Hua Li’s walls come down on Dynasty

An interview with the Montreal rapper ahead of her debut LP’s POP Montreal launch.

For her first full-length album, Dynasty, Montreal rapper Hua Li originally envisioned exploring her romantic history in her lyrics. But as writing progressed, things changed and suddenly this stylistic ode to golden era rap and R&B from the ’90s became a family affair.

“The first few songs were more about me and my experiences, especially romantically as a racialized queer woman,” she explained. “At a certain point I had a sea change in terms of the way I was thinking about those songs, because at the time I was healing my relationship with my mother and I realized so many of these experiences I had with partners were things she also experienced.”

The bridging of her east and west sides — growing up in Victoria, B.C. as a second generation immigrant to a Chinese mother — can be heard all over Dynasty, and with it come the confident highs and painful lows of relationships and family dynamics. It tells not only Hua Li’s story, but also her mother’s, her aunts’ and her grandmother’s. Rap music, once frowned upon in the family household, became the perfect outlet for reconciling this cultural dissonance.

A few singles have dropped, but with the album now out, Hua Li says she’s looking forward to people finally hearing her whole story. We recently chatted about it.

Erik Leijon: In another interview you described the Hua Li project as your attempt to “marry growing up in North America as a Chinese girl.” Where does hip hop come into play?

Hua Li: For me, the Hua Li project is a way of making my identity cohesive. I always felt my interest in hip hop had to do with seeing myself in any kind of other. It was like, ‘Here I am seeing something that’s not whiteness, not the cultural milieu I’m exposed to in Victoria, B.C.’ As a kid, I was drawn to hip hop because I could see myself in artists like Ladybug from Digable Planets, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. I could identify something that felt shared, and yet it has nothing to do with Asian-ness. Hip hop is the western aspect of my character, it’s how I managed to engage with growing up in the west, and to find a space for my Chinese-ness and for my family’s narrative within the genre is unifying for me. I’m not only identifying with a racialized experience that’s different from mine, but similar in some ways. I’ve also carved out a space for my story. I feel less fragmented as a result of this album.

EL: In my case, hip hop was the first music I discovered on my own without my parents’ influence. I don’t know if that’s the case for you.

HL: My journey with music is dichotomized racially. I was in piano lessons because you have to do that as a Chinese kid. Meanwhile, my dad is an old hippie trying to get me to play Rolling Stones on the piano. He also introduced me to Carole King and Joni Mitchell. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was one of the first CDs I owned. That was a record that had a huge impact on me. I had been taught to be afraid of rap music up until that point, but that album is a very friendly record. It starts with children’s voices. It felt like something I could immediately identify with. She’d sing, do spoken word and then rap — there was so much texture to the things her voice could do. From there I did a lot of research on women in rap. Ladybug’s flow is all over Dynasty, in a way. There was an intense study of her flow.

EL: Did you study rap intensely before doing it yourself?

HL: I never thought I’d be a rapper. I was a lifelong pianist and singer. I went to jazz school, it’s why I moved to Montreal. I was going to have all these improvising chops and as a result become the best hook girl in the world. I was going to be Ashanti, find my Ja Rule, and we were going to be famous. I started rapping almost by accident. I started writing these demos to highlight the sick hooks I could sing. I would send these to rappers. I would rap on them too just to give the rappers an idea of where they would go on the track, but they would write back saying they thought my raps were cool. But that wasn’t the point! But as a result, people encouraged me to try it. I’m nerdy about music, so I had to learn the history and immerse myself in the genre.

EL: What did your mom think about you rapping?

HL: She was already mad about jazz school. When I went to music school, she said she wished I was going to law school. She still says it, and I have two degrees. Law school is still on the table in her mind.

EL: When you realized Dynasty would be about your family, did you tell them?

HL: I was quite secretive about it. There’s something in many East Asian cultures called “losing face.” It’s like shame but worse. It’s this idea where if you lose face, it’s not just you, it’s everyone associated with you. You can impact a lot of people with your actions and decisions. As a result Chinese culture can be very stoic and we don’t broadcast our personal things. I asked them for photos so I could think about the family as I was writing the album. The samples at the beginning of “Paper Sons” are my aunts, mother and grandmother that I secretly recorded. I only told them when the album was done. I made a calculated risk and everyone was happy with it.

EL: Did aspects of your family end up influencing the Hua Li character?

HL: My grandmother is the most badass woman of all time. I often say she taught me how to be a fierce woman. She grew up in an interesting time at the end of the republic period of China, so post-dynastic China and pre-communism. She was one of the original members of the People’s Liberation Army, she joined before 1949. There are all these photos of her in army regalia. I have a photo of her reading Mao’s Little Red Book to soldiers in a trench. She drinks beer and smokes — not very ladylike! There’s a badass streak in her I identify with and that sassy, revolutionary woman inside Hua Li is influenced by my grandmother. She also raised me. She was my primary caretaker throughout my childhood.

EL: There’s braggadocio on Dynasty, but there are also more vulnerable moments. Why have both?

HL: I think that’s just real. It’s me trying to be as authentic as possible. Because this album is about romance, relationships and family dynamics, there are always those two sides. As an extroverted person I get so much energy from being around people, which makes me feel confident to be sought after and desired as a lover. On the flip-side, it’s also devastating. I wanted to communicate that arc on Dynasty. I wrote “Meltdown” in an incredibly beaten down moment. I didn’t want Hua Li to be a rap caricature. I wanted something with a lot of complexity and the different pieces that come together to form a person. It’s not always just the stage persona. ■

Hua Li performs as part of POP Montreal with Janette King, Backxwash and Lia Kloud at Casa del Popolo (4873 St-Laurent) on Saturday, Sept 28, 9 p.m. . $12