Interview: Chinese-American rapper Bohan Phoenix on confused cultural identity, hip hop in China, and Clockenflap

Photo via Clockenflap.
Photo via Clockenflap.

Bohan Phoenix, who will be making his Clockenflap debut this weekend, is fascinated with the concept of duality. It’s a recurring theme in much of his music, most notably in Overseas, a seven-track EP that he released in March. As with his previous work, many of the tracks feature Bohan’s smooth blend of English and Mandarin lyrics, and address his ongoing struggle of reconciling his Chinese and American identities.

The rapper explains: “Growing up in America, there were standards I had to hold myself to, but then at times life around me just conflicted against that standard, and I realized there is a duality within all of us — and some of us are just scared to show, maybe, a [certain] side … because we’re afraid to be looked upon as different, or rude, or not relatable.”

Born in Hubei in mainland China, Bohan moved to Massachusetts in 2003 at the age of 11, and says that he largely learned English by listening to a lot of rap music. He cites Eminem as the rapper who triggered his interest in hip hop.

He also says Tupac Shakur was a major source of inspiration in his life, adding that he felt he could relate to the hip hop legend’s sometimes contradictory persona: “He will have a song for his mother, and then the next song is ‘I’m gonna f**k yo’ b***h’.”

Initially, he says, hip hop was the vehicle that gave him an “in” to fit in with everyone else, but it soon transformed into a medium where he found he was able to express himself and be more confident around others.

“There’s a lot of kids out there like me, when I first got to the States, not knowing what it is that I am, or who I am, what am I supposed to be like as a Chinese person living in America, but not born in America … It’s like ‘am I being too not Chinese right now by hanging out with all these white people? Or am I doing what I want to do?’”

Like many overseas Chinese, Bohan also struggled with these dual identities, and that struggle — which he now embraces as a blessing — culminated in the release of his EP Jala (or “jia la”, which is Mandarin for “add more spice”).

Since the release of Jala, he has drawn a lot of attention to himself for rapping in both English and Mandarin, and he has been called “the future of multicultural hip hop,” and “China’s most uncompromising indie rapper.”

It’s also worth noting that Bohan Phoenix’s rise comes at a time when two elements crucial to his identity and music are under the current pop culture spotlight: Asian-American representation in mainstream media, and hip hop’s place in the mainstream media and culture of China.

On the issue of Asian-American representation — a much-talked about topic that blew up following the success of Crazy Rich Asians — Bohan Phoenix agrees that while representation is important, he doesn’t want to be the token Asian, or highlighted purely because he’s Asian: “The pressure for me is not about representing Asians or not, the pressure for me is to make the best music.”

“I agree a hundred per cent, there is a lack of representation, but can you name me a single [Asian rap] artist that can compete at the Drake level, at the Kendrick level, at the Kanye level — there isn’t one that you can name yet,” says Bohan.

That may be starting to change as hip hop enters the mainstream in China, thanks to the success of artists like The Higher Brothers (who were at Clockenflap last year), and a reality talent show called The Rap of China.

But then things changed sometime this year when the Chinese authorities decided to ban hip hop. This ambiguous ban has, effectively, made the cultural environment for some Chinese rappers a bit difficult to navigate.

As reported by Vice, the new regulations mean that a lot of Chinese rappers have to be careful about what they rap about, prompting debates as to whether or not Chinese hip hop is truly hip hop if some topics (drugs, sex, overthrowing the government, for instance) are off-limits.

Bohan Phoenix says it is possible to make great rap music in China, but admits that he himself has had performances canceled, or had promoters pull out because “they’re afraid of the consequences of dealing with the government.”

But on the issue of whether or not hip hop that’s not allowed to touch on sensitive topics is truly hip hop, he poses this analogy: “If someone chooses to pain abstract versus someone who chooses to paint an oil painting, are they not just painters?”

He then tells Coconuts that he has no interest in rebelling or being provocative for the sake of it, and that his priority has always been about making great music.

“For me I don’t look at myself as an artist, as a rapper living in China trying to navigate in China, I make the music that I want to make — and if it happens [that] I can’t perform in China, that’s OK. The goal is not to be the biggest thing in China or be the biggest thing or whatever, I just want to make the best music that when people hear it, they know themselves like, ‘Oh yeah, this guy makes the music that he wants to make’.”

Ahead of his Clockenflap experience, Bohan Phoenix said he’s looking forward to visiting Hong Kong in the fall when the weather will be cooler, since: “The gig I did last summer, it was so hot most of the time that honestly I really spent most of my time in the hotel.”

What’s next for him after Clockenflap? He says he’s working on a 10-track album that will be recorded live, and will feature some of his musician friends from Brooklyn. He is hoping to release this album next summer.

Conceptually, this album would be slightly different to Overseas.

“So, Overseas is pretty blatantly talking about the duality,” he says. “This [album] is more like, now that I’ve digested that — it’ll be like, the aftermath of Overseas: Now that I’ve accepted this duality, what am I gonna do?”

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