He Was Introduced to Queens Hip-Hop When He Was in Fourth Grade. The Rest Is History

A profile of Paolo Javier, a Filipino immigrant and former Queens Poet Laureate who has shattered walls of adversity to have his voice heard through almost every form of art you can think of. 

By Lucas Basham

Photo courtesy of Paolo Javier from SWERVE by Lynne Sachs, 2022

Paolo Javier is a poet, a filmmaker, a musician, and an artist of all trades. But back in fourth grade, he wasn’t any of those things. Living in a small town in the Philippines on the outskirts of Manila, he was unenthused by school, and couldn’t seem to find a passion that he could follow. Until one day, a friend of his introduced him to the Queens hip hop group Run-DMC, putting his life on a course defined by growth, adversity, and art. 

Today, Javier lives halfway around the globe in Queens, New York City, and teaches English at Poly Prep. As well as being a husband and a father, Javier is a published experimental poet, former poet laureate of his borough, and immigrant. He lived in Westchester, Cairo, and Vancouver before settling in Queens, a place he loves for its openness, diversity, and community.

Having lived around the world, Javier, as a Filipino person of color, has been forced to face countless acts of racism, which, he said, have shaped the person he is today. 

Recently, Javier published his new book O.B.B. a.k.a. The Original Brown Boy, which is, at the surface, a collection of comics and poetry inspired by his life as an immigrant and his love for Filipino culture and art. Below the surface, it’s a lot more than just that.

To tell such a story in such a unique way, Javier didn’t just construct such a work of art out of thin air. For better and for worse, he encountered adversity, lived around the world, and drew inspiration from the people he learned about and met along the way, beginning way back as a nine-year-old in the Philippines.

When a white friend of Javier’s who lived on the other side of Las Piñas, Metro Manila, introduced him to Run-DMC in fourth grade, Javier recalled that he probably said something like, “‘What is this unbelievable music?’” With not too much work to produce for class, Javier, for fun, wrote a poem mimicking the flow of Run-DMC. From there, there was no turning back. 

Already a huge fan of comic books, the combination of rap and comics led to a growing love for art. Javier said that the introduction of Run-DMC was important “for someone [like him] at nine-years-old who loves English and suddenly you can set a beat to it and then you can rhyme.” The incredibly influential 80s hip hop group, best known by today’s younger generations for their hit “It’s Tricky”, inspired Javier’s original passion for art.

“In middle school,” he said, “I just started writing poems instinctively.” When Javier was 12 years old he moved to Katonah, New York, a small suburb almost 40 miles north of New York City. There, he recalled, “the suburban life drove me nuts.” 

Beginning to write poetry more consistently as he entered eighth grade, Javier remembered a poem he wrote for his eighth grade English class. It was a monologue of Logan from the Wolverine comics he was reading. “I just started writing in the voice of Logan,” he said, “it looked like a poem.”

Javier’s memories of his short time in Katonah are mostly of his visits to Queens, where his aunt and his godmother lived. Immediately, he noticed and grew attached to the queer filipino community in Queens. “I grew up in a very queer place [in the Phillipines] and it felt like home to me,” he said.

“I was depressed,” he recalled, “I was unsure of where I wanted to be, unsure of my identity, and poetry really filled my life with so much meaning.”

Soon after Javier’s move to Westchester, he and his family moved to Cairo, Egypt because of his father’s job. There, he attended high school at Cairo American College, where a teacher introduced him to the work of Robert Frost. This experience in Cairo was one of Javier’s several encounters with different cultures and languages, which have certainly influenced his poetry and art. 

After Cairo, Javier traveled back to the Americas, and then north to attend the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada. There, he struggled severely with racism and adversity. Nonetheless, Javier really began to find his voice in poetry in college. He called it “a way for me to survive.” 

“I didn’t feel like I got support from faculty in terms of steering me in the direction that was truthful to my interests, to who I was as a person,” he said, “ … and we’re not even talking about exploring other types of literature and experimental exploration with identity, gender, sexuality, ethnicity.”

He recalled feeling “erased” and “institutionally invisible,” as well as experiencing countless microaggressions. When he applied for graduate school at UBC, the head of the program turned him down and said, “I feel you’ll do better elsewhere.” 

Javier recalled being attacked physically by neonazis in Vancouver, but was hesitant to talk more about it. 

