Montréal-based rapper and singer Hua Li couldn’t have hoped for a better timing: she released her EP Yellow Crane in late November of 2020, a project she intended as “a love letter to Wuhan,” the capital of the province of Hubei, in east-central China. That’s where her roots are, and where her grandmother and part of her mother’s family still live. It’s a city of more than 10 million inhabitants that was, until February 2020, largely unknown by a majority of our planet. It’s a city that, a year later, is in need of a little TLC…
Yes, that city. The alleged Ground Zero of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not exactly a city’s ideal way of becoming known to the entire world. “It’s quite a coincidence, because I’d decided to write songs about Wuhan before the pandemic,” says the songwriter. “I took that idea with me during my residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity last March, almost a year ago. Except by March 2020, everyone had heard about Wuhan…”
Li was in Banff when the first lockdown happened. “Suddenly, all that was going on completely changed the perspective of my project,” she says. “I initially envisioned an EP that would tell the city’s history, with plenty of facts, so that people could learn a few things about the place it has in China – it’s a major city, it’s huge! – despite the fact that no one knows about it. But because of everything that was going on, I decided I would instead write a love letter to the city, almost like a promotional campaign to counter everything bad that was being said about Wuhan in the wake of this virus.”
While Li wrote three of the four gorgeous songs on Yellow Crane, the closing one, “Electronic Girl,” is a cover, originally performed by a virtually-unknown math-rock band called Chinese Football. “I had a vague idea that I wanted to do a cover of a band or artist from Wuhan on this project,” she says, because that city is considered to be the cradle of Chinese punk, the only city in the nation to have such a musical scene.
“I asked members of my family to go out and scout songs for me, but I wasn’t thrilled by their suggestions,” says Li. “I did know that there’s a real indie rock scene in Wuhan – obviously, it’s not a scene that my family follows! I started by exploring shoegaze bands from Bejing – shoegaze is huge there! – and one thing leading to another, I found Chinese Football.”
Hua Li’s electronic neo-R&B/hip-hop groove and Chinese Football’s math-rock may seem like chalk and cheese, and she readily admits not having much interest for that branch of prog-rock. But, she says, “I was really intrigued by this song. I really like indie rock, which is partly where I came from, and it’s one of the reasons why I really felt at home in Montréal” – which is where she wrote and recorded (with the help of producer and multi-instrumentalist Alexander Thibault) the songs on Dynasty, her debut album, released in September 2019 on Next Door Records.
Long story short, her version of “Electronic Girl,” which she sings in Mandarin, is formidable, as are the cool rap track “Water ,” the highly melodic “Four More Days” (a “quarantine love song”), and “Dream Narratives in Modern China.” Yellow Crane is the prefect coda to Dynasty, a record that, thanks to the pandemic, didn’t enjoy the life it deserves on stage.
“I won’t lie, the last year was very hard for me,” says Li. “The majority of my family still lives in Wuhan, so the situation freaked me out a lot more than the people around me here… As to whether what I’ve experienced this past year will be expressed in my new songs, I would say that my opinions and convictions have always been reflected in my work, even if not really explicitly.
“I write things that are always very personal to me, and often about human relationships – not necessarily love, but rather, the role I play in all my relationships with others. And in this respect, I think, everything I’ve been able to experience eventually emerges. Everything that happens around me finds its way into my music, especially since 2020 should have been a busy year of concerts and tours for me. I had to re-invent myself – isn’t that the word of the year! – after being forced to self-isolate, so I wrote a ton of new material. And because there was so much anxiety and uncertainty in the air, it felt good to be able to channel it all into creation.” Hua Li hopes to release a new album in early 2022.