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Hannia Cheng Interview | Artist of the Month

By: Gemma Mastroianni

Hannia Cheng (they/them) is a multidisciplinary artist, space maker, and host born and raised in T’karonto/Toronto. At the intersection of relationships and reciprocity, their practice focuses on art as the common ground in which we build capacity to make stuff up and make shit happen.

Hannia just released their debut EP, “Linen & Denim.” I was so impressed with the intricacy and intimacy of the tracks and the visual album paired with them, and I’m incredibly proud to call Hannia the April artist of the month. Read my interview with them below:

Tell me a bit about yourself! How did you get involved with the arts community?

My name is Hannia Cheng, born and raised in Christie Pits, Koreatown. I went to the elementary school beside Fiesta Farms, the school was all first-gen/second-gen immigrant kids. When it came to high school, I could’ve gone to Harbord, which is the “Asian” high school, or I could go to Rosedale School of the Arts.

So I took a risk and went to Rosedale, a majority-white art school, and did a lot of partying instead of going to class. I got involved in DIY spaces as well as street dance and became involved in the hip hop community, which led me to throw Support Your Local Collective, a series of pop-ups that brought together all five elements of hip hop in 2016. During late 2018, I co-founded Tea Base, a community arts space in the basement of Chinatown Center. Chinatown has always been the backdrop of my life, and then I was like, “Oh, what if Chinatown became the foreground?”.

I went to art school because I wanted to be white, I went into the hip hop scene because I wanted to be black, and then I was like wait, I'm Asian.

I've been doing this “Asian” thing for like three years and I can truthfully tell you that I'm not really “Asian” either? Identity politics is a waste of time, people who occupy the same identities as you cause just as much harm. Things need to be values oriented. Chinatown isn’t just for Asians, this neighbourhood is rooted in values of mutual aid and its lasting legacy of working class immigrants taking care of each other.

I'm curious about a lot of things, multi hyphenated, and have dipped my toes in many mediums. Singing was my first, then dancing, which led to poetry and spoken word, then hosting/MC-ing, then space making, and mixed media has always been in there. I like expressing myself, I’m a carefree creative who’s been in and around Toronto's art communities for a minute.

How did you get into music and arts? Is it something that you grew up with? Did your parents inspire you?

My parents are mostly down with my life ambitions. Maybe because I’m the youngest of three, also an unexpected C section, fucking wild card. My other siblings have more common names, and I got Hannia. How many other Hannia’s do you know?

My parents were like, “Don't be an artist,” but they weren't very strict about it. They were loosely like, “Come on, be a doctor.” I think running Tea Base helped show them that this way of life is somewhat financially viable.

Shout out to my elementary music teacher Arpad. He always gave us stickers at the end of class, and he would make me sing in front of the class; every class. Even though I wasn't a good singer, he made me believe that I was a singer, and then I was like, ok I'm an artist. I'm grateful for all the wonderful people like Arpad who've had an impact on my artistry. Addy, Jesse, Giles, Jason, are also other people who believed in me when I was younger. Nowadays it’s a lot more peer-to-peer mentorships and horizontal teachings and learnings.

Throughout this pandemic, how have you found things in an artistic sense? What keeps you going?

Art has always been a sounding board for me to hear myself out. It helps me figure out what I'm feeling in the process of healing. That's why I like having multiple mediums to express from. Not everything needs to be shared or go in front of an audience. Throughout the pandemic, art has kept me grounded as a self-soothing tool. Sometimes it's stuff I want to share and sometimes it'll never be looked at again. Sometimes you just need to dance alone and get it out of your body.

Phenotype and I have been working on these songs for a while. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit that I was bored and wanted to document this pivotal and historical moment somehow but not on my phone. So I bought a camcorder and started filming. It turned into a time capsule of what was happening and how I existed in these times.

It just so happened that I was in residence with jes sachse and Christie Carriere with support from the OAC. Through jes, Trinity Square Video hosted a no-visitor group show with us in March of this year around the lockdownniersary. It all lined up creating an opportunity to edit together a visual album for all three songs off Linen & Denim. The name of the show was called little did i know, very fitting.

Getting a little more specific in the song “Try again.” To me, it seems like you're talking a lot about the concept of manifestation. Can you expand on that?

Yes, I'm pretty sure I had just read The Alchemist. It’s a lovely and simple story, easy to read, and a very popular book. At the time in 2017, I was going through a lot of self loathing like, “What's the point?” how many times do I have to fucking try before I arrive? but then I realized that you never do. You never actually arrive at the destination. It's just the process the entire time. I guess death is the destination in this metaphor? Until then, all you can do is try and make some friends along the way.

What is your songwriting process like?

I don't come from an instrumental background, but I come from singing and dancing so I love music. My background is more in poetry and the power of words. Culture and language go hand in hand. If we want to change culture, we have to change language and vice versa.

My writing takes place mostly in my phone notes. I consistently go back to read, edit, or rewrite. I'll have new thoughts since I wrote something 3 years ago, like a follow-up or conclusive thought, and I’ll get inspired. I write whenever the moment calls for it but most of it is editing and letting thoughts marinade.

Time is the ultimate ingredient! It's a lot of going back into my notes, rewriting, consolidating, adding, taking away. My process is very time-oriented, it’s an on-going conversation with myself. A song is finished when I’ve told a story about what I was going through.

Tell me about making the visual component to this album and what you learned from this experience.

I learned that I’m not the main character, I’m the entire production. Star lead, Scriptwriter, executive producer, accountant, director, editor, marketing manager, camera guy, casting director, all of it. I want to tell my own story on my own terms, self-archiving is important to me. That’s not to say I’m opposed to more resources to bring on a fuller, more realised team and vision.

The visual album is my yearning to share space again. I miss hanging out so much. It’s dedicated to my communities, friends, comrades, and all the small moments we got to share together during the summer when it was “safer”.

I liked how you spoke about the contrast between Linen and Denim. Could you just expand on that a little bit and what it means to you?

In 2017 when I started conceptualizing this project, I was going through significant internal transitions. I felt like everyone expected me to be this happy, go-lucky, energetic bubble on the dance floor. That’s what I was known for and I questioned if that's all I am.

I felt disconnected from people's perception of me vs my depression's perception of me. I lacked a lot of self compassion and love for myself. Doing this project and writing these songs was about reconciling the two and that multiple truths exist at once.

I'm a dynamic bitch and I'm allowed to be everything. I've come a long way since 2017 in unlearning internalized beliefs and humanizing myself. I’m always learning to accept myself for the good, the bad, and grow.

Listen to Linen & Denim


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