Hua Li, aka Peggy Hogan, is a jazz pianist and singer, a hip hop artist, a teacher, a feminist, a DJ and a self-described space alien rapper. I grabbed a coffee with her at Cagibi, we started talking, and this is what transpired:
Ceilidh Michelle: I guess my first question for you is how long would you consider yourself having been a musician in the Montreal scene?
Peggy Hogan: Well, I’ve been a musician my whole life. I moved [to Montreal] for music. I came here for jazz school and so [music] was a priority the day I arrived.
PH: I went to Concordia. Of course, [getting involved in the music scene] takes some time to build but I like to think that I’ve been a musician [in Montreal] since the day I got here.
CM: And where did you start? What sorts of things did you get into when you came to Montreal?
PH: I was seventeen. It was…scary. I went to jams a lot back at that time because, in terms of like, the jazz story, that’s how you do it. You go to the jams. And hopefully you play well, and people think you’re good. And then maybe you get gigs.
CM: Jams at people’s houses?
It’s a pretty competitive, masculine-oriented, non-singer-friendly experience. It’s very instrumentally-driven, like a bunch of horn players who just want to like play a saga-solo, and they’re calling tunes impossible to sing…[Peggy starts mimicking the sound of an insane horn and snapping her fingers] That was kind of tough for me at first, because I always thought I was really good. And of course I wasn’t as good as I thought, haha!
I feel like I was very much discouraged from entering the music community, at that point. But then I was immediately in school, and from there I met people my own age, people who were like-minded.
CM: Would you say there is a benefit to being an educated musician? Would you recommend that for musicians? Or is it one of those things where you just need to play from your heart?
PH: It depends. It’s tough to be a good jazz musician, for instance, without training.
I don’t really like how jazz has become the new academic music. It’s the new classical music. And so it’s become uncool, and non-accessible, you know? I think that’s very problematic.
If people are serious about doing music, they shouldn’t necessarily go to university for it, but they should train. People should respect it as a craft.
It’s been an interesting thing, with Internet artists and the electronic music milieu, where suddenly you don’t have to know how to play an instrument, you just have to know how to use…
CM: …a laptop.
PH: Yeah, and that’s cool, and I love that, but at the same time, people do have to acknowledge that this is a craft.
People don’t just wake up one day and announce to everybody, “I’m a painter!” Like they do when they’re, say, a House producer.
I don’t think that everyone should go to jazz school, because it’s tough. And maybe you don’t like jazz! But I think everyone should find a way to work [on their music].
CM: Were there any influences or people who brought you to where you are as a musician?
PH: Sure, there have definitely been some significant figures in my life.
I started playing the piano when I was five. I was a pretty serious pianist. I’m a strange case, in that I had one consistent piano teacher from the beginning to the end: [Ingrid Henderson]. Usually people switch around, but I had a very close relationship with her. She was tough as nails, but she gave me discipline.
And in Victoria, when I first started getting into jazz, there was a woman named Louise Rose. She was quite elderly, but had studied with Duke Ellington in New York and was just bad ass. A really good jazz musician and vocalist. She mentored me for a while when I was a teen.
Another was Hugh Fraser, who was a trombone player. I took a jazz band with him and he really encouraged me to pursue singing, instead of piano.
CM: Are you still doing jazz here in Montreal?
PH: Here and there. I mean, it’s not my main focus like it was back then. But I love performing jazz any chance I get. I just like to do it in my own way.
That being said, I think Hua Li, it’s a hip hop project but it’s jazz.
Everything I write, everything I play on the keys, it’s partly because of my classical training but mostly my jazz training. That’s the way I think about music now. That’s the way I approach creating melodies, navigating harmony…
CM: Is that your main focus then? Hua Li?
CM: Do you have any local inspirations in the music scene here?
PH: The first person who springs to mind is Akua, who actually no longer lives here…But she’s great! I got to know her a couple years ago, and she’s actually pretty self-taught, has really explored her craft and expanded [on it], she’s Solange [Knowles] backup singer now.
She’s really made a place for herself in the industry, and she’s mad talented. Her songs are brilliant. Seeing her really sparked my interest in getting outside the constraints of being in an academic music world, where I was like, “I have to have a band, I have to do it this way, people have to respect me because I’m in school…”
Eventually, I was able to get away from that and learn how to produce beats. I’m going back to my first mixtape and I’m like, “Ugh, I can’t believe I released this!” But it was important to take that first step and figure out how to be a rapper, you know?
CM: What is the technical side behind what you do, in terms of hip hop? What were some of the learning curves involved, when switching from jazz to hip hop?
PH: I think the most significant thing for me, beyond learning how to produce beats in Ableton, was figure out things like, “What does a sampler do?” A legitimate [yet] hilarious question when I first started.
CM: Well, that’s how it probably is for any artist when they begin.
PH: Totally. When you’re traditionally getting into hip hop, [artists] know about it.
CM: What does that mean, the “traditional way” that you get into hip hop? Growing up in the streets?