This city, which has so much “unacknowledged racism in its history,” was named the most anti-asian city in North America, according to a Bloomberg study on the case. COVID-19 issues have brought the worst out in anti-Asian hate crimes all over the world, but clearly revealed the racist nature of Vancouver that Javier referenced. 

According to Bloomberg, “more anti-Asian hate crimes were reported to police in Vancouver, a city of 700,000 people, than in the top 10 most populous U.S. cities combined.” Furthermore, “almost 1 out of every 2 residents of Asian descent in British Columbia [experienced] a hate incident in the past year, [and] the region is confronting an undercurrent of racism that runs as long and deep as the historical links stretching across the Pacific.”

However, in Vancouver, Javier discovered poetry in a particular way. “I was depressed,” he recalled, “I was unsure of where I wanted to be, unsure of my identity, and poetry really filled my life with so much meaning.”

In order to overcome the adversity, well, he packed up his bags and went to New York City.

Javier noticed and grew attached to the queer Filipino community in Queens. “I grew up in a very queer place [in the Philippines] and it felt like home to me,” he said.

In NYC, Javier spent a few years focusing on his own poetry before applying to be the poet laureate of Queens in 2010. He had no expectations of getting the role, but had the opportunity and said to himself, ‘hey, why not?’ To Javier’s surprise, he was appointed as the poet laureate, a position where he found himself really able to interact with the Queens community. 

Javier recalls that one of the most notable events he put on during his time as laureate was at the end of his tenure in 2014. He organized a program called ETERNiDAY where he filled the Queens Museum with “experimental poetry and artists performing all at once … no hierarchy, no main stage.” There were also workshops and a book fair.

Stephen Motika, Javier’s publisher, notes that there is very little documentation of the event online. He, along with many others, wish there was. It was an incredible showcase of the capabilities and diversity of the Queens community. He called it “wonderful” and “fun.”

Now, Javier works at Poly Prep, a private school in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where he teaches English. As one of his students, I can attest that he is open and empathetic and always puts the health of his students first. Javier teaches passionately and always encourages his students to think far below the surface of the literature he presents them with.

Photo courtesy of Queens Museum

Javier comes from a family of educators, and finds joy in teaching despite often finding it “exhausting,” especially with COVID. Nonetheless, he puts a smile on his face every day of the week, happy to be in a city and a school where he is surrounded by diversity and community.

Just like he grew attached to the welcoming Queer Filipino community in Queens when he visited as a kid, Javier loves the city now for its diverse and open communities — the opposite of the racist communities he fell victim to in places like Vancouver.

Having written 5 full length books of poetry and an accompanying 10 chapbooks (small books of short poems), Javier doesn’t “have the same urge to publish” as he used to. Nonetheless, he just recently published his new book O.B.B. a.k.a. The Original Brown Boy. A work more than 20 years in the making with many identities, O.B.B. is a collection of comics, illustrations, sonnets, and poems. The book uniquely represents and explains his experiences as an immigrant and person of color as well as the place in his heart for Filipino art and culture.

Javier’s publishing company, Nightboat Books, explains on its website that the comics poem is an “homage to the Mimeo Revolution, weird fiction, Kamishibai, the political cartoon, Pilipinx komiks history, and the poet bpNichol.” Further, “Javier deconstructs a post-9/11 Pilipinx identity amid the lasting fog of the Philippine American War.”

Initially, Motika (Javier’s publisher), was hesitant about the book. He said that his original image of the book was “a crazy comic book with all these different kinds of art, and all these different modes, and all these different origin stories.” He wasn’t sure how “it would work as a book,” and it felt like it would need to be multiple volumes.

In the afterword of O.B.B., Javier explains his thought process on the combination of comics and poetry: “Perhaps poetry and comics offer such an appealing hybrid language art to explore because of its potentially rich, as [the poet bpNichol] put it, ‘means by which to reach out and touch the other.’”

Now, sitting on a small wooden bench and observing the nature of Poly’s pond on a chilly and windy November afternoon, Javier welcomes the bitterness, recognizing that he’s come a long way from his days in Vancouver. In a long black overcoat, dark black RayBan sunglasses that completely shade over his eyes and a brimmed black hat, he absorbs the light that is left, always finding the optimism in things.

“He’ll do better elsewhere,” they said in Vancouver. “Hey, maybe they were right,” Javier said. 

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