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Hustle Makes Me What I Am

Geo and Hollis

George Quibuyen and Hollis Wong-Wear—aka Geo and Hollis—both have long histories in Seattle art and activism circles, starting more than 10 years ago in the city’s spoken-word scene. Shortly after they met, Hollis took over management duties for Geo’s landmark hip-hop duo Blue Scholars. Lately she’s best known as one-third of electro-pop group the Flavr Blue and as the featured voice on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “White Walls.” Geo recently launched a new musical project called the Bar and a monthly pop-up restaurant dubbed Food and Sh*t. They sat down for lunch at Viengthong, their go-to lunch spot in Mt. Baker.

Hollis Wong-Wear Real talk: The first two rap albums from Seattle that I got when I touched down here [for college, from the Bay Area] was Blue Scholars’ self-titled and Macklemore’s The Language of My World. The Youth Speaks people were like, this is what’s hot right now. This is tight. I was listening to it and I was like, wow, what an amazing city.

George Quibuyen That’s how I met all them dudes, too—through the spoken word, open mic circuit. Ben [Haggerty, aka Macklemore], Gabriel Teodros, Khingz.

Hollis You met them through poetry open mics?

Geo Yep. So basically, since you arrived in Seattle, everywhere you went, things started happening.

Hollis Totally.

Geo You’re like the Forrest Gump of art in Seattle.

Hollis Yeah!

Geo Me and Bambu opened up for Macklemore in Manila. We’re halfway across the world, it’s in an arena, almost 10,000 people in there. And somehow he’s still managing to try to make it feel intimate. I don’t think you do that unless you came up through spaces where that was going on. You can’t make that up. That shit doesn’t happen out of nowhere. There’s no training for that kind of connection with a crowd. You almost have to have gone through years of being real accessible onstage to whatever audience you’re in front of.

Hollis Seattle is too small of a scene to “cool guy” your way through. You can’t be a disconnected, aloof individual and find success. I think with Ben and you guys the reason why people are so captivated is that connectivity. That desire to have people be a part.

I use poetry. It’s such a cold way to get your chops up as a rapper, performer, in general. ’Cause it’s just you and words and that’s it. There’s no nothing; you are the show.

Geo Definitely. The battle rap circuit in the late ’90s/early 2000s was cutthroat. You had to have thick skin. Sometimes in the same week, I’d do a rap battle on Saturday; Tuesday night I’m at the open mic where you’re more vulnerable. There’s something harder about being vulnerable and accessible versus “I’m gonna put on my shield and carry my spear and go to battle.”

Hollis You said it, dude. You had Tweeted something so tight. [Finds tweet on her phone, quotes Geo.] “Funny how some people say poetry’s soft. There are more hood kids at these poetry open mics than your rap show, brah.” [laughs]

Geo It’s true. Like 50 times more! And anyone who goes to these open mics will see that there are more kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, economically depressed neighborhoods, who come from traumatic experiences, kids of color, kids of immigrant families. Even the white kids there have crazy stories in poetry spaces.

Artists are fickle, you know? They’ll run with one crew for a little bit, then they’ll move on to the next. But in those open mic spaces, it’s like once you become homies with someone, you let your guard down and when someone else is doing the same, you will be homies 10, 15 years later. Almost no matter what.

Hollis That’s kind of the core of effective community-building, too: the release of the need to posture and having the courage to be vulnerable. If you approach young people and are like, here’s an opportunity for you to go in on what you’ve seen, what you’ve experienced—that’s all you really need. All you really need is a mic and space. There doesn’t have to be an enormous infrastructure around it.

Geo My partners in any creative project all seem to come from this similar background, from DIY creative spaces that happen organically, that were kinda underground. Like Sabzi [Geo’s collaborator in Blue Scholars], for example. We met on campus at UW.