PH: Well, yeah, haha! Like “Antony down the street just bought a drum machine…” I mean, Q-Tip made beats by getting a whole bunch of tape and actually sampling from a tape deck to another tape deck… It’s totally crazy.
For me, it was completely different. I got into hip hop through my love of jazz. That’s what made me really appreciate hip hop. But at first, it was just to piss my mom off.
I studied rap the same way I studied scat singing, when I was a jazz vocalist. I studied transcriptions, I would listen to it and try and figure out what made [the song] interesting. I sucked, at first. My rhymes weren’t rhythmically complex, they didn’t sit in the beat nicely…So it was [about] building up the vocabulary and the rhythmic understanding.
Additionally, it was about figuring out how my voice fit into [rap], as a female artist. When you’re first entering the genre [of hip hop], there are no female rappers. Of course, there are tons of female rappers once you delve in, but on the surface…
CM: It appears to be a male-dominated genre.
PH: Yeah. And I’m like, “I don’t sound like Lil’ Kim, I don’t sound like Missy Elliot, so what am I going to do? And how does my voice fit into this track, when people are so used to hearing a deeper pitch?”
CM: When you did delve into it, which female artists really spoke to you?
PH: I love Missy Elliot. She’s always been there. And she’s somebody who is actually on the mainstream, which is great. And I think she’s a super worthwhile artist.
But in terms of the stuff I really liked when I was first getting into hip hop more seriously…I was really into golden-era stuff like J Dilla, Madlib, that kind of school of hip hop.
Then I discovered Bahamadia. I thought it was just the craziest…she has this really low-key flow. I would liken it to Tribe, a little bit. And just this voice. One of the most interesting voices in hip hop. She sounds totally androgynous, really laid back. And poetic, beautiful words.
Also, I love MC Lyte. She was one of the first big selling female rappers, and her style is so dated now. I can’t even play MC Lyte in the club, because [people would be] like, whoa, old-school. But I like her swagger, her attitude. And the way that she presented being a female in that world, which was so mater-of-fact.
She has this song called “Not Wit a Dealer,” which is about how you shouldn’t fall in love with your drug dealer.
CM: Words to live by.
PH: Yeah, right? And it’s hilarious, this story of her friend, all this drama that comes up. But it’s light-hearted and I like that approach of telling your stories. Still celebrating that we’re people.
It’s a different school of thought than say, NWA, who are like, “These are our stories and they’re scary.” It’s making light of our stories, and the ridiculous situations we put ourselves in.
CM: What are some of the social or political situations happening in the world that get you fired up, make you want to create music or just say something?
PH: Always feminism.
Was it Time Magazine that asked, “Is Feminism the Worst Word of 2014?” Or something like that.
CM: Ha. Probably.
PH: Feminism is a dirty world. People don’t want to identify as feminists anymore, which I think is dumb.
CM: Well, it’s sad. There are always extremists who threaten to ruin positive movements for everyone.
PH: I have always thought about what it means to be a woman in the music industry. Because even as a young teenage girl, people don’t respect you.
Not to be a total ego maniac, but I was a mad-talented teenager. In retrospect, I’m like, wow, that shit was amazing. I wish I could still write songs like that! So I always had this chip on my shoulder, where I was like, “No, don’t step to me, I’ve been doing [music] literally since I was five. I’ve probably, as a child, practiced more hours than you have as an adult.”
I get disrespected from techs all the time, where they’re like, “Look at all this gear you’ve got, Little Girl,” but I actually know how it all works. I can tell you what’s wrong with your venue and what that buzzing noise is.
This comes across a lot in Hua Li, a project that started to break the mold, where I didn’t have to feel like I had to be this demure band-leader. I was like, no, I’m going to get naked in a strip club, which I shot in my music video.
I feel that’s the spirit of Hua Li. I didn’t want to subscribe to whatever a neo-soul-jazz artist is SUPPOSED to be, so I just…did something else.
CM: And what kind of woman would you describe yourself as now?
PH: Hopefully genuine. I hope that’s what comes across.
And this is the problem I have with certain feminists: I really think it’s awesome to be a woman. I think the male gaze is great. I think that women should celebrate the power of our sexuality.
Womanhood. It’s amazing! Women look amazing, we do amazing things…Move away from these stereotypes about what it means to be a woman, but celebrate it! Don’t get mad when people are like, “You’re beautiful.”
I still want to be sensitive, and I still want to talk about how much I hate it when men do…whatever, but all of my songs are about relationships, basically.
I try to have this undertone of being vulnerable, and being sensitive and genuine all the time, but there’s a tough side to Hua Li because, well, you know, she’s a space alien rapper.
I think that duality is something I really like. I have no qualms about admitting that I’m an emotionally sensitive person. Things effect me deeply and I go home and I write sad songs about it, you know?
But at the same time, I’ve been through enough shit in my life as a woman, that I know how to respect myself. And THAT is feminism. Respect yourself. As a PERSON. Treat yourself with respect so that you command respect. I think that’s the essence of feminism.