This week's Montreal Sessions featured Hua Li and Shaina Sarah Agbayani joining us in the studio. Following SierraLima and DJ Mango Juice's mixes, Hua Li showed off her sedating flows over hazy beats, a sneak peek at her forthcoming new record. Shaina followed with a set of piano and drum machine backed dreamy pop songs.
After their performances, we talked about how Hua Li and Shaina take pride in their Asian identities in music and why it was important to them. Hua Li elucidated how her half-Chinese, half-white identity informs her music and why she chose to name her EP Za Zhong. Shaina explained to us how she sees Pinay identity as empowering and infinite as opposed to a limiting label. For the transcript of the interview, scroll down below.
DJ Mango Juice's set starts at 4:29
SierraLima's set starts at 30:05
Hua Li at 56:40
Shaina at 1:13:45
Interview at 1:30:50
Clarifications by Shaina Sarah Agbayani included in transcript.
Clarification and links on Shaina Sarah Agbayani's last song:
This last song is called the Butterfly Song. I actually want to honour a couple of people who made me realize I was borrowing from this song without realizing I was borrowing for this song. I saw this amazing queer black artist when I was in Berlin named Xana. This artist sang this song that I sort of borrow a line from which is “wade in the water, wade in the water baby”. And when I first sang this song, the only person I've sung this song to, my friend Jillian Sudayan, she told me about the history of that sort of line, of being part of Civil Rights movements. Slaves who were in the process of trying to escape, being told to wade in the water so as to not actually be found. Holler to Jillian for her-toricizing that line from the song and to Xana for allowing me to witness the brilliance that they performed that song with. I was deeply inspired by it and therefore it forms the foundation of the song called the Butterfly Song.
Sam Lu: So what was your song writing process for that [last song]?
Shaina Sarah Agbayani: I don’t remember. Sometimes I just need to write something and then I write it, that’s basically my process. And I feel like I can’t remember with any specificity if my songwriting process for that song departed from that general trend of “I need to write something” and therefore it is being written.
Mel Palapuz: How about you Hua Li? How is your song writing process, how do you, is there something that motivates you to write your songs or is it more like a fluid thing?
Hua Li: I feel like it can really change. I think when I first started, I mean I’ve been doing music for like forever, and so I think when I first started writing song when I was in my teens I guess, it was very kinda feeling like needing to get it out a lot of the time and loving and enjoying it, which I still do. I shouldn’t make it sound like that, but because I have to make a living now as a grown woman. I spend a lot of time block forcing myself to create. I block off certain hours every week for working on my project and moving stuff forward whether it be like scoring films or producing for other people or working on my own stuff. I think in some ways it’s a very unromantic process now, like “this is the three hours I have every day to do something with music so I better do something”. And sometimes it turns out great and other times it never sees the light of day.
SL: How does your Asian identity come into the music that you guys make? Because I know for your EP Hua Li, it’s Za Zhong, which in Chinese is…
HL: -not a nice word.
SL, SA, HL, MP: *laughs
SA: Can I ask what this not nice word is? You totally don’t have to say it if you don’t…
HL: Well I say it all the time, every time I say the name of the EP! It’s a derogatory term basically for mixed race people. Is that what you know it as?
HL: I know that sometimes my understanding of Mandarin is very regional. Sometimes I’m surprised to find out other things.
MP: So are you mixed Asian?
HL: Yea, I’m half Chinese half white. I mean it’s a term that was used almost as a term of endearment for me as a child. So I never really knew how bad it was until one day my mother was like, “Don’t ever refer to yourself as that ever again in front of someone who knows.” And then I was like, “But what does it mean? That’s just what I am, I’m mixed up!” So it’s kind of a reclaiming of that term and the idea of being of a mixed racial background but also coming at hip-hop from this eclectic musical background I bring to it.
SL: And how about you Shaina? Well considering you were performing songs in Tagalog as well.
SA: I feel like I have very little qualms about putting in the forefront that I am a Pinay artist and I really, I like to bang people over the head with it. I have been part of several conversations where people have discussed, and I think for every person the merits of explicitly identifying from a certain background differ because we all come from different places - but I feel like for me, there is an importance in sort of banging people over the head with my identity and I’m okay with that.
Part of the reason is often when I access conversations about “should I say that I’m a x artist, that I’m a queer artist, I’m a Filipino artist”, there’s this fear that that sort of pigeonholes you period. That sort of forecloses possibilities because you’re being categorized already.
And I think that isn’t the reality for me is because for me the term Filipino, the term queer, they’re such expansive fluid terms that I think the only way that I would feel as if they were foreclosing possibilities for me was if I saw them as fixed, essential terms that mean a certain thing. But for me, being Filipino can mean literally the infinity of things in the world.
I really embrace saying that I’m a Filipino, saying that I’m a queer person, saying that I’m these different identity categories . I do want to honour that people can have very essentialized understandings of [these categories] and therefore can pigeonhole you and categorize you in ways that you might not like. But I feel like part of my process of embracing the fluidity of those terms is embracing them and saying, “No, it can mean actually a multitude of things”. So I’m really happy to say that I’m a Pinay artist, also recognizing that, for example, literally the word Philippines is like after the king Philip of Spain and that’s such a reality that makes me feel weird about the word Philippines itself or Filipino. But I still feel it is important to embrace my Pinay identity in all the things that I do.
SL: Yea I think there’s not a lot of visibility for especially Asian artists so I think that identifying explicitly as Asian seems like a way to kind of push back against that, at least for me.
HL: Yea I think it’s an interesting thing. I was listening to a filmmaker talk yesterday about the idea of queer filmmakers. She was at a conference and everybody was up in arms about this. There were filmmakers that were like “no even if I am queer I don’t want to be considered a queer filmmaker because I don’t want my work to be ghettoized in this way, I want it to be seen on some other more universal scale or something”, which I can see.
But when it comes to racial identity, and I think I can speak for those of us in this room, it’s very obvious to people who look at us that we’re Asian. So I think in that way, even if my artist name wasn’t explicitly Hua Li, and I do have the added privilege a little more white. But still, I’m still very Asian in features. Even if my artist name was Peggy Hogan in my rap project, people would still identify me as an Asian artist, regardless. The self-identification can be a very empowering act.
SL: Definitely. Also, you both identify as queer women of colour as well?
HL: I do.
SL: How does that influence the kind of music you guys are doing?
SA: I feel like all of the music I make is in honour of badass women in my life of some form or another and for me, part of the reason I actually enthusiastically identify as queer, beyond a political or sexual orientation is because literally there are so many badass women in my life who make me feel excited to honour them. And part of that category encompasses honouring women and my love for them.
MP: So we only have not a lot of time left. Where can we find you guys online, do you have any links?