The Philippine All-Stars
The Risen team enters the spacious split-level house in the hills of Los Angeles to find twenty sets of multi-colored Adidas shoes lined up in the foyer. To the right and up the winding stairs are three ladies whose urban B-girl attire seems oddly out of place in such an austere upper class neighborhood. On the main floor, several young people, all in varying states of waking-up and grogginess, mill about, waiting for the day’s marching orders. It’s nearly 1 p.m. and their sluggishness and fatigue clearly tells of their wild and wonderful transcontinental ride. “Sorry, we’re still getting around. Had a really long day . . . night or something like that . . .” and then the young man trails off to follow the heavy aroma of coffee wafting out of the kitchen. “What day of the week is it?” someone shouts from an unseen part of the house.
And another voice barks from upstairs, “Who cares?! One more day and we get to go hooomme!” And a small wave a cheering breaks out across the house. For the All-Stars, the last three years has been a series of cramped airline seats, cabs, buses, bad hotels, and guest homes throughout Asia, Europe, and now North America. The idea of returning home to the Philippine Islands becomes more and more sacred each day. This colorful and creative band of brothers and sisters represent, to the millions of fans who follow their travels, the new kings of hip-hop dance. After all, they have just reasserted their claim to the world title for the second time, just weeks prior to this interview. The Philippine All-Stars are the 2008 World Hip Hop Dance Champions. With thirteen members here stateside on this trip and a growing posse of MCs and DJs in their wake, trying to capture the varied and beautiful facets of this urban garden would be an enormous undertaking. However, at the core of their identity is their leader, Kenjohns Serrano. His voice, in heart and vision, serves as spokesman for the group.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in Los Angeles
Risen Magazine: What has happened for the group since you won the world title this year?
KenJohns: Well a lot of things have been taking place for us. First, you guys are here interviewing us, that’s amazing for us. It’s a real blessing to get the exposure. And tomorrow we’re guest-hosting on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew. Crazy, right? Which is really cool, because coming from the Philippines, this is one of the biggest things for our people. We’re going to be on MTV! And I have to give it to the “man upstairs,” you know? God is the one working on ahead of us everywhere we go and we see His hand in it all. We’re so blessed.
RM: There is a lot more to the Philippine All-Stars than just a hip-hop dance crew. How would you describe the All-Stars?
KJ: Well, we’re all stars in our own ways. I’m not trying to brag, but we got mad talent in the group, you know? There is a lot to be proud of with each of us. Before we were formed as a dance crew, each one of us had our own careers. Each one of us was on our own. We have painters, writers, musicians, rappers, business professionals, models, and actors in the crew. We really are a collection of the best of the Philippines; we’re an All-Star crew.
RM: How did you find each other if you were in such vastly different career paths?
KJ: Well, one day I found myself in a studio with ten to twelve other people just hanging out, enjoying some music and dancing for fun. It’s really as simple as that. We just started hanging out and dancing; there was so much energy with them. I was halfway through recording my first album, but I was really enjoying this group of friends. So, I wondered out loud a bit about trying to get us all together. Everybody seemed cool with it, but I decided I would try praying about it. Right after that, things just started coming together for us.
RM: You stopped what you were doing with the recording career and formed a dance crew? That seems kind of random, doesn’t it?
KJ: Well, no, not really. Because after praying for a while about it, it just seemed pretty clear that doing something with others would mean more than simply doing something for myself. Helping others and spreading that kind of energy around made more sense to me. You know, taking the focus off of yourself and giving that focus to others gets a lot more accomplished. That’s what I think, at least. Dancing is the one thing that brings us together, right? But as we each put energy into helping us all be the best as a group, opportunities are opening up for us to develop our own things we specialize in too. All that energy going into the group just keeps coming back to us all for our own dreams too.
RM: What kinds of things inspire you personally?
