Slow Burn9 min read

The rise of Chinese-American rapper Bohan Phoenix – Yi-Ling Liu


On a chilly spring day in a quiet neighborhood of East Beijing, Bohan Phoenix lounges on the divan of his hotel room. The twenty-five-year-old rapper flew in from Shanghai the night before, and is enjoying a pause after several whirlwind weeks promoting the launch of his new album Overseas. For a brief moment, dressed in a white long-sleeved shirt, black joggers, and a gold hoop on his left ear that once belonged to his grandmother, Bohan lies still, a Portrait of a Reclining Rapper in Repose.

He stands up to grab me a bottle of water from the mini-fridge, offering what he can of his Chengdu hospitality. “Make yourself at home,” he says.

“Home” is a loaded word for both of us, and in many ways, a cold hotel room – transient spaces for mobile young creatives who must pack up their lives up quickly in a suitcase – seems an apt place for Bohan and I to meet. As cultural mongrels, we’re both familiar with the experience of being uprooted.

He sits up and rolls up his sleeves to reveal a sprawling patchwork of tattoos inked across the length of each forearm, small fragments of a plural identity: a snake zodiac for his Chinese mother; a Viking boat for his Swedish stepfather; a Tupac poem he loved in high school; a Sichuanese pepper for his new home of Chengdu; and a symbol meaning “face setbacks to go forward.”

Bohan’s past is complicated. Born and raised in Hubei, he grew up listening to Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou and Mando-pop on his grandparents’ television set in Yi Chang, a small provincial city by the banks of the Yangtze River. He moved to the Massachusetts with his mother when he was eleven, where he fell in love with hip-hop after discovering the music of Eminem. He started to write his own lyrics in high-school and began to perform as a college student at NYU.

The transition between China and the US had felt, according to Bohan, “like I’d died and gotten a new life … like a phoenix burns up and is reborn.” So, when he was twenty and decided to rap professionally, Bohan Leng, perched on what he believed to be another transformation, became Bohan Phoenix.

Bohan’s music weaves together the strands of his disparate identity. He follows the footsteps of Asian-American hip-hop artists Dumbfoundead and MC Jin, whom he considers his among his close friends and mentors. But he sings more than them (in the R&B vein, not the saccharine Mando-pop ballad) and counts Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo as some of his biggest influences. He continues to push the boundaries of the medium, fusing trap beats with traditional Chinese instruments, blending English hooks with Mandarin verses. Straddling two cultures, he is often referred to as the rapper who “bridges the East and the West.”

But in many ways, the label oversimplifies dual identity. It implies a body that is split down the length of his spine into two perfect halves – the Eastern side and the Western side – moving together is harmonious tandem. The reality is messier, and Bohan understands this. The cost of moving back and forth is an identity that fails to cohere in his lyrics: “Too foreign for here, too foreign for home”/ You are a child from where?” He claims both languages as his native tongue (“noun and the verbs, they’re never rehearsed / they come to me natural as birth”) but also recognizes that neither culture is willing to fully embrace him as its own (“back overseas, they look at me crazy”).

Last year, Bohan returned to China from the US and moved to Chengdu. While he raps from the more familiar perspective of an Asian-American immigrant in previous albums Foreign and Jala, in Overseas the prodigal son returns: “I was born Overseas, I made a home overseas / Now that I’m back, finally / Do you remember me?

Overseas is not simply cultural play, but an album about how he felt at the time. It is about homesickness and belonging – universal themes that resonate with anyone who is multi-hyphenate, regardless if they are American or Chinese. “A lot of people who like my music hit me up and say stuff like, ‘yo, I was born in Russia and now live in Argentina, and I totally get what you mean!’,” Bohan says.

He adds, “But I’m Chinese, as much as I want to appeal to everyone.” He aspires to be unconstrained by cultural boundaries, yet Bohan acknowledges the challenges of working as an Asian artist in a global entertainment industry, one that he believes has yet to accept an alpha Asian male. Although he wears his Asian identity proudly on his sleeve (“I am the chosen one / my skin tone shines like the golden sun,”) he is also wary of deploying his Asian-ness as a marketable gimmick.

He disapproves, for example, of some of the aggressively hyper-masculine brand of Asian-cool peddled by American media company 88Rising, and shared this disdain publicly in March. “The only platform focused on Asian culture is too busy making cocktail videos with xxxtentacion than to cover the actual dope Asian artists,” he tweeted. “Asian artists don’t put your eggs in one basket, do it yourself.”

