New York-based queer Filipinx musician Keekai gets up close and personal as he talks about the challenges he faced growing up in the Philippines, his life in New York, about the LGBTQ+ community here and there, and how he learned to embrace his identity.
Robbi Sy—a 23-year-old New York-based queer Filipinx musician who was born and raised in the Philippines—is breaking boundaries through his artistry. Robbi serves as a role model to queer Asian-American and Asian youth both through his artist persona, Keekai, and through his music and advocacy.
In the continuing discussion of claiming one’s self, I interviewed him to know more. This is Keekai.
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How does your identity shape your dreams and aspirations?
Robbi: My artist name is Keekai—like kikay queen. My friends back in high school, (such as) the women I was comfortable hanging out with, would point out certain things and say “OMG that’s so kikay” or “you’re such a kikay queen.” To me, it was said as something very comforting and freeing—not in a way that was meant to be hurtful like bading or bakla, which was thrown at me a lot even if I wasn’t out (of the closet yet).
That word (kikay) always kinda stuck to me, and (so), when I finally decided to do music and really take things seriously, I found power through that word. And that’s what created my music—my artistry. Throughout my whole time in ISM (International School Manila), I was always a performer. The community knew (that) I was a singer, dancer, and actor—you know, all of that—but I was still afraid that it would (out me as) a closeted gay guy (even before I came out) and that’s why I was doing these things. That’s why I never really came out.
I’ve had to deal with a lot of trauma with being put in a box as a gay guy. I didn’t want that stamp in high school, which (was) why I didn’t come out. I had good academic standing as a performer, and I was scared that if I came out everyone would just think of me as gay. I thought that (that) was so limiting and not a real reflection of me. (Yes), it’s a part of me, but it isn’t my (whole) identity. I am so much more than that.
After reclaiming the word kikay and reclaiming my queerness, I found that it really expanded my power against what everyone else was saying because I defined it by myself. I found power through that word. I found more strength in pushing and making music, and that includes my physical expression through dance and through acting.
(From there), I (went) to New York with the privilege of having an American passport. I was lucky enough to find my own community here, (where) I ended up fueling my identity and individuality more—to the point in which I (stopped) comparing myself to others. By freeing myself, then going to Manila and finding (a) community there that I didn’t see before, (I was) encouraged even more to expand my (network by) meeting people.
My prior understanding (of) Manila and the bubble (that) I grew up in was very small, very limiting, strict, judgmental, and elite. I personally didn’t like that, but I grew up in it. (Thus), after figuring myself out here (in New York), I feel more comfortable enough to explore other communities in Manila that I never thought I would find. (From there), I found (a welcoming community) and made wonderful connections with them. That encouraged me, even more, to embrace my identity as a queer Filipinx-born guy.
Who is Keekai? What does Keekai want to do here in New York and in the Philippines?
Robbi: (I’ve) only just started last year and I forced myself during (the) quarantine to take music-making seriously. (I’ve) made (bad) projects again and again, until I made my single, Show Me. The reception from that was amazing—to the point that my director friend was like, “Hey, let’s make a music video,” and things started rolling from (thereon) as Keekai.
Who is Keekai? Well, the definition of the word (kikay) is a woman who is flirtatious, maganda, loves bags, (and is) super sosyal, because I thought you know, it’s pretty much me. I wanted to claim it and people were already calling me kikay queen before, so I wanted (the name) to encapsulate my influence as a singer—(one) that grew up with a lot of R&B and was fascinated (with) synth pop and artists who love including physicality into their music. (These include) Christine & the Queens, and Rina Sawayama. These other queer figures are very much like pop stars, but in a way that isn’t controlled by the industry—but rather, (are) in control of their own identity and how they show themselves. These are the inspirations of Keekai.
I have a lot of insecurities with my music because I feel like it’s a journey and I’m nowhere as good as I want to be. I know that it’s a process, yet people from my college and high school are saying, “Robbi you’re killing it!”