KJ: OK, this one might sound kind of funny, but you know the movie Kung Fu Panda? Well, that movie moved me to tears, for real. I was watching it and there is a point in the movie about how yesterday is the past, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift and that’s why the call it the “present.” When I heard that it really hit me hard [Taps his chest], you know? Today inspires me, for real. It’s Christmas today. Our future is bright, but today is the best part of it. I am with the world champion dance crew, but the best part of it all is I get to share the present with each one of them. Each of the All-Stars inspires me. Their very presence in my life is a gift to me, for real. From a competition point of view, every dance team we meet on the road is an inspiration. I feel like we’re always competing against way better crews and with more creative styles. They inspire me too.
RM: All-Stars have been a mega-hit in Europe, Asia, and even on YouTube. Is there a bit of “rock star” identity that comes with this job?
KJ: Well, there are things that come with being known for something like world champion of anything, you know? People see you perform at a concert or competition, maybe see you on the Internet, which is pretty cool; but they always expect you to be that thing they see you doing. That’s a pretty big deal to always try to live up to and can create a lot of pressure. But we have to be careful to be humble. We have to keep grounding ourselves, for real. When great opportunities come our way, we have to let it go through one ear and out the other and keep our hearts focused on God. This is what I’m telling you. Anything else would be filling up our head and get us all big headed. If that happens, we might start believing it all.
RM: Believing what?
KJ: You know, that you are the best—ever. Cuz that kind of thinking gets you nothing tomorrow. You know, whatever is cool today ain’t cool tomorrow. That’s why the All-Stars have to be grounded and recognize where this all comes from. It all comes from God. He is our daily provider. We won the world title in 2006 too, you know? But we didn’t repeat in 2007. I think we all got distracted a little bit. And it wasn’t our time. We had to put our focus back to where it should have been the whole time, back on God. We tried to make it happen without Him and we didn’t win in 2007. But we all got focused back on God and recognized it’s His story and God can write history with or without us pretty easily.
RM: It sounds like there is a specific approach or formula to your success: just believe in God and it will all come your way. Is that what you’re saying?
KJ: No, not really. You have to remember, it’s His story [Points to the heavens] and God can write it however He wants to write it. But I would rather be a willing player in the story than try to make something happen on my own. Cuz when you start thinking you got it figured out, it all comes to an end. Make sense?
RM: OK, but how do you know when you’re doing the right thing?
KJ: Well, you gotta talk to God. Pray to God. You gotta take time to listen. He will tell you. He will show you. You just have to be patient and always listen. That’s how it all starts.
RM: Have you ever doubted what you thought God was telling you?
KJ: There have been plenty of times we moved with a lot of faith. Borrowing large sums of money from friends and business leaders just for plane tickets, fees, and hotels, only to arrive in a city with no money to eat. Yeah, we have had times made us all think, was this really a good idea? But even in those situations, things just worked out. Maybe a Filipino family would offer to make us dinner or get us some food. Or like the hotel we were staying at one time: they let us set up our tables and sell our t-shirts and CDs in their lobby. And the money just came in through sales. And then all the sudden we have more than enough. And we’re like, How did it all happen? [Laughing to himself] I’m telling you, yo—it’s His story and we’re just blessed to be a part of this chapter! God always has our back in these situations. We just gotta listen to Him and go forward in faith. Every time we have stepped forward and gone through something, it makes the next steps easier. Cuz you know God got you covered back there [in the past events] so you know He’s already gone ahead for the next thing too.
RM: How do you separate yourself as something different and not just a part of the “All thanks to God, yo!” and lives a lifestyle counter to that, like we see so many hip-hop celebrities do?
KJ: It really comes down to being not just what we say, but how we do it. Does that make sense? Yeah, a lot of people talk about God and even some dance crews are starting to catch on to the whole “give God praise” thing. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I believe God is going to use those words in somebody’s life too. But you gotta remember that’s just a starting point too. So, the Philippine All-Stars try to encourage that talk, but we also try to live in a way that is more than just a thing we talk about too.
RM: You guys are like missionaries to the hip-hop dance scene.