Bohan makes music on his own terms and carves out his own unique path as an artist. That was one of the reasons that drove him to leave the vibrant hub of New York last year and explore the unchartered territory of Chinese hip-hop in Chengdu.

“It’s like the Wild West out here,” his manager and close friend Allyson Toy says over the phone through a WeChat call, when we dial her in. She joined Bohan and moved from New York to Shanghai, shortly after him, drawn to what she believed to be a creative renaissance. “In the US, there are a lot of pre-determined gatekeepers and tastemakers – be it journalists, bloggers, Kylie Jenner’s snapchat – that are difficult for an independent artist to access,” she explains. “In China, the infrastructure doesn’t exist yet. For example, everyone is still trying to figure out how social media and the mobile economy is an important part of people’s lives here.”

On one hand, the hyper-connectedness of WeChat provides a whole array of rapid-fire marketing tools that they previously had no access too. On the other hand, the Chinese internet is rigidly censored – Instagram is blocked, sensitive posts are constantly being removed, the government champions “moral purity” in all forms of cultural entertainment – putting up countless hurdles to overcome.

Throughout our conversation, Bohan’s phone emits a flurry of pings! and he must turn away to handle a deluge of digital notifications: eager fans on his social feeds (Twitter and Instagram, but also WeChat and Weibo); interview requests from media; and calls from collaborators.

“Oh lol,” he remarks, reading the latest WeChat message. A representative from the viral new reality TV show ‘The Rap of China’ is asking if he wants to participate in Season 2. Bohan has already rejected them in the past, believing that the contestants of the show are “recyclable.” He’s idealistic, and will not be churned in and out of monolithic machine of Chinese television.

That’s not to say that he’s naive (“if they pay me one million? Now we’re talking,” he says, chuckling) or immune to external validation (“sometimes, I’m like shit, Ma$iwei [The Higher Brothers’ rapper] is making more money than me”). But Bohan believes that time is gold. In the age of the internet, hits come and go, and stars shine and fade, fuelled by a rapid frenzy of likes and shares. In a music industry that often fails to distinguish artificially-induced hype from organic popularity, Bohan would rather be a slow-burning flame than a fleeting spark. He needs time to process, reflect and hone his craft as a musician, a craft which he likens to carpentry. “At the end of the day, you can’t get a commission as a carpenter cause you’re poppin’ on Instagram,” he says.

Like a carpenter, Bohan must assemble his toolbox scrupulously. He pulls out his laptop to show me his spare music collection on iTunes: Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, the Dirty Projectors, Kendrick Lamar, his best friend Zachary Levine-Caleb (also known as Jachary) and D’Angelo, who he admires deeply. “Just look at this dude, he’s a God,” Bohan points at the album cover image of D’Angelo’s chiseled torso. “Girls were literally throwing panties at him on stage. So what did he do? He moved to a cabin, didn’t put out an album for years, and got fat. He said that if you’re gonna treat me like a by-product, I’m gonna step away.”

The next time Bohan and I meet, spring has given way to summer, and we are seated in a warm and raucous grilled fish restaurant in Chengdu. A whole grouper arrives in a large metal vat of chilli broth, brimming with fiery peppers and noodles. He wipes a bead of sweat off his brow. He’s got a lot on his mind and a slew of projects up his sleeve: a collaboration with the headphones company SkullCandy, a cruise ship performance, and a live instrumentation project with his best friend Jachary.

But he also remembers to take his time. Away from the constant social whirl of New York City, and the hustle of life on the road, he’s had time to think, hang out with his girlfriend and his family, and listen to good music. He’s trying to run more, too. “Living in Chengdu, I just be getting fat lol,” he says. “Like D’Angelo,” I quip back.

Bohan’s favorite performance of all time was last year in Kunming, where twenty-three people turned up instead of the expected three hundred. Peeping out at the audience from backstage he was mortified, but decided to roll with it and have fun. “Let’s have an intimate time,” he told the crowd as he walked on stage, and over the next hour, rapped along with an audience who knew all his lyrics by heart. It felt like he was in the warm center of the world. “I loved it,” he said. “They were all there to see Bohan Phoenix perform.” ∎

All images courtesy Bohan Phoenix.