Story by Ada Tseng.
In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies.
That girl singing the hook from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ hit song “White Walls?” That would be Hollis Wong-Wear, a frequent collaborator with the Grammy-winning hip-hop duo — and the one who inspired Macklemore to write a song about his Cadillac. “I thought it was the perfect metaphor for his career at the time,” says the 26-year-old. “And he loves Cadillacs, so I said, ‘Write about what you love. Why not?’”
Wong-Wear is a musician in her own right. Though she’s performed in choirs and theaters from a young age, it wasn’t until she discovered poetry that she realized she wanted to create art. “I realized I had something to say,” she says. “It was the first time I was being validated for my personal narrative.”
Spoken-word poetry naturally led her to hip-hop — she was part of the two-women rap collective Canary Sing — and she loved the challenge of being a lyricist, MC and freestyler, especially as one of the few Asian American (she’s biracial Chinese) women rappers in the Seattle music scene. But just as she was making a name for herself in hip-hop, she went in another direction, starting a synth-pop group The Flavr Blue with bandmates Parker Joe and Lace Cadence.
“I’ve never felt like I fit into a box, so I’m always pushing myself to be daring and different,” says Wong-Wear. “In the seven years that I’ve been making music, I’ve done rap, R&B, dance/electronic music and super lounge-y soul. I’ve sung in a jazz quartet. I’m way more motivated to do something I’ve never done before than to perfect one particular type of music.”
Nowadays, in addition to her work on The Flavr Blue, she’s excited about who “Hollis” can be as a solo artist. But don’t expect her to make an album of hip-hop/R&B songs just because she’s riding high on her high-profile Macklemore collaboration. Wong- Wear won’t be satisfied unless she surprises everyone — even herself. “I want to channel that rawness, honesty and emotional heft that I had when I first started out in poetry,” she says, “and carry it through to where I am now, so that I’m always evolving musically.”
First Musical Memory: Raffi’s “Baby Beluga.” Live in concert, the VHS tape. I watched that video every day for years.
First Song: I wrote a song on the piano when I was 17, and it’s about being trapped in the suburbs. Now that I think about it, it was the suburban California version of [Lorde’s] “Royals.” [Laughs] Not as polished, but very dark.
Inspiration: My mom emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. by herself, and she was an entrepreneur who started a Cantonese restaurant. So I think I inherited the hustle of being an immigrant from her, and I apply it to my own life and career. Her drive and relentless energy inspires me, and that’s why, for example, it’s important for me to manage the band that I’m in, to be at the helm of my own music. My goal is not to be a singer; my goal is to be an artist and businesswoman.
See Hollis Wong-Wear in Macklemore’s “White Walls” video and more at AudreyMagazine.com/holliswongwear.
This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here.