Singer-songwriter/cultural activist/painter at Rock Valley April 12

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11757132963121.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘Magdalen Hsu-Li‘);

Magdalen Hsu-Li performs free show at 6 p.m. in Performing Arts Room at Rock Valley College

For anyone struggling to multitask their way through the day, Magdalen Hsu-Li (pronounced “Sue Lee”) will serve as a role model of efficiency. The youthful-looking 36-year-old bills herself as a singer-songwriter, painter and cultural activist. She fails to mention she also releases albums on the music label that she owns and runs (Chickpop Records) and visits colleges and universities across the country, delivering lectures about cultural diversity and identity redefinition.

It’s a mouthful, and an intense lifestyle, but that’s nothing new for Hsu-Li.

Born into the only Asian family in Martinsville, Va. (her parents were doctors from China), she grew up dealing with ignorance and racism on a daily basis. Besides battling a lack of cultural awareness, as a teen-ager she was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome—a disorder of the brain that causes people to twitch uncontrollably and sometimes scream incoherently. Tourette’s made her an even bigger target. Said Hsu-Li in an interview with Teen Voices Online: “I started having symptoms, and no one knew what was wrong with me. They blamed me for the symptoms, and I was ostracized for them.”

But out of that loneliness came the spirit of an artist. Though she had been trained in classical piano since the age of 8, Hsu-Li turned to painting at the age of 15. It was a love that would guide her to a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. But as she was setting her sights on an art career in New York, she unexpectedly changed her direction. “I dreamt I was a musician living in Seattle, and felt utterly compelled to follow that message,” she said via press release.

It was her musical refocusing that brings Hsu-Li to her present place in life. Spending about six months of every year running Chickpop, she fills the remainder of her schedule performing and lecturing. Her most recent release, 2005’s Smashing the Ceiling, has brought her a quiet but broad acclaim from the college circuit. It is a blend of poetry and pop balladry, infused with hints of jazz, country, folk and Eastern music.

Though it is a musically creative album, the real art lies in the lyrics. It is obvious from the beginning of the opening track “Change the World” that Hsu-Li is focused on delivering a message. The details of the messages change from song to song, consistently reflecting her personal life. Themes of diversity, balance, empowerment and open-mindedness are backed by the tones of piano, organ and acoustic guitar, among others. It is Ani DiFranco in spirit, but with a more polished shtick.

One of the more intriguing album tracks is “Mary Magdalene,” a song that combines biblical references with personal reflections. “(Mary Madgalene) is one of the most iconic, provocative and mysterious women in history, yet her story has been misinterpreted through the centuries,” said Hsu-Li. “So, I felt it was time to help redefine her story in a more positive light.”

Hsu-Li also addresses other high-impact topics such as politics and her bisexual lifestyle. She proves her message is worth listening to, even if one’s personal beliefs differ. “My goal is to write and perform universal songs that mirror people’s feelings, touch their hearts and mean the world to them,” she said. “When the words and music combine in that special way, and the listener feels as if they are hearing the soundtrack to their own life, those are the moments I live for.”

It is that empathetic nature and interest in her listeners—even while addressing sensitive topics—that set Hsu-Li apart from the increasingly unrecognizable slew of songstresses currently in the pop music playing field.

Hsu-Li performs a free show at 6 p.m., Thursday, April 12, in the Performing Arts Room at Rock Valley College. For more information, or to listen to songs from Smashing the Ceiling, visit

from the April 4-10, 2007, issue

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