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Meet the talented artists behind Reimagine Everything

UPRISERS x Hollis Wong-Wear and Janelle "Longansia" Quibuyen detail their latest collaboration.

 

The beauty of life is the mystery of where it’ll take us. One decision after another can lead us to unimaginable places, positions, relationships, experiences and adventures. Somehow, only in retrospect of course, we realize we’re exactly where we’re meant to be. Every courageous step forward, every decision to follow our passions, every timely mistake, every painful yet transformative growth led us here. Reimagine Everything is the product of the organically and beautifully crossed paths between singer-songwriter Hollis Wong-Wear and designer + artist Janelle “Loganisa” Quibuyen.

 

The two teamed up to provide us Reimagine Everything. Hollis released a new single “Grace Lee” and Janelle is the talented creator of the illustrations. The vision and impact of the project is to continue the empowering and essential legacy of Grace Lee Boggs. Boggs was a Chinese American who spent much of her life advocating for civil rights and challenging society to rethink hegemonic paradigms. She was a noted figure in Detroit’s Black Power Movement. Her and her husband, James Boggs, started the James and Grace Lee Boggs School committed to make a better Detroit.

 

For the two talented artists, this project goes beyond the numbers and sales. It’s more so about the impact, the call to action and enlarging Grace Lee Boggs’s legacy. We caught up with the two to discuss how they met, the creative process and more. Continue reading for the in-depth conversation.

 

 

UPRISERS: How did the two of you meet?

Hollis: Well, I moved to Seattle in 2005 and was doing poetry and spoken word. The connective tissue is that I used to work for Janelle's brother, who goes by Geo. He’s a rapper and a poet for the group Blue Scholars. Working with them really inspired me tremendously. They became my mentors. But before even knowing them personally, their music and their politics were an example of how to seamlessly blend social causes, music and culture together. And so by working under them and being mentored by them specifically gave me a blueprint for how to do these kinds of collaborations.
Janelle: I was wondering where to start. I would agree that the connection is through my brother Geo. I think it's safe to say that I have also been very much influenced by him. In our family alone, having someone in the family who’s pursuing art as a rapper, he definitely blazed the trail for me. Our parents aspired for us to be nurses and lawyers. When I moved to Seattle, seeing the community around Blue Scholars, I was very much involved. It was great because there was a sense of belonging and connection. When you come from a primarily white town, but then find other like-minded folks like you, it’s a powerful place to be.

 

UPRISERS: Can you share about the creative process of Reimagine Everything?

Hollis: In February, I was on a writer's retreat by myself writing music for an album. I read Living for Change – Boggs’s autobiography – that a friend gifted me. I realized another connection I have with Grace Lee Boggs. I grew up in my mom's Chinese restaurant in a largely white suburb in the Bay Area. Being part of the restaurant culture is a huge part of my personality. I think it speaks a lot for the way that I approach my artistry as well. I discovered by reading her memoir that Grace Lee had been born literally on the second story above her dad's Chinese restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island. Then her dad went on to open up a Chinese restaurant in Times Square in New York. And so she was raised, too, in a community where you're the only Asian family or usually the only Asian touchpoint that people in that city or town have to Asian culture. I learned literally like 30 more things about her that I thought were remarkable and amazing – things I have never understood before outside of her just being a pioneering activist, who forged solidarity before the civil rights movement was even around. It made me want to commemorate her. When I was thinking about the cover art, because that's usually the next thing that you think about after you finish your song, I immediately thought of Janelle's work. I'll just add one more thing. I knew as soon as I decided I wanted to release the song that I wanted to have a connection to the life's work of Grace Lee Boggs. So luckily, again Seattle connections are strong, I reached out to Scott Kurashige – the co-writer of Grace Lee’s last book, professor, and now the president of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Foundation – and told him that I wanted this collaboration to benefit the foundation and continue the growth of her life's work.

 

Janelle: I've been doing these series of illustrations that I've been sharing on Instagram, which started with Filipino American History Month. During the pandemic especially, I found a lot of solace and solitude drawing and highlighting stories that I personally find fascinating. It’s fulfilling to share art that has stories behind it and gives a sense of community.

 

But this project was definitely a process, especially because the portrait I've been working on, before Hollis hit me up, was Grace Lee Boggs in her older age. Then Hollis introduced the idea of capturing her younger years. It was a challenge to, one, capture the essence of a person, but also capture Grace Lee Boggs in a way we don’t typically see in illustrations. But, it was also a fun process. I’m always thinking not just when I’m drawing but of the piece itself: What is this piece saying? It was taking on the challenge of portraying her younger years that made me realize the longevity of her life: the energy, beauty, and sustainability that she carried. Her desire to make a better world wasn’t a spur of her youth but traveled throughout her whole life.