KJ: I don’t know about that, but we’re definitely trying to live something out in a way that speaks with actions to the people that we hook up with. Like this cat I met from Trinidad-Tobago. He is such a great dancer and he came up to ask me for choreography tips. We started chillin’ and I was just trying to give him everything I knew. And after our relationship took off, he kept coming back to me and asking me why the All-Stars were so successful, especially cuz we weren’t controlling our content from other dance crews. It became an opportunity to tell him what God has given us all and how God didn’t keep that from any of us. So, I just told him that’s why we are the way we are, cuz it was given to each of us freely from God to share freely. Now that guy is really on his way to pursuing God. His life has changed. His crew’s attitude has changed. Now when they are on stage, they let everyone know that God is the reason they are where they are now. Crazy, yeah?
RM: Every team has bad days—do you guys fight or argue? If so, how do you resolve it and keep focused?
KJ: Do we fight?! [Laughs] We’re family, bro! Of course we fight and argue. There are days we come to the studio to practice and it ain’t working. Everybody starts bickering, grumbling or something, and then it just gets ugly for a moment. But that’s when you can’t force it. Sometimes I just have to say, “Stop! Everybody just chill for a minute.” And we sit down and try to get at what’s buggin’ us. Maybe a person is having a bad day, missing their family, or just simply tired and needs a break, you know? Whatever it is though, we have to get at it and work it out right then. There is too many of us to be carrying little issues over this or that. We gotta get it out and be straight with one another. We’re family like that. We work hard as a dance crew, but we have to work harder as a family. We each have to take the lead in trying to support the one to our left and right in dance and in life. And when things get too out of hand, we all have to deal with Lema, our manager! She will keep us straight, for real! [Laughter]
RM: What kinds of dreams do have about your future?
KJ: Wow. What kind of dreams do I have? [Pauses in thought] Here’s one: The Filipino people are some of the most talented and artistic people in the world. They’re tops in business, arts, running corporations, starting up companies, and stuff. A long time ago, our people became like an exported product for the world as our country financially struggled. Filipino people went all over the globe to work. They started new lives and embraced new countries and cultures. For example, I grew up in Canada. My family moved there, they are a part of this example. Meanwhile, the Philippines suffered. It’s a third-world country with a lot of social issues that gotta be addressed. My dream is to see Fil-Ams [Filipino-Americans] to just come back for a visit and see how they can give back to their country. Give something back that will make it a better place. Your magazine talks about faith, love, and hope. Well, I want to see some of our own around the globe discover their faith, love, and hope for their country, the Philippines.
RM: That’s a pretty big dream. How do you think that dream can be achieved?
KJ: Well, I think just getting the word out to the Filipino people everywhere we go is a step. We meet so many that haven’t been back in years—maybe never. We want people to know they can be a part of a new generation of Philippines and the country needs their help. Also, there is GK or Gawad Kalinga, which means “to give care.” It’s a real ministry that wants to bring an end to poverty, violence, and the slums in the islands of the Philippines. It’s a real movement for change. It’s a great place to start and see the needs of the country.
RM: What is one lesson you would like to see the Church learn today?
KJ: [Without hesitation] Barriers. There are so many barriers in churches today. It’s whack, really. I grew up in the Catholic church and it seemed so bound up in who’s Catholic and who’s not. I stopped going. I stopped reading the Bible. I stopped praying for a long time. So much hatin’ on one another, you know? You see people all upset because this person believes it should be prayed this way or this person believes people should look this way, on and on and on . . . you know? Totally whack. The church has to start listening to people right where it meets them. There are a lot of good people out there searching for someone to listen to them.
The church should start getting past its barriers and listening to people. Understanding where they are coming from and then after a relationship is started, start showing them God by their actions. We gotta get past the barriers, for real. Start meeting the good people right where they are and showing them they are stars in God’s eyes too. We’re all stars in God’s eyes, for real! It took a long time for me get back into relationship with God. I had to work it out so much on my own. And God still has a lot to do within me too. But I know this: God has changed me forever and it is the one thing that humbles me every day. It humbles the All-Stars every day too. And now we’re blessed to be dancing for the Best. That’s what we want to share with the whole hip-hop community.