times kids in school wouldn’t even know what a Filipino was and, because they couldn’t understand that, they would just say ‘Oh, he’s Black.’”
As a kid, DeGuzman was disheartened by how his classmates talked about some of the things he loves most about being Filipino.
“I would have friends over, and my mom would feed them Filipino food like sinigang. And the way they would describe it to their parents (was) like, ‘Oh you know there’s rice and then this gooey liquid.’ And it made me wonder, ‘Why am I like an alien?’” DeGuzman recalls.
“I wasn’t able to correct him because I was passive, thinking, ‘Oh, it’s okay if he doesn’t understand.’ I just wanted to be accepted, and I didn’t want this to be an inconvenience.”
His desire for acceptance and belonging came from wanting a big family like the ones he would see “roll together” everywhere. As a result, DeGuzman began searching for attention and appreciation among his peers but realized it came with a price.
“A lot of times, I would end up bouncing around different groups because I could never quite find a good fit,” DeGuzman explains.
“I had to sacrifice my own identity just to fit in. If I had to act white, okay, I’ll act white, and this became a really big thing throughout my childhood.”
As DeGuzman continued to deal with his identity issues, his sister, Rachelle, introduced him to a genre of music that turned things around.
“At the end of Grade 9, she took me to see the documentary Tupac: Resurrection. I didn’t really know much about Tupac and his history, but after that documentary, I saw how his music and unapologetic, true to himself personality impacted the world.”
DeGuzman quickly became immersed in rap music.
“I got into the [choir] program in high school, they put me on stage, and that became the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve ever had, and I fell in love with it.”
As a result of the program, DeGuzman got a chance to rap for an audience in student showcases.
He believes this opportunity “nurtured his passion for music” and motivated him to choose a stage name for a rap battle he was participating in – Rubix, which stands for “Resilience Under Burden Inspires Xcellence.”
DeGuzman began building his reputation as an artist in 2007, going “on solo missions” downtown, performing at open mics and networking with everyone he could. Two years later, he met Lamar ‘Twizzie’ Ramos, a fellow rap artist in Calgary.
“This was one of the first times I had met another Filipino rapper from Calgary, and we were vibing off of just some hardcore hip-hop,” DeGuzman recalls, fostering their close friendship.
Ramos had been active in Canada’s own rap battle league, King Of The Dot, and had enough wins to get some attention back in the Philippines, which he says was a “wild experience.”
When Ramos got a big break in 2013, receiving an invitation to compete in Fliptop — the premiere rap battle league in the Philippines — he brought DeGuzman to be a part of his crew.
“The entire trip, I knew I couldn’t fully relax until it was all over but having Rubix there and knowing someone has your back was much needed for my morale,” says Ramos.
At Fliptop, Ramos battled other Filipino-American and local Filipino rappers as the audience watched rappers verbally duking it out for three rounds like prizefighters. There were three judges and the competitors delivered their wittiest and most scathing insults at each other – for the purse and glory.
“Getting to hang out with some of the most popular battle rappers in the world. It was humbling and scary as well because of the pressure to deliver for me,” says Ramos.
While Ramos saw the trip as a chance to build his reputation, DeGuzman saw it as an eye-opening experience.
“I learned about Francis Magalona,” says DeGuzman, referring to the pioneer of Filpino hip-hop. I was with Twizzie at a record store when I came across a Francis M. triple-disc collection of his first three albums.”
Magalona, who went by “Francis M.,” is considered the first artist to make that music mainstream in the Philippines. He was nationally known for his hits such as ‘Kaleidoscope World’ and ‘Mga Kababayan Ko.’
Unfortunately, in 2009, Magalona lost his battle with leukemia but would leave an indelible legacy for the future of Filipino hip-hop.
“I noticed that Filipino hip-hop, starting with Francis M., has always been conscious rap,” referring to a style of rap, different from the gangster or party styles due to its thoughtful and introspective nature.
“It’s always been about community and uplifting,” DeGuzman explains. “That’s something I’m proud to share because I view myself as a conscious person, aware of myself but not above making mistakes or bad decisions.”
From American artists, such as Tupac and Immortal Technique, to Filipino artists such as Francis Magalona, DeGuzman always preferred smart and insightful rhymes. Discovering there were a lot of other people with the same preference made him feel right at home.
“I learned about the Spanish colonization, Jose Rizal, Bonifacio, the Katipunan and the different revolutionaries back then,” says DeGuzman. “It all validated my urge to stand and fight for something; my conscious music and warrior spirit was validated.”
As DeGuzman learned more about himself and his heritage, he found another outlet to channel his knowledge and experiences.
“God has put me on this earth with this life and set of experiences from both sides and the ability to connect with each one, and I just believe there’s got to be a reason for this.”
That belief led DeGuzman to get involved with the program Movement with a Message, an afterschool program that uses dance and performing arts as a platform to reach troubled youth.
Connie Jakab, head of the program, invited DeGuzman to teach kids about hip-hop, but the rapper was hesitant.
“I started to get plugged into that community bit by bit, but I wasn’t comfortable [at] that time, feeling like I was an amateur still,” says DeGuzman.
But Jakab insisted he should attend one of her classes to shadow her.
“It’s easy to create opportunities for someone like Rubix who you know will shine if given the opportunity,” she says.
DeGuzman agreed to shadow Jakab and was happy that he did, as it led him to find the confidence to teach.
“After she showed me her way, I thought it was pretty easy, and I could definitely teach breakdancing fundamentals,” says DeGuzman.
Jakab saw the improvements DeGuzman was making, class after class, so she continuously gave him contracts to the point where he could leave his nine-to-five job and go full-time as an artist-teacher.
“All these programs supported me by being a source of income,” DeGuzman explains. “It also supported my art because it went hand in hand with my music and style of conscious rap so how could I say no?”
In 2017, DeGuzman had another opportunity to get involved with the community, when he and his team were hired by Beakerhead — a creative society dedicated to globally advance education through art, science and engineering — to take part in the non-profit art and science program, teaching kids how to write rap songs about their science units.
“In that year, I was able to refine my rap teaching courses and really tightened it up. This was also when I realized that I love teaching kids,” DeGuzman explains. “ It’s fun, and even though I might teach 800 kids in one day, seeing them use what they learned in cyphers, learning how to battle, that was some cool shit to see.”
Word got around about DeGuzman teaching, giving him the opportunity to direct his own program, Bounce Back, aimed to help youth in the prison system by empowering them through their “passion for rap, poetry or just music in general,” which he created through the Youth Central organization.
“As I hang more and more around these kids and learn the challenges they face day to day, I was shocked because I faced the same thing, so how could I not share my experience,” says DeGuzman.
This story appears in our January/February print issue. You can find the Calgary Journal at newsstands across the city or you can check out the digital version here.