So yeah, it’s in those spaces that I think the most creativity happens. Every project I’m a part of needs to be fed by a space like that. I also have ADD too, so I appreciate eclecticism and juggling stuff, and being in constant contact with creative people. It’s the cliché interview question: What inspires you? Who are your biggest inspirations? I will always say: The people that I see on an everyday basis. I really, truly am inspired by the people who are my friends, who I’d be fans of if I didn’t know them personally.

Hollis True.

Geo There’s a struggle underlying this whole conversation. We’re talking about all these spaces but they’re all different spaces that change every one to two years. There’s no permanent space. That itself is a struggle. I mean, it’s dope that we create, recreate a home space for ourselves everywhere we go. But at the same time, it’s like, damn, every time we just start settling into this dope space, it shuts down. For economic reasons, for development, for whatever.

Hollis It’s that tension between the necessary temporality of something to be relevant and sustainability. I think sustainability is a struggle.

Geo Definitely.

Hollis The beauty of Seattle is being this cultural frontier land, where there’s so much energy and the ability to harness it in the way that one sees fit—that’s why we’re such an experimental city. That’s why we’re such an interesting, eclectic city. That’s why Blue Scholars were so refreshing and so embraced by Seattle. There is no one Seattle way, obviously. Whether it be music, whether it be food, whether it be what-have-you, it has to do with really actualizing individuality.

What I love about living in Seattle as an artist now is that I have a lot of connecting points to civic life. I’m on a couple of boards and commissions now where I’m starting to understand that macro vision of how our art sustains, how city departments run to support artistic expression and support youth education and support heritage institutions. Understanding ourselves as part of this greater conversation, as part of this greater milieu. It’s not just the rappers or the people that make music. We’re a community with all these forces. So trying to understand how those things are established. The struggle with having that beautiful frontier is that then you get to figure out where your money comes from. [Laughs] And there’s no certainty that you’re gonna be able to do that forever.

You know, we come from immigrant families, from working class families. Hustle is part of us. That hustle and that energy and that momentum—that’s what makes me who I am. That’s what makes me have the audacity to carve out this notion that I can be an artist, a working artist, and sustain myself and be successful. That is inherited. It’s the background I come from. But you get to the point where it’s just like, I’m hustling for the rest of my life—is that what’s happening? Is that what’s going down? I guess I am! Who would wanna coast?

Geo Arts and entertainment as a career choice was never fully embraced by my parents, who always pushed for something more stable. I have the typical Asian immigrant parents who are like, Look at your cousin, he’s an engineer—which all goes away temporarily anytime I’m on TV or in print. So this interview actually helps. [laughs]

There’s a balance of doing what I truly, truly want to do but at the same time honoring the fact that my parents both worked hard to even put me in a position to do what I want to do. I don’t want to piss them off too much. I definitely approach it the same way as you. I’ve committed to this. There’s no going back. And I think that is a very inherited approach and behavior.

Hollis Definitely. It’s just really understanding our narrative. I used to think of it as so counter, especially when I was like, Mom, I’m gonna rap! Worst nightmare ever for my mom, who’s already not jazzed on me doing spoken word poetry. She always wanted me to be a performer and do, like, theatre.

Geo [As though he’s talking to his parents] You left your country. You did what your parents told you not to do. I’m just pretty much doing what you’re doing.

Hollis It’s really only been this last year that I really started understanding being in a band or being an artist as an entrepreneurial endeavor. It’s a small business. It’s an LLC.

Geo Definitely. It wasn’t that at first, but—

Hollis That’s where independent music is right now—you see it like, OK, this is my business. This is my small business that I have to figure out how to maintain and uphold and stay on top of. It’s not a flight of fancy. How can you make your creativity and your performance a sustainable business model? I grew up in a Chinese restaurant, my mom was an entrepreneur—so I see it as front-of-house and back-of-house: What’s happening front-of-house? What am I presenting? What am I serving up? What’s going on? How am I welcoming people into that? And then what am I doing on the backend to make sure that there’s, like, food? Which I think ennobles the artistic pursuit.

Geo There was that article that—

Hollis That all immigrants are artists?

Geo Yes.

Hollis That’s what’s been on my mind.

