“First and foremost I do have a story to tell. It’s my own story, my individual story, but it’s not so individual that no one can relate to it,” says MC Geologic (aka George Quibuyen). Quibuyen and DJ Sabzi (aka Saba Mohjerjasbi) comprise the Seattle-based hip-hop duo Blue Scholars, which since 2002 has been steadily stirring up nationwide buzz.
The video for “HI 808,” the first single off their latest EP, Oof! hit number one on mtvU.com, ahead of artists like Jay-Z and Shakira. Lyrically, the track pays homage to Quibuyen’s Hawaii roots: a Filipino boy whose father was in the Navy, he grew up on Oahu during the 80s.
“In fact, my experience mirrors a lot of people’s—military kids, kids from working class backgrounds, kids of color, kids who grew up interacting with all diverse backgrounds of people,” Quibuyen says, as we discuss the political commentary he infuses into his rhymes. This latest release touches on Hawaiian hot topics like immigration and sovereignty.
“In a place like America where issues of identity are a daily occurrence, there are internal contradictions I go through, things in my life that I want to tell,” he explains. “But all the art I create, whether it be music or whatnot, I think is half the question.
“I think there’s a time for music to entertain, to educate, to do both at the same time, and I realize the potential of both,” he continues. “First and foremost, [I] just want to be honest. Be honest about where I come from because that’s what I appreciate in any art that I myself enjoy.”
Quibuyen stresses that there are “always contradictions.” He says maintaining ties to one’s heritage is important, but so is being honest about history. “One thing that does tie us all together is that legacy of colonialism in our homelands that have kind of displaced us, while at the same time we still all got folks back at the places that we call home,” he says. “So it’s almost like a necessity. You could choose to assimilate and abandon all that stuff and pretend [you’re] another cog in the American machine. Or, you can acknowledge these things and with that acknowledgment comes at least some sort of responsibility. To be aware first of all, and beyond that hopefully be inspired by that awareness to do something about it, whatever it is you do.”
Quibuyen’s Filipino heritage has ignited a lot of pride in others of the same ethnic descent (myself included)—particularly amongst younger generations, as evidenced in feedback on YouTube from high school-aged kids who, happily discovering the Blue Scholars, proclaim “Proud to be Filipino!”—in what Quibuyen calls “a long time coming for a lot of us,” whereas prior, “(People) know that we exist, but not enough to feel like anybody besides us really knows who we are, you know? As far as we look on TV and there’s nobody that looks like us, entertaining us…. To the point where any 80’s Filipino baby can relate to growing up and playing that whole game where like you see anybody on TV that’s ethnically ambiguous and you’re like, ‘Oh, she’s gotta be Filipino or he’s Filipino and all these rumors circulate. And what’s dope is like these rumors are now like its true. A lot of really talented people in our community are really making a name for themselves out there.”
Before the interview, I’d planned on taking my usual lighthearted, semi-irrelevant approach; I wanted to ask about his favorite Filipino desserts (eh, da County Fair is coming up and I’ll sometimes go just for the cascarone), but we never make it there. Our conversation instead circles around our Pacific Islander heritage, themes of displacement and the contrast of growing up in Hawaii and moving to the mainland (again, a popular refrain in “HI 808”).
“One hand, it’s a lot more complicated than we sometimes acknowledge,” Quibuyen says. “Sometimes we don’t even bother to have conversations like this with each other, sometimes we don’t bother to have the conversation with ourselves—what our whole identity, consciousness or history means.
“I think even more so than overt racism from the colonizer, [what’s] even more problematic is the internalization of our own history, our own self-image that’s imposed on us that we accept—the aspect of history and development of our own homeland. And the word ‘land,’ I think, is the bottom line. The ownership of the land, the collective rights and ownership of the land, is the most paramount thing.”
Quibuyen extends these concepts beyond our cultural connection, particularly making the correlation with his scholar in crime, Mohjerjasbi, who Quibuyen often references.
“[We] come from very different backgrounds and upbringing—on the surface,” he says. “[You’ve got] a Filipino kid who grew up in Hawaii and moved to Seattle [joining] with a half-white, half-Iranian guy who lives in the suburbs of Seattle.” But, Quibuyen says, he and Mohjerjasbi have “been able come together and meet halfway both musically [and] in our value systems, principals and attitudes—towards the music and towards society in general.”
The power of that unlikely but undeniable connection is the message Quibuyen says Blue Scholars wants to convey.
While our conversation was a touch heavy, Oof! is in many ways a colorful departure from the Scholars’ previous work, which was colder and more urban.
“We started traveling, touring—[it’s] a whole different energy when you kind of get out of the lab, out of the studio and start meeting people having new experiences, rocking live shows,” says Quibuyen. “All that energy was creating a new type of music that was more up-tempo, [but] still very much ‘us.’
“The sound we’d already started heading towards was not just a sound, but a sound married some sort of concept—a time, a place—and for me as a lyricist, an experience to match the texture of the sound. It was constantly going back and forth. It was completely unforced on our part and the main thing was going back to our roots of how me and Sabzi started the group—to have fun with the music. There’s always going to be a message ’cause that’s who we are, but you know first and foremost it’s gotta be fun.”
Yes, undeniably, the Blue Scholars’ music is fun, as are Quibuyen’s unabashedly intellectual musings. And their show at The Cellar will undoubtedly be fun, too—for folks of any background, any story. Maui Time Weekly
Maui gig: Sat., Sept. 19 10pm at The Cellar 744, Lahaina, $20
New Album: Oof!
Web site: bluescholars.com