“Living in America for the longest time, you kind of just walk this line between black and white – like, you’re Asian, or anyone else. You have your own narrative, you have your own stories, but you kind of keep that within your community,” says Bohan Phoenix from his Los Angeles apartment.
The Chinese-American rapper tells HipHopDX Asia that he decided to drive west to California, seeking a change of pace after spending 2020 in New York. It’s not entirely surprising a choice, following a year of uncertainty and isolation in a city that was once the epicenter of COVID-19 in the U.S., that might have yielded a sense of defeat despite a more “normal,” albeit cautiously optimistic situation at present.
In Bohan Phoenix’s case, it’s almost disarming how he’s adopted a kind of resolve that eats away at fatalism with self-assuredness. “You don’t really want to force it upon other people because you’re like, ‘Oh, you know, not my place,’ or whatever. But now I’m like, fuck all of that,” he admits.
Born in Hubei, China, Bohan Phoenix immigrated to the U.S. when he was 11, “unable to speak a word of English,” according to this artist bio. Growing up in America, the rapper was compelled to navigate two cultures through his music, immersing himself in China’s hip hop epicenter of Chengdu as much as in New York. Writing and performing in both English and Mandarin, Bohan’s journey was not entirely atypical of the Asian-American artist connecting to a globalized hip hop audience, especially in hip hop.
He recently made significant career strides this year, most prominently signing with JUUICE, the hip hop imprint of Warner Music China. Bohan is also gearing up for a full-length album he’s been working on since 2018, slated for release in 2022. He admits that these recent developments meant huge sacrifices on his part. “It’s especially hard because I usually see my family at least two to three times a year. And I haven’t really been able to see them since 2019,” he shares, adding that the distance from his mother who lives in Boston has been difficult to manage, as he’s been based in New York for the past five years, traveling back and forth between tours in China, where the rest of his family resides.
“I didn’t release much music during the pandemic because it felt weird,” he shares candidly. In September 2020, he released a track titled “Unconditional” for EMPIRE Presents: Voices For Change: Vol. 1, a project that brought together a collective of artists who wanted to amplify the struggles of their respective communities while championing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. “Sometimes I have a problem taking ownership of the fact that I’m an artist,” he shares while reflecting on how current events have shaped his music.
“What I mean is like, I really didn’t want to make any music about [current events] because I didn’t want to be self-promotional. You know, even though it’s a song that’s like talking about something that’s happening around me. Even talking about myself, like, when I post this, it’s just like: Bohan Phoenix, I love your new song, whatever, check it out,” he adds. He released his latest single “but I still love you” in May 2021 in collaboration with nonprofit organization Hate Is A Virus, as the rate of hate crimes against the Asian community in the United States was steadily growing.
Despite growing up in Boston for most of his life, Bohan admits that he’s only gained a more holistic view of his cultural identity in the United States during the pandemic. “I just thought my identity in this country was trivial. I was like: This is me. Why do we need to go into this like, I’m, Asian-American, I’m Chinese-American, people don’t fucking care about me, okay over it,” he says, adding, “I wasn’t allowing myself to feel that feeling. You know, I was just like, I understand what’s happening, I’m over. I didn’t want to waste my time on it because I didn’t feel like my time was worth that. But once I did allow myself to feel hurt, dwell on myself to feel and realize that I’m unseen—it inspired confidence in me because it made me realize what I am and what I do have going on for me, you know, and that’s my heritage, my community.”
In “but I still love you,” the artist builds upon his newly found self-recognition, adopting a more compassionate lens on social media’s divisive atmosphere which has bled into real-life interactions.
He confesses that the brutal attack on Filipino-American Vilma Kari in March, along with racial tensions that he had been subjected to, spurred him to write the song. It took him fifteen minutes to write it, capturing the anxieties of the times and urging others to respond with, above all, empathy. “I had made a couple of variations of things [on the song]. First, they were just more angry, you know? But that wasn’t exactly how I felt. Because there was a lot of anger online,” he shares about the songwriting process.
Having worked extensively in China, he says that he’s constantly working for a homecoming. “China feels more and more like home as I get older. Maybe I just have a desire to go back and explore more,” he says. While the hip hop scene in the country is comparably younger and more restrictive, Bohan doesn’t settle for mediocrity. “It gives me hope that eventually when there’s enough good shit around, people’s taste will elevate,” he says, adding: “Yes, [the Chinese hip hop market is] restrictive. Sure, you can’t talk about drugs; you can’t talk about guns and violence. Good. To be honest, that culture is not in China anyways, why should the artists be talking about it? Hip hop is supposed to be cool, individual, inventive, and all that. Like, it’s supposed to be reflective of your lifestyle.”
Bohan also made history as the first Chinese musician to be featured on the prestigious Pirelli 2022 Calendar alongside Cher, St. Vincent, Saweetie, and Kali Uchis. Refreshingly enough, he trades the default of antagonism so constantly eschewed by the best of us, for empathy. “As compassionate people, we don’t give ourselves a limit,” he says, asserting, “Unconditional love doesn’t mean unconditional boundaries.”