 

 

 

UPRISERS: How did you come up with the title?

Hollis: Well, it's a quote attributed to Grace. I think it starts with ‘These are the times to grow our souls’ and she ends the quote with ‘we have to reimagine the ways in which we educate ourselves and move from an education system that educates folks to be workers in a factory to folks that can sustain communities.’She says ‘We have to reimagine the ways in which we have a relationship to our food and we have to reimagine the ways in which we move from policing to community safety.’ And then she says: ‘These are times of great possibility, but also great danger. The time has come to reimagine everything.’ And so I just thought that was a really beautiful way of phrasing imagination and creativity is central to social change, which was really like her ethos. It’s something that I know inspires me and Janelle as artists and creators. We ask where is our space within movement work and recognizing that creativity and art are essential to organizing movement work because it creates possibilities outside of reaction and protesting that which just is but actually like creating what could be. It was what I landed on for the chorus of the song and when Michelle sparked the idea of doing the merchline, we concluded it would be good for the collection.

 

UPRISERS: How has working on the project changed you?

Hollis: This is the first time as a songwriter that I really attempted to channel and honor a specific person. It made me realize both the need to learn so much about Grace’s life but also the precedent that she set – how daring she was to chart a whole new path for herself. I feel best when what I create is done in collaboration with other dope people to make dope shit happen. So to me, it is a dream because I get to work with women – like the core women of this collaboration - and then with the foundation. It makes me feel like I’m materially contributing.I think sometimes it can be hard to feel that way as a musician. It just makes me feel a lot better about releasing music where it doesn't feel like I’m being self promotional, but rather using myself as a vehicle for an increased awareness, knowledge and hopefully impact.

Oftentimes I think we think about collaborations or partnerships focused on followership, not really relationship based. As an artist, I’m compelled to move away from this focus on easy additions of numbers and impressions but rather thinking way more about intention, impact and relationship building. Obviously we want to have growth and amplification but I would like to think this partnership is a testament to the spirit of Grace Lee Boggs – where there’s a depth of connection.

Janelle: I process things very slowly and I'll find the answer years from now, but I think one of the cool things about the collaboration is that we have crossed paths so many times and then being able to work together on something now is a testament to community. We’re able to follow up with each other and see what each of us are doing in our respective ways whether it’s music or artwork. It’s like when you plant a seed a long time ago, and unknowingly, it starts growing. Just to wrap up that thought it makes me think of other possibilities of what we can do in all the different ways in the future. You sprinkle seeds and when the opportunities come, they’ll sprout.

 

 

UPRISERS: What do you hope the project services and how does it tie into your personal message as artists?

Janelle: I hope it inspires people to learn more about Grace Lee Boggs. I want to make sure that folks don't reduce her life's work down to quotables on Instagram. I think that should draw people in, but there's so much more to learn not just her life's work, but also the foundation that is continuing the work. Reimagine Everything collection is in line with what I personally love to explore and believe in myself. Sometimes we're forced to reimagine everything, which is good for progressing social movements and then sometimes it's difficult to reimagine everything when you don't have to. But for underrepresented or marginalized communities it's something that we just do. It's hard not to want to reimagine everything. And if we can have art, people, pillars, movements and communities that compels us to explore that more, that's what I hope this collaboration and project will do. I hope that my artwork can do that also.

 

Hollis: What Janelle shared made me think that the journey of the immigrant itself is fundamentally one of reimagination. There's this incredible quote by Edwige Danticat, who is a Haitian American writer, that has stuck with me: ‘All immigrants are artists.’ Every immigrant is an artist because they are creating their life from scratch the same way that one creates a work of art – that spirit is definitely what I think my hope is for the collaboration. First of all, it elevates Grace Lee Boggs and the knowledge of her complexity. I think it's easy for us to be like: ‘oh, she's an Asian-American woman who worked alongside black leaders to create space.’ But she was a leading intellectual, an agitator. She was so audacious how she lived her life. I think that audacity is so inspirational. She understood early on that black liberation was the key to liberation for all. She inspires me – in my work and in my life – to ensure that I'm working alongside and in collaboration with those who are the most impacted and most marginalized in our society. In to Janelle's earlier point about this collaboration being a reflection of life for those of intentionality: value in slow growth and recognizing that doing something seemingly small with intention can be just as powerful, if not more powerful. What does it look like if we start recognizing and reflecting our greatness back to each other and seeing what we can do together that has nothing to do with a gatekeeper's approval or fighting against algorithms.

 

 

 

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