March was National Women's History Month and April is National Poetry Month, so this blog will find the intersection between the two by featuring an interview with CanarySing, a Seattle based hiphop duet that just so happens to be female.
CanarySing is Madeleine Clifford (who goes by the emcee name "MADLINES da lioness") and Hollis Wong-Wear (who goes by "ISPIRE; good lucky money").
In their own words: repping 206 hip-hop and hip-hop worldwide, we have been described as “playfully political,” bringing the party and invested in building solidarity on a local and global level. we met as youth spoken word poets and members of youth speaks seattle; after performing together at the brave new voices national youth poetry slam, where our piece “crossfire” was featured on the historic Apollo Theater stage, we came together to combine our powers and take over the world.
Since December 2006, we have performed in Portland, Washington, D.C., Vancouver, B.C., New York City, San Francisco and all over Seattle. We’ve performed at bumbershoot, Under the Volcano Music Festival, and the San Francisco Mission Arts Project. We have written and performed commissioned work for Seattle University and the Richard Hugo House literary arts series. And we’ve performed at events also featuring artists like Saul Williams, Binary Star, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, Medusa, Gabriel Teodros, Mystic, Sabreena da Witch & Mohammed from P.R. as featured in the incredible documentary Slingshot hip hop, piece, Cristina Orbe, and more of our favorite musicians and poets.
We graduated with two bachelors degrees in 2009. between the two of us, we have presented at three national research conferences, been published in an academic journal and our universities’ literary magazines, and won several scholarships. going to college is gangstA.
Teen Link had a chance to ask Hollis of CanarySing some questions about the group's music and influences and this is what she had to say:
Teen Link: how did you two meet and how did you decide to form a hiphop group?
Hollis: Maddy and I met as members of the Youth Speaks Seattle Slam Team in 2005. Well, technically we met at Youth Speaks meetings at Langston Hughes. We were both freshman college students at Seattle U and UW respectively, and honestly out of all the girls on the team, I felt like I knew Maddy least when we started working together.
What I really admired about her was her stage presence-- beyond being a really gorgeous writer, she commanded attention when she stepped to the stage. We collaborated on a slam piece that we had to generate for the finals at the Brave New Voices National Poetry Slam Competition, and less than 24 hours later we performed it, at the Apollo.
It was a poem about being biracial, and it was pretty searing. We made people cry. Rosario Dawson was a judge for the slam and I remember her giving us a standing ovation. At that moment, I felt like I had finally made art that affected change, if anything just by coming together with someone in solidarity, speaking on an issue that had kept me silent for so long. I was finally articulating my truth in a powerful, impactful way. It was dope.
I'll actually never forget that Maddy and I decided to form a group in the elevator going up to my dorm room after seeing the Blue Scholars perform at SU's annual concert. We were like, "we write well together, we should make it work."
Maddy and I were both hip-hop nerds, and we recognized that there weren't any young women like us in hip-hop, let alone rapping together. But it was less about that challenge, and more about the fact that we liked writing together. I was so stoked to find a writing partner whose material I really admired-- political, lyrical, and honest-- and who inspired me to be a better writer and a more critical thinker.
Teen Link: CanarySing seems out of the ordinary for a hiphop name and yet it suits you. How did you come up with it and what does it mean?
Hollis: CanarySing is an interpretation of this quote that stuck with me from the novel Caucasia by Danzy Senna, a narrative about two biracial (black/white) sisters growing up during the seventies in Boston. The narrator, the younger sister, looks more white than her older sister, and it's all about how their sisterhood was impacted by how much either of them could "pass" in the various communities they interacted with. While Maddy and I were writing our second ever song, we were like, "we need a name." And I was like, "oh read this."
So here's the quote: The mulatto in America functions as a canary in a coal mine. Canaries were used by coal miners to gauge how poisonous the air underground was. They would bring a canary in with them, and if it grew sick and died they knew the air was bad and eventually everyone would be poisoned by the fumes. Likewise, mulattos have historically been the gauge of how poisonous American race relations were. The fate of the mulatto in history and literature will manifest the symptoms that will eventually infect the rest of the nation. We are the first generation of canaries to survive, a little injured perhaps, but alive! (Danzy Senna, Caucasia)
Teen Link: Who are your influences?
Hollis: So many people. Definitely our moms. I'm just gonna throw out ten names at random that hopefully provide a spectrum: Ntozake Shange, Octavia Butler, Queen Latifah, Franz Fanon, Stacyanne Chin, Khatsini Simani, Guru, Erykah Badu, Damian Marley, Janelle Monae.
Teen Link: whats wrong with hiphop today? how does that influence what you create?
Hollis: Hmmm. I think what's wrong with hip hop today is how we've allowed it to be institutionalized in the exact way it was born to defy. Hip hop is a culture of defiance, of inventing material with scare resources, one that championed the common experience and allowed those who operate within it to imagine better worlds, lives with dignity and justice.
What people are calling hip hop now -- the pop, the kinda backwards nihilism-- is I think antithetical to what hip hop was in the first place. But someone awesome who I can't remember once said that we can't just pick'n'choose what's "real hip hop" and what's not.
The reality is that patriarchy, classism, racism, heterosexism… all these things exist in our world and are exemplified through hip hop. We can't just claim some of reality and dismiss, ignore the rest of it. We have to challenge it head on, acknowledge it as a part of us.
Teen Link: what's right about hip-hop today?
Hollis: Man, a LOT. Lupe Fiasco, Jay Electronica, Invincible and Finale from Detroit…. actually a lot out of Detroit. Uh to namedrop a bit more: Jean Grae, Mos Def, Zion I, J. Cole, Blu, B.O.B., Nas. Locally, our man Language Arts is doing it big.
GLOBAL hip hop, where the immediacy and urgency and necessary politics of it are kindred to the spirit of hip hop when it was birthed. Mexico, South Africa, Palestine, South Korea. They're translating, transmuting, making it their own, which was the point of it all: in a world where everyone tells you you have nothing, you own nothing, you are nothing, hip hop proclaims, "I'm here: I'm tagging, I'm rapping, I'm breaking, I'm spinning, I'm making noise, I'm making a mark, I'm coming together with my people, we can change systems, we can change the world."
Teen Link: How do your politics play a role in your music/lyrics?
Hollis: We say that we rap about the politics of the everyday. For us, politics is the two of us being on stage together, of not apologizing. To represent ourselves as people is, as the old feminist saying goes, political. To us, we rap about drinking, and guys, and reading books, and kicking it. But it's all politics. It's the politics of being confident women, unabashedly proud in the face of skepticism. I mean, our day jobs have us working with youth in programs designed to build their confidence, communication skills, and belief in themselves. We just translate all those things into our music. It's just who we are.
Teen Link: How would you describe Seattle hiphop as a regional sound/style?
Hollis: Seattle is eclectic, eager, honest and necessarily a touch melancholy. But there's so many incredible artists doing their thing in our region, and stepping up their game to be solid performers, have solid messaging, building a base and a movement. We're incredibly lucky to be in the city at this moment in time.