Glancing at her phone at a cafe in Sodo through thick, black-framed spectacles with a fork halfway in her mouth, she was perhaps the most unassuming Grammy-nominated artist in Seattle.
But Hollis-Wong Wear was really just catching her breath. That night, she would fly out New York City for a short tour with her band,The Flavr Blue, whose members are practicing nearby.
After singing the hook on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “White Walls,” Wong-Wear has been pushed to the forefront of mainstream music. She is the singer for the Seattle band The Flavr Blue, touring manager for hip-hop duo Blue Scholars, a poet, a producer. She even mentors youth poets and advises on the Seattle Music Commission.
Not only is Wong-Wear a multi-talented artist, she is carving a unique niche in the entertainment industry. I sat down with her recently to discuss her career path, identity and what’s next.
You’re involved with many different groups and organizations … . Do you think you’re eventually going to have to end up focusing on only one?
“I actually have this conversation pretty frequently with people in my circle about what is the best way to pursue success. Is it that you have one — only one — goal, saying, ‘this is the only thing I can do’?
“So some people are definitely in the camp where it’s like, ‘I know the only thing I’m able to do, and I’m going to do it until it works.’ But at the end of the day, I feel like what I’m most passionate about is facilitating connections and collaboration, and that kind of necessarily takes a lot of different environments, like being in a bunch of different circumstances or being in a lot of organizations because, whether it’s a band or a city commission, at the end of the day, it’s like pockets that all infuse and inform each other.”
How did you get from performing at poetry slams as a student to making music and collaborating with other artists?
“Growing up, I always sang in choirs and musical theater and theatrical performance stuff, but I never felt like that was my self-expression. I just kind of felt like it was something I did. So when I started doing spoken word as a senior in high school, that was the first time I was really creating my own work. That whole thing resonated with me. It was like, ‘What do I have to say? What is my story?’ and basically owning and claiming what my voice was.
“My transition into music really happened through Youth Speaks and meeting my best friend Maddy, who was on the Youth Speaks slam team with me. We had this really great dynamic and we both loved hip hop. We were both freshmen in college and reading a lot of post-colonial theory, and being inspired by academia and thinking about how to bridge our work with our studies, and also seeing the birth of female voices in hip-hop and female voices in music in general that were speaking with a more poeticized, youthful voice.
“So through that, she and I really encouraged one another, and there was actually a moment where we were at my college and we were watching Blue Scholars perform, and we looked at each other and said, ‘We need to do this.'”
How do you view yourself and your art in terms of your cultural identity?
“I think it’s interesting because when I talk to people about my music with Flavr Blue, I’m always like, ‘Oh, this is me, and I’m singing, and this is fine,’ but then they’ll say, ‘Do you know how significant it is for a young Asian woman to be at the front of a band?’ Even that’s a political thing, and something that’s not really at the top of my mind, but definitely something I’m conscious of.
“Luckily, I’ve still been doing spoken word, and performing and writing, and in that venue, I can be really expressive in terms of what my beliefs are and what my identity is. Yeah, I’m definitely like a progressive second-generation Asian-American woman, and that’s not an escapable thing that I will ever really try to shirk away from.
“But on the flip side, owning my whiteness is important as well. Especially with things like ‘Black Lives Matter’ and everything, understanding myself as both a non-black supporter and as a white ally requires a balance and accountability, and I try to imbue this in my own work.”
You talked about being one of the very few Asian-American women at the front of a band right now. Do you think being in that position has put any pressure on you?
“I think especially when I was younger and a little more naive in terms of where people are at, it would really get to me when people were so deeply shocked that I would rap or that I would be a musician. I think now being a singer I’ve actually conformed a little more to expectations in terms of what I do as a female artist, which I think means for me that I can’t rest on my morals and just be like, ‘Oh, she’s just a singer because, you know, girls are singers, and look cute and sound nice.’ I never want to be just that.
“I don’t even really identify as a singer as much as I see my work as a manifestation of what I want to do as an artist.”
What’s next for you?
“Yeah, so I’m actually managing The Flavr Blue right now, and it’s been a really fun challenge. We are going to England in May, which is really dope. And of course, I’ll be writing as much as possible, taking a lot more trips down to LA, collaborating with a lot more people, trying to do more songwriting for others, continuing my own artistry and maybe even [making] a solo album, though I can’t really promise anything.”