Neon Knights: Manila Grey on Inspiring Asian Youth in Canada and Abroad

Alex Nino Gheciu
·16 min read

Image via Publicist

The hottest song in Manila right now was written in Vancouver. “Backhouse Ballin’,” the latest single off Manila Grey’s new album No Saints on Knight Street, has been tearing up the radio charts of the Philippine capital the last couple weeks, even overtaking behemoths like “Peaches” by Justin Bieber and “Selfish” by DJ Snake and Selena Gomez to seize the No. 1 spot on several stations. A bouncy, highly communicable pop-R&B banger with a silky feature from Filipino-Australian singer James Reid, the tune flawlessly bridges influences from the East and West Coasts—which is kinda Manila Grey’s thing.

As childhood friends, Neeko and Soliven bonded over their similarities: they were both first-generation Filipino immigrants to Canada, who both found solace in hip-hop. They’d inevitably tinker with songwriting over the years, cutting hazy tracks inspired by their experiences in Vancouver and Manila while working day jobs at casinos and barbershops. It wasn’t until linking up with in-house producer azel north and making a concerted effort to seriously pursue music under the moniker Manila Grey that they’d make waves. And what waves—since dropping their 2017 debut EP No Saints Under Palm Shade, they’ve garnered over 65 million streams and sold out shows across Canada and Asia. This month, they received a Juno nomination for Breakthrough Group of the Year.

There’s a two-fold explanation for Manila Grey’s freak transpacific success: 1) As Asian-Canadians in the hip-hop and R&B space, they’re providing representation to a demographic that’s long been rendered nonexistent in Western pop culture, and 2) Their music actually slaps.

No Saints on Knight Street is no exception. Named after the Vancouver roadway known for its bustling Filipino population, the LP sees Neeko and Soliven trade heart-on-sleeve flows recounting their tenacious come up, offering a glimpse into the Canadian immigrant grind. Their lithe, occasionally pitch-warped vocals mingle effortlessly over trap-inspired bops toasting their Day 1s (“00 Luck”) and washed-out pop gems about enjoying newfound excess (“Sometimes”). It’s a dreamlike, futuristic take on hip-hop—marrying West Coast bass with lush chords and glitched-out Gundam sounds—that may well define the Vancouver sound at the moment. And the Manila sound too.

We hopped on a call with Neeko and Soliven to talk about the significance of Knight Street, the recent surge in anti-Asian racism, and what it’s been like igniting underrepresented kids both in Canada and overseas.

You guys have been on a tear lately! First off, congrats on the Juno nomination. How’s that feel?

Neeko: For me, it came by surprise because I was still sleeping. And I woke up to my phone blowing up with a fuck ton of messages. I’m like, “What the hell’s going on?” I check Instagram and I’m like, “Oh fuck! It’s like that?”

Soliven: It was mad unexpected, but a blessing for sure. My mom was freaking out. She was like jumping around and shit. [Laughs.] She was just fucking going crazy.

Filipino moms, man! They’re just different. I have a Filipino mom, too, so I know what it’s like.

Neeko: The most supportive moms ever, bro.

Soliven: The titas, man. The tita energy. [Laughs.]

Big tita energy! That’s great, though. And if a Juno nod wasn’t enough, I hear you guys have the No. 3 song in Manila right now?

Soliven: Now it’s at No. 2! DJ Snake and Selena Gomez, bro. [Laughs.] That’s who we’ve got to beat for No. 1. [Editor’s note: This interview took place right before “Backhouse Ballin’” made it to No. 1.]

Holy fuck! Well, how does that feel?

Neeko: Dude, I was actually talking to my mom about this. It’s so funny because you’ve got like the No. 2 song in Manila but you’re all the way in Vancouver in quarantine in your pajamas. It’s like, man! What the fuck? Growing up, you see people on TV that are famous and you’re like, Damn, I wonder what their day-to-day is like. You know, they’ve got the No. 2 or No. 1 song on the radio, their days must be crazy. Meanwhile, I’m here fucking eating with my fork and spoon and I’m just like, What’s going on on Instagram? Oh shit, it’s me! It’s a crazy feeling.

Soliven: But it’s a huge win for the team, man. It feels fucking amazing. What’s trippy is the fact that jeepney drivers probably just have the radio on and are listening to it. Just the fact that our shit is playing throughout not even just the city, but the streets out there? That’s wild.

“We know what it’s like being Asian in a system that’s completely different from back home. We’ve always spoken about Asian representation and talked about the f*cked sh*t that’s happened to Asians. And now people are actually talking about it.”

You got that feature on the track from James Reid, who’s pretty big in the Philippines. I’m wondering, since your music’s been rising in popularity there too, who reached out first? Did Reid’s team hit you guys up about a collab?

