Chinese-American rapper Bohan Phoenix is not selling out

Ep.1/Sep 27, 2019

In the Chinese rap scene, he is an iconoclast, rejecting its overt commercialism in favor of more old-school storytelling.

There’s a story that Chinese-born rapper Bohan Phoenix likes to tell about his first few years adjusting to life in America.

Born Leng Bohan, he and his mother had just moved from China to Boston three years earlier. He was 14 years old and starting at a new high school.

The building had a long hallway connecting the east and west wing. To avoid talking to anyone, Bohan would duck outside one end of the school and walk the entire perimeter to the other. “Because I was so terrified of being in front of people,” he recalls.

Photo: Courtesy of Bohan Phoenix

Many of Bohan’s other memories paint the picture of a childhood spent on the outside: eating lunch alone in a classroom, wallowing away at a computer, and wondering whether he was cool enough for the white kids and street enough for the black kids.

This sense of alienation, of neither belonging here nor there, still courses through Bohan’s music.

This sense of alienation, of neither belonging here nor there, still courses through Bohan’s music, which touches on themes of family, cultural belonging, and immigrant aspirations.

Among the rap coming out of China, Bohan’s stands out for its bilingual lyrics and intimately personal stories. His music straddles two worlds, incorporating English rhymes and Chinese idioms. While most Chinese hip-hop artists are performing trap and writing about profligate lifestyles, Bohan’s work is largely autobiographical, sometimes explicitly so.

“God bless my mama cutting her body open”

From “Love Always”

“God bless my mama cutting her body open,” goes the lyrics to the song “Love Always” about how his mother raised him by herself. “Back in ’92 I came through with the shawty smokin.’”

In many ways, his music is a return to what hip-hop used to be, a reflection of the material that Bohan cut his teeth on when he was a kid adjusting to life in America. Hip-hop, namely the music of Eminem, was his saving grace in an unfamiliar environment, and it was hip-hop that would become his life’s passion.

Inspired by Eminem

Bohan was born in a rural part of Hubei Province. He recalls sharing a bed with his grandparents, who raised him for the first 11 years of his life while his mother worked in another city.

“As a kid, I kind of blamed her for not being around,” he says, “but as I got older, I realized it was harder for her to be away from me.”

3-year-old Bohan with his mother in China.
3-year-old Bohan with his mother in China. / Photo: Courtesy of Bohan Phoneix

His mother remains a big inspiration in his work, evident in the mentions she has in his music.

Like many immigrants, Bohan learned English by watching television, and it was by chance that 8 Mile, the semi-autobiographical film about Eminem, was playing one day.

“His story really inspired me,” Bohan says. For a Chinese-American kid in an unfamiliar environment, the story of a white working-class rapper taking a chance in a genre dominated by black artists was resonating.

“I kind of just surrounded myself with music from that point on.”

Showtime at the Apollo

Bohan’s big break came when he moved to New York for college and played at the Apollo Theater.

Its Amateur Nights were notorious for having some of the toughest crowds. If the audience didn’t like an act, the performer would get booed off stage.

Going in, Bohan knew the baggage he carried as an Asian-American rapper. One commentator told him after his performance that the crowd probably thought he might “brick himself.”

“People didn’t really understand why this Chinese kid was so passionate about this hip-hop music.”

Bohan Phoenix

“The whole crowd is like black and Hispanic, you know,” Bohan says. “People didn’t really understand why this Chinese kid was so passionate about this hip-hop music.”

But he lasted through the entire round and earned accolades for his performance.

“I performed like six different Amateur Nights, and I’ve never been booed off stage,” he proudly says.

Photo: Courtesy of Bohan Phoenix

Among Asian-American rappers, the question of cultural appropriation looms large. Awkwafina, the breakout star of Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, has fielded criticism for her “blaccent.” Hip-hop artists in China have gotten flak for sporting dreadlocks and grills. Rich Brian, the Indonesian rapper once known as Rich Chigga, changed his name after a period of soul-searching.

(Read more: Meet the Rihanna of China debuting on ‘Crazy Rich Asians’)

Bring it up with Bohan, and there’s a bit of weariness with the whole discussion.

“Appropriation is such a misleading term,” he says. “People can say whatever they want, but then we have to talk about Wu-Tang appropriating Asian culture way back in the ’90s. They’re like damn near the first Asian rappers.”

Not that he ever felt Wu-Tang was appropriating his culture. 

“I’m more like damn, I’m glad they appreciate what we’re doing,” he says.

If anything, Bohan says he fields the most questions about cultural appropriation from non-black folks.

“All these terms like Chinese rapper, blah blah...we’re just all making hip-hop music, and I happen to be Chinese.”

Mr. Overseas

Nowadays, Bohan spends most of his time in Chengdu, where an atmosphere of openness has spawned a vibrant hip-hop scene.

Trap juggernauts Higher Brothers, who have managed to skirt Chinese censorship rules while appealing to a Western audience—and whom Bohan introduced to the Asian-American record label 88rising—hail from the southwestern Chinese city.

“People out here really like hip-hop music.”

Bohan Phoenix

“The vibe here is real crazy, man,” Bohan says. “People out here really like hip-hop music.”

The Higher Brothers are one of the more famous hip-hop groups to have come out of Chengdu.
The Higher Brothers are one of the more famous hip-hop groups to have come out of Chengdu. / Photo: 88rising

Bohan has a personal connection to Chengdu. His extended family now lives there, and when he was building his music career in New York, he would travel back and forth between the States and China to visit family.

All that flying led Bohan to style himself as “Mr. Overseas,” a moniker he still uses on Twitter.

The Phoenix in his stage name came in 2012, when he had spent half his life in China and half in the States. “So Phoenix,” he says, “like rebirth.”

(Read more: Meet Jony J, China’s ‘hip-hop poet’ known for his socially conscious rap)

In the Chinese hip-hop scene, Bohan is a bit of an iconoclast. He despises the overt commercialism of Chinese idol culture, wherein studios build personalities to the liking of fans.

He’s turned down offers to appear on The Rap of China, a reality show that has made other Chinese artists famous, with the understanding that his independent streak means giving up big opportunities like these.

“Damn, not enough people know my music, damn, when am I going to make money, damn.”

Bohan Phoneix

“The moments where I almost gave up were moments of also simultaneously of gigantic inspiration,” he says. “I think about the reasons why I want to give up. Like damn, not enough people know my music, damn, when am I going to make money, damn.”

It’s the price of keeping it real, so to speak, and not selling out.

“But I always understood that if I chose music, that was the only thing that was going to bring me happiness, and if fame and money happened, that’s like a bonus,” he says. “I can’t complain because I chose music.”

Hip hop in ChinaChinese street cultureAsian rappers
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Producer: Hanley Chu

Videographers: Hanley Chu, Nicholas Ko, Joel Roche, and George Zhao

Editors: Caron Che and Hanley Chu

Mastering: Victor Peña