Hollis Wong-Wear and I are sitting over coffee in a high-ceilinged cafe in Philadelphia’s Fishtown, a White, working-class community on the tail-end of major gentrification that has seemingly increased its racial diversity. The Seattle singer, songwriter and poet is surprisingly fresh-faced considering how intensely she performed the night before at Johnny Brenda’s, the Fishtown bar where Tessa Thompson’s Bianca sings in "Creed." An early stop in her 11-city tour with her electro-R&B trio, The Flavr Blue, the gig drew an audience of no more than a few dozen people. Undaunted, she threw everything into the show, leading sing-alongs and darting into the crowd before and after the set, talking to fans as if they were longtime friends.
Very little about either setting, show or interview, makes sense when one considers the facts. Wong-Wear isn’t some unknown barroom singer. At 28, she’s an established poet with a Grammy-nomination under her belt thanks to her work on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ "The Heist."
Lately, she’s been an important part of the duo’s turn towards anti-racist action, co-creating their new hit "White Privilege II" with other artists and activists. (Wong-Wear was also featured in Jay Smooth’s comprehensive Colorlines interview with the song’s creative team last month.)
But even with these credits under her belt, Wong-Wear isn’t on some pop-star shit. Her candor, creativity and unapologetically political beliefs are a big part of her immediate appeal—and why she’s challenging the roles women of color play in music from the inside out.
"I never could’ve anticipated where I’m at right now," Wong-Wear says with genuine humility. "If there’s one thing that I’ve learned, it’s that I can’t anticipate where my career goes."
Wong-Wear’s creative trajectory actually began not in music or poetry, but the food world. "My mom owned a Chinese restaurant when I was born, in a suburb outside of San Francisco," she recounts. "My mom, being a total boss and entrepreneur, employed a staff of probably a dozen Chinese immigrants—including some of our relatives—and ran a de facto community space. That has a lot to do with my own [path]."
Already, Wong-Wear’s story of her mother stands apart from the popular narratives of Asian-American women as docile and unassuming. She explains as much in the performance piece embedded above, noting her mother’s struggle and how that affected her own sense of Asian-American identity.
"Any person who is proud to talk about their API identity, while also lending their voices to issues that address topics about our community, I have a huge amount of respect for," says Catzie Vilayphonh, one half of influential spoken word duo Yellow Rage. She met Wong-Wear at a 2013 panel and has followed her work ever since. "It’s very easy to show off pictures of mom’s cooking or visiting ‘the homeland,’ but if you’re going to claim the Asianness, then you should have the voice to speak up about the not-so-proud moments too."
As a kid, Wong-Wear pursued musical theater until, believing that "an Asian girl with a lisp wouldn’t do well on Broadway," she got into spoken-word poetry through the Bay Area arts and youth development organization Youth Speaks. There she found a diverse creative community and developed what she calls her "growing awareness-slash-resentment of racial politics in the suburbs." Youth Speaks empowered her to create and perform her own work—something that she values to this day.
In 2005 she went to Seattle University, where she continued writing and performing poetry and started rapping as half of the duo Canary Sing. The city’s vibrant hip-hop underground brought her in touch with artists like the Blue Scholars (who she worked with as a tour manager) and Gabriel Teordos. Her work ethic, whether creating or helping others create, is what her The Flavr Blue bandmate Lace Cadence calls her greatest strength. "Whatever she’s focused on, she gets it done. I’ve seen her succeed in so many realms by working non-stop until she accomplishes what she’s trying to," he says.
In that scene, she also met Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and worked with them in multiple capacities. She produced the music video for their breakthrough hit "Thrift Shop," introduced them to "Same Love" singer Mary Lambert and tackled the hook for "White Walls." "[They] were the prime example of how to just hustle as an independent artist," she says about her frequent collaborators.
To Wong-Wear’s credit, she is open about how her career has been propelled by an independent White rapper and producer synonymous to many with cultural appropriation in mainstream hip-hop. "When you think ‘indie,’ you think ‘White,’ and like with anything, ‘White’ is normative," she explains. "But ‘White Privilege II’ never would’ve come out if they had been signed [to a major label], not just because the content’s too radical, but because they never would’ve allowed a signed artist to engage in a community process."
But to focus on Wong-Wear’s relationship with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis is to risk the typical sexist and racist follies of judging women of color through their proximity to White men. The Seattle Times made that mistake when they published a piece in December on The Flavr Blue that originally called Wong-Wear a "Macklemore sidekick" in the headline. She clapped back at their reductive reasoning (and an editor’s condescending non-apology after she confronted them) with a blistering Medium editorial:
A word is a branch that grows from the tree of intent. Clipping a word from one’s vocabulary does not get to the root of why that word sprouted in the first place. Using the word “sidekick” was a poor choice. But when faced with how insulting their articulation was, the regret was the word itself and not its actual implication to my character. Essentially, they said sorry that they unknowingly used a word that was touchy with my people, but refused to even try to see how it undermined me, and instead chose to reaffirm their position as cultural authority while gaslighting me into the role of the angry Asian woman.
"She could have easily let it slide and said, ‘Maybe he didn’t know,’" says Vilayphonh. "But she took that opportunity to disarm the ‘quiet Asians don’t wanna rock the boat’ stereotype while also schooling so many people who, up until that moment, never saw APIs as people of color nor ever knew the historical contexts of Asians in media getting relegated to being the sidekicks of Whites. If you learned something, then she did her job."
Past the essay’s quote-worthy takedowns of racist bias in media, the choice of venue speaks volumes about Wong-Wear’s political convictions. "When I was writing that op-ed, I wanted to pitch it to The Huffington Post and other places. But my friend who’s a freelancer said, ‘Publish that shit on Medium. Otherwise, if you ever do an anthology of essays, [the publication] owns that shit.’ When you’re an independent artist, you’re matching your ability to create that content with an entrepreneurial interest."
While she sees where her career leads, Wong-Wear’s MO is to get her art to as as big an audience as possible while controlling the production and distribution.
That MO has guided her mentorship of youth poets in Seattle, her collaborations with Macklemore, and even her goals with the largely apolitical The Flavr Blue: "Our goal is the make music that brings people together, and I think that, in and of itself, can be a very simple political undertaking—that understanding that the power of music to bring people together. Those moments of joy and celebration are worthwhile."
Hollis Wong-Wear is on a West Coast tour with The Flavr Blue throughout March. Visit their website for the schedule of shows.