Soliven: We met James maybe three years ago. It’s been a minute now. But they did their research. We started making noise there after “1z.” Nowadays, you see everyone with the lightning filter and the purple vibes and the fast cars, and it’s cool that people have broken out their shell, but three years ago, we were basically one of the first ones to do it. So when we came out with that track, people were just like, “What the? Who are these guys?” At that time it was only maybe like 88rising, but it was mostly Korean and Japanese artists that were really leveling up the art like that. When we came out, we just reached the motherland, man. So [Reid’s team] hit us up. They were like, “Yo, let’s have dinner.” We had dinner, got lit, just bar hopped for a bit, and chilled. And then like, three years later, we’re back for a tour, sold-out, and we were like, “Yo, we got this record for you.” But at that point, we were already all homies.

It’s so wild to think that you guys are, like, living in Vancouver but pioneering this sound or aesthetic that’s reaching the other end of the globe, and maybe even inspiring music there. Have you guys seen your own influence on artists in the Philippines and Asia?

Soliven: Oh, 100 percent.

Neeko: 100 percent. I mean, it’s down to my and Sol’s hairstyles, our accessories. These kids are super into it. Like, you know how it is—even for us growing up as Filipino kids, we’re quick to attach and idolize, you know? I think that’s a beautiful part of it.

Soliven: Yeah. I think maybe a year and a half into Manila Grey, we started seeing the influence when local acts began sort of dressing like us, wearing vests, dyeing their hair. And I’m gonna tell you right now: that never really happened before Manila Grey. Like ever. Ever. [Laughs.] So that’s when we were like, Oh, shit. Did we just spark some crazy shit right now? It’s super flattering, man. And honestly, that’s what we intended to do; we just wanted to spark the culture and the youth back home, because I would always tell these guys, like, how many artists come out of the States every year? There’s so many to the point where there’s a magazine about it and a Freshman List and all that. Whereas in the Philippines, we were still listening to the Gloc-9 and Francis M, who are icons, of course, but we didn’t have no list. And it made me wonder, like, why? Is it the economy? The lack of media back home? But when people can now shoot videos with a Canon easily, it leveled everybody up. So I think we’re kind of the catalyst to be like, “Yo, you can do this now. You can just drip out, make fire music, and present it.”

Manila Grey posing in Vancouver in front of sports cars
Image via Publicist

Let’s talk about this new album, No Saints on Knight Street. Why is Knight Street so important to you guys?

Neeko: Well, our first EP was called No Saints Under Palm Shade, and that was more about our life in the tropics, you know? But with No Saints on Knight Street, we really wanted to capture where we grew up and just tell our stories from our childhood here. The ‘grey’ side of Manila Grey. When you listen to the album, it has this aggressive touch to it. It’s like, you gotta run with the wolves and you’ve got to be ready to go if you wanna make it somewhere.

Soliven: We wanted to capture the music from a ground level. If you watch Blade Runner, the landscape is like mad beautiful, right? It’s like neon lights and it’s dope. But then you go into the streets, into the alleys, and you’re like holy shit, this is a whole other vibe. It’s completely different, it’s grittier. So, the first tape for MG was like the bird’s-eye view: tropics, party, etc. But Knight Street is—well, that street is a huge vibe for us. I think it just screams the immigrant struggle—you see small businesses, a big Filipino community, and you’re going down there and it’s pretty gritty. We wanted to tell that story because that’s what we all have in common.

“It makes a huge difference looking at the screen and seeing someone who looks like you. We didn’t have any of that growing up—it was very sparse here in Canada. But it’s exciting to see it now.”

Can you guys talk about some of the obstacles you faced as first-gen Filipino immigrants to Canada?

Neeko: I mean, it’s about understanding the shit you have to go through as an immigrant. Like, your parents are struggling with either two or three jobs, juggling that because education from back home doesn’t transfer over. My mom had a degree to become an architect, but it wasn’t even valid here. So, she was working the most random jobs. Just seeing that growing up and seeing other people, especially within our group, experiencing a similar dynamic, you attach yourself to those types of people because that’s all you know. You can come up together.

Soliven: We also live in Richmond, which is a smaller city in Metro Vancouver, and a place where it’s not completely rundown. But it’s so weird how it’s all hidden—for example, me immigrating here with the fam, we came here with $120 and we slept in a basement with no furniture and really built our way up. It was so hard to assimilate, man. I came here when I was 8, so I already had a past life back home; I had an accent and everything. So coming here, your identity is in question, and then you also have to deal with your parents being gone all the time because they’re working. What ended up happening was, Neeks and I were just watching Bow Wow videos on MuchMusic and trying to soak in the culture watching YTV and that.

Neeko: You know that saying, “Hip-hop saved my life”? That’s literally what the fuck happened here. We found balance in life once we jumped into the hip-hop realm.