Geo One of the best things I’ve read in years. It’s written from the perspective of a second generation, someone who comes from an immigrant background—

Hollis A Haitian-American.

Geo Yes. She’s saying that as an artist coming from a working-class immigrant family, similar to my background, we came to this country to better our economic livelihood. It’s saying—I’m not going to do it justice—that being a working-class immigrant, first-generation immigrant in this country, in itself is somewhat of an art form. And to pursue art as a career is a continuation of that.

Hollis Basically, if you endeavor to come to this country, you are creating from scratch a place for yourself where there is no given place. Unlike those of us who are born in this country where we have citizenship and there’s a given place for us to be. From the not-given you create that given. You create that model for yourself so you can find sustainability and economic stability. That is a creation and a work of art.

Geo Yeah. You’re using improvisation. You’re using the resources available to you. You’re basically doing the same acts that people use with artistic mediums, but your mediums are things of cultural and economic—

Hollis [Looking up the Edwidge Danticat text on her phone] It says, “Insisting that being an immigrant makes for an artist already, and this is a fascinating notion of recreating yourself this way, recreating your entire life. It’s a form of reinvention on par with the greatest works of literature. This brings art into the realm of what ordinary people do in order to survive. It takes away the notion that art is too lofty for the masses and puts it into the day-to-day.”

Geo I think I shed some thug tears. Actual eye-watering. I can’t remember the last time I read something on the Internet that moved me like that.

Hollis This is what we’d like to tell ourselves that we know intuitively, but having it firm in The Atlantic or whatever is like: Yeeah! We know! That’s right! That’s what was so dope when I discovered Blue Scholars. I was like, here’s a narrative that I really resonate with that I haven’t necessarily heard. Even though your cousin is the engineer, he’s so stoked that he can bump Blue Scholars. That connects with him. It is important to honor our experiences. To honor the experiences of those that have come before us and have gotten us in the position where we have the privilege to pursue art and not be broke. We can still eat a nice meal at Viengthong once in a while.

Geo Plus, we are both ’80s babies. Or just me?

Hollis ’87.

Geo We are still young enough to do what we’re doing and not [be] jaded yet. But we’re also old enough to remember how underrepresented or misrepresented that story is. I think we both carry this notion of, if we don’t tell our stories, one, they’ll never be heard or two, somebody else will tell them for you.

Hollis History is, like, what, written by the victors? So you have to proclaim yourself victor and [write it]. Guess what? I won! Let’s write this shit! Nobody’s gonna tell you you won otherwise, I swear to god. That is a crowning thing that only you can do.

Geo The stakes are high and we do need to be talking about all these things. We need to hit the streets. We need to hit the Tweets. We need to hit whatever medium we can to get folks agitated to want to do something.

First and foremost, you have to be in a position in which you are physically and mentally capable. Not to sound like a conservative Republican, but if you’re not right at home, if you’re not literally right—your house, where you live, your body—you don’t have well-being there, you don’t have the ability to contribute long-term to whatever this collective goal is. That’s something relatively new, I think.

Around the time Blue Scholars first started, meeting other young firebrands such as you, we kinda had this, Yo! Let’s go! It’s Now Time. It’s us. We’re gonna change this shit. To the point of burning out. To the point of seeing some of our peers, who inspired us, burn out while we continue on our path. I’ve been thinking about this the last couple of years, especially with the arrival of our second child, that we gotta still hustle. We gotta still do the work. We still gotta organize. We still gotta create. We also gotta take care of ourselves in order to be able to do it long-term.

Hollis So funny, I thought we were gonna talk and I’d be like, ‘Tell me about Food & Sh*t!”

Geologic (with Blue Scholars) and Hollis (with the Flavr Blue) perform at the Fremont Fair’s Solstice Concert Series on June 21.

Photo: Geo, left, and Hollis, dig into lunch at Viengthong, an unassuming Laotian restaurant in Mt. Baker. (They recommend the nam kao and larp with ground chicken.) By Megumi Shauna Arai.

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