The Montreal rapper subverts ideas of Chinese identity and hip hop.
Hua Li w/DJ Shub, Cadence Weapon, Jayd Ink, Fat Tony, Blakdenim Saturday, October 20, 9pm The Marquee, 2037 Gottingen Street, $25 adv/$33 door
of why I started rapping is because I wanted to be the hook girl. I would write these rinky-dink raps as placeholders and sing a really cool hook,” says Hua Li, speaking by phone from her latest tour stop in Manitoba. In a few hours, she’ll be warming the stage with her self-described “golden-era rap over hazy beat production” before tourmates Fat Tony and Cadence Weapon perform. But, for now, she’s explaining how she went from going by a Canadian-ized name and fronting jazz bands to leaning into her Chinese heritage and becoming a sonic blend of Lil Kim verses so sharp they cut and Lauryn Hill-style hooks that save your soul.
“It’s really important to me to represent these different sides of Asian womanhood that are not the model minority, cookie-cutter version of what people imagine,” Li continues. “When I started this project I really wanted to do something musically that reflected these other sides of myself—I wanted to have a larger range in terms of embracing both my Chinese identity and my queerness as well as some of the less respectable sides of femininity.”
Li lists Biggie Smalls as one of her earliest influences, and “Luxury,” the second track on her 2015 EP Za Zhong, backs up the claim with the braggadocios swagger that made “Big Poppa” a timeless nouveau-riche anthem—it’s the slickest view inside the good life since Iggy Azalea told us she’s fancy.
Li says it’s thanks to rappers like Cadence Weapon that she let herself upgrade from hook girl to full-on MC (she’s also his DJ on this tour—and will be helming the decks during his Pop Explosion set Saturday) and says their Marquee show takes the audience on an important representative journey: “I think it’s really quite significant that I get to open up the show as a woman and we see these two incredibly unique and sensitive men hit the stage, and kind of continue on the threads of what I establish at the beginning of the show.”
I really wanted to do something musically that reflected these other sides of myself,” says Li.