You know that paradox of being so insecure but getting appreciation for what you’re doing—it’s crazy! Hopefully, this summer, I (get) to work on new music. I’m working on a new music video (and) we just wrapped up on production for that. I just want to keep doing this and live off it eventually. That’s the goal.
I also want people—especially in Manila—to see someone who is not afraid to be themselves in their own expression of femininity, masculinity, queerness, (or even by) just being maganda. (I want them to own) up to being maganda, and super kikay, because I didn’t really (get to) as a kid.
I did try to flourish in that lens, but when I was performing, I would put a (stop) on it because I was uncomfortable with my family seeing it. Family judgments in Asia are very strong, and I am considerably lucky because my family doesn’t say much—which is great—but that (also) made me realize at least I have people here in New York that can help with that, and hopefully, I can find that through a fanbase for Keekai in Manila as well.
How does your activism feed into your work?
Robbi: Well, I think (being an) artist (in) itself is a political statement in crushing the binary. By having a partnership with a director like Joyce Keokham, who directed both the Show Me music video and the upcoming Goal music video—(songs) which (center) around partnership and teamwork with a bunch of Asian-Americans and Asians—I too am making a statement.
It was (overall) very empowering. (When) people would come in and notice that (the) production was almost all Asian people, (they’re surprised). It’s something we don’t see a lot (in the US), and that in itself is very encouraging in terms of owning yourself as an Asian person and queer person. I want my art to show that in all aspects, through back-end work, production, (and) through everything (else)—knowing that we aren’t trying to be straight, white, or any of those things. And in every facet of my artistry, including partnerships with other people, that has to be taken into account.
Here in New York, you’re surrounded by a bunch of people, from different races, backgrounds, areas, etc. I’ve been here for five years, so my identity has been built in the Philippines—not (from) being surrounded by a bunch of white people. That’s something I can’t relate with other Asian-Americans here because they have (other traumas). That’s a problem that I didn’t grow up with. It was more of a classist society (here in the Philippines), wherein you hear about corruption a lot, but that’s a whole other piece in itself.
Since I work here (in the service industry), I really have to listen to these people and understand what everyone is going through. I learn about a lot of Asian-Americans and (about) People of Color having a hard time being marginalized, as well as, not having your voice heard—especially with Asians right now. The problem of marginalization with race and ethnicity is so bad. It’s so serious, and the silence that a lot of people have on (this issue) is so sad.
What do you want to say to the Filipinx youth to empower them?
Robbi: I know that family structures and societal judgement in the Philippines can be very strong and almost (overwhelming), but when you end up living for yourself—like the queer community in the Philippines, (for example)—people look up to you, and I’m like, “Wow, that’s so crazy.”
Whatever your identity is, (and) whatever you are going through, just work (really) hard and stomp down (on other) people’s judgments. (This) is a struggle that we all go through. At the end of the day, you have to find empowerment (within) yourself and that includes shutting (down) those haters. (It’s) a (hard) process and (a) struggle, but once you live it, people will see it and learn from (you).
I’m always so surprised when people tell me to keep it up—it’s empowering! My journey (though) is just at the beginning. Being a musician is a long journey, but as long as I keep doing and loving what I’m doing, I think I am in good hands.
Kindly join me as I celebrate my 25th year around the sun this April by donating to one or both of these organizations below in the hopes of helping make the world a better and safer place for those marginalized and left behind.
You may donate to The Golden Gays to support Filipino LGBTQ+ communities. Cash Donations can be sent through BPI via Ramon C. Busa in the account number. 5626764705. On the other hand, In-kind donations like canned goods, vegetables, cleaning supplies, face masks, etc. can be sent through Ramon Busa at 114 San Luis Street, Pasay City. His contact number is 09216255057.
Likewise, you may donate to the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander Fund) to help #stopasianhate and #saveasianlives through their website.