I’ve totally seen it in my family, too. Like, I have relatives who come here and have degrees, but then still have to grind their way from the bottom. I guess since we’re talking about the immigrant experience, we can’t not bring up the fact that there’s been this surge of anti-Asian hate crimes in North America as of late. There was even that report that it’s increased 717 percent in Vancouver. I mean, what are your gut reactions to all this?

Soliven: Oh, it’s terrible, man. I called my mom right away. Just seeing familiar faces that look like our parents, bro. That is so, so scary. And the perpetrators are younger, more fit people and they’re attacking older Asian citizens. It’s super scary. It’s unreal. It’s hard to wrap your head around.

Neeko: Just the fact that even old people get affected by this, that’s just insane. You don’t have words for it. It’s just heartbreaking, bro.

Soliven: I think what’s scary is the fact that San Francisco, for example, has a huge Asian community and that still happens. It’s like, we’re from a very Asian-centric city and my mom is just walking around there like whatever. So if that can happen in San Francisco, it’s scary to think that shit can happen here, it can happen in Toronto, it can happen in places that are, I guess, known to be accepting. It’s fucked up. I think the biggest thing, for me, is just checking up on the fam all the time.

It’s definitely terrifying. I told my mom not to go the fuck outside under any circumstances. It’s pretty emotionally draining stuff.

Soliven: But you know what? I’m glad that people are talking about it more.

Neeko: I think it’s just the awareness, man.

Soliven: It’s been happening for a long time. Like, we know what it’s like being Asian in a system that’s completely different from back home. We’ve always spoken about Asian representation and talked about the fucked shit that’s happened to Asians. And now people are actually talking about it. But it’s the Internet, right? So, we’re just hoping that the movement gets bigger and people hear about it more.

manila-grey
Image via Publicist

I know representation is really important to you guys. In North America lately, we’re seeing a lot more Filipinos seeping into the zeitgeist. Like, there are big-time artists in the U.S. like Saweetie and Kehlani to people in the streetwear space like Rhuigi to even Canadian rappers like KILLY and Pressa. What’s it been like for you to see all these Filipinos entering the culture like this?

Neeko: It’s a blessing, man. Filipino and even just Asian representation in this industry is definitely growing and it’s nice to be a part of it.

Soliven: Back in the day when Neeks and I were growing up and in high school, we played a lot of music and would share a lot of artists back and forth. So I can’t even imagine how excited the youth is right now, just seeing H.E.R. winning a Grammy. That’s massive. It makes a huge difference looking at the screen and seeing someone who looks like you. We didn’t have any of that growing up—it was very sparse here in Canada. But it’s exciting to see it now.

Oh, it was unheard of growing up! Seeing a Filipino on American TV? Like, forget about it.

Soliven: Yeah man! And they just released that Disney movie, Raya and the Last Dragon. It had, like, crazy Filipino references. That’s a Disney movie! The fact that they did it is incredible, bro. It’s massive for the community.

Damn, that’s so cool! I had no idea about that, but it’s a huge W. Like you said, I think representation is super important because it can help youths from marginalized communities relate to a culture that they might previously have felt alienated from. That being said, are you guys ever conscious of the influence you might be having on younger Asians? You know, people who might be looking to you as role models?

Neeko: For sure, man. It definitely shows. It’s crazy when Sol and I get tagged in these posts where we get redrawn as anime characters. It’s nuts! I remember a couple of years back, Sol was like, “Imagine one day when people start drawing us.” And now it’s actually happening so often! The art these kids show us is crazy.

Soliven: What’s fire is when they cop our merch or dye their hair, it’s a different energy. Like, now they’re dripped out and they can go out into the world and they’re more confident. It’s whatever makes you feel confident, right? We’re just doing us and hoping that our energy transfers and they can see something in it. But I love how they use the image of MG as a catalyst to feel more confident. They use it as this totem to be like, Oh, OK, cool. I can be dope too. And yeah, you’re changing your self a little, you’re dyeing the hair a bit, but man, that makes a crazy difference. For us, it’s always like, how do you feel fresh every day? How do you elevate the fashion and make it part of your lifestyle? And then when the youth starts understanding that because they watch us constantly, it’s awesome. We’ve seen kids that when you look down their Instagram feed, they look kind of shy. But then you scroll all the way up and they have our hairstyles. [Laughs.] That means so much to us.

Neeko: I think that’s the thing that we want to teach, bro: confidence. Don’t be afraid. Go for whatever you want to go for, whatever your passion is, whatever wakes you up in the morning and drives you. Let it keep driving you for the rest of your life. We have one life to live, man. Just do it to the fullest.

I love that. You guys are out here making these kids go Super Saiyan.

Neeko: Yes!

Soliven: [Laughs.] Blue Vegeta energy, bro!

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