Identity moves as the ocean, coming in waves and connecting us as much as it divides us.
For Bohan Phoenix, the middling space between two salient identities inspires him to foster his own. Born in Hubei, China, raised in Massachusetts, and having learned to speak English by listening to Eminem, Bohan’s transnational status has often left him in the undertow of an identity crisis. Now moving with the current, the 25-year-old rapper is using music to foster a unique, hybrid identity.
“The identity crisis, for lack of better word, really made me dig deeper and think about how I want to express myself: in what language, in what manner,” Bohan explains. His latest single, “Party No More,” premiering exclusively on DJBooth, subverts the discomfort of language barriers.
“‘Party No More’ is half Chinese, half English and that’s kind of the format for the whole project,” Bohan says, breaking down his approach. “This shows the two sides of who I am, expressed in their own languages… Whether you only understand one language or both, you get the same idea from 'Party No More': let’s stop looking at colors and whatever, and just listen to the music.”
Bohan Phoenix’s music is boisterous; a true romp. His off-the-wall vibrance has made him a musical act to watch in China, with labels banging down his door. Despite the offers, Bohan has chosen to remain independent, asserting that “as an indie artist, if you’re smart, you can also get those same looks when you grind, get creative, and learn how to work the system.”
“The system,” in Bohan’s case, also applies to the government. The recent ban on hip-hop on Chinese national television has made major headlines in the US, but according to Bohan, this is not the first time the country has tried to censor hip-hop.
“There have been underground MCs who have been banned over a decade ago for cussing out the government and schools and teachers in their lyrics," Bohan details. “It’s nothing new, but is happening on a bigger scale.”
Grander scale aside, Bohan says the ban has no impact on his ability to create. “I will not compromise out of fear,” he declares.
Below you will find our full interview, which has been lightly edited for content and clarity, where we discuss Bohan's transnational upbringing, early influences, China’s hip-hop scene, the hip-hop ban, and his forthcoming album, OVERSEAS.
You were born in China and raised in Massachusetts. How did that cross-cultural experience shape your music?
Having lived in both cultures extensively has honestly influenced my music more than anything else. The identity crisis, for lack of better word, really made me dig deeper and think about how I want to express myself: in what language, in what manner. Ultimately, I’ve found that for me, it’s a mixture of both cultures, which is only natural given my circumstances. Hence the upcoming project title OVERSEAS, the story of going back and forth.
Who were your biggest musical influences growing up?
I really had phases when it came to my musical influences. At first, it was just Eminem, more so his story than anything else. In 8 Mile, I saw how he was an outsider who gained acceptance through music, and I wanted the same for myself. Listening to Eminem is how I learned English. Beyond Em, my other influences were basically whoever he listened to, from Pac to Lauryn, and everything in between. I also love D’Angelo. I basically went backward trying to find connections between hip-hop and everything that came before it.
Did you travel back and forth between the US and China growing up? Did that impact your creativity?
Definitely. I moved to the States in 2003, and I’ve been back to China at least once every year. This definitely kept me aware of where I’m from and who I am, or what I am. It gave me a lot of experiences and life to talk about in my songs and made me think of others in my position, not just Chinese immigrants, but immigrants in general.
You recently moved back to China. Why?
I moved back to Chengdu last July (2017) to live with my grandpa who raised me in China. I also wanted to really live in China as an adult for the first time, since after leaving at the age of eleven, I’ve only gone back for a month at a time whether it's for holidays or shows. In addition, it’s also a crazy time for people who are doing music in China and I wanted to give my voice to the scene as well. I feel like I have a lot to contribute.
What’s the hip-hop scene like in China? Do they have a Kendrick-Drake-J. Cole big three like we do?
The hip-hop scene in China is very, very young and undeveloped right now. Underground hip-hop and battle rap have been around for a while, but only in a very underground way. Last year in China a contest show called Rap Of China became widely popular and pushed hip-hop into the mainstream. There are a ton of people listening to it who had no idea what it was before, or its history.
It’s early, and there’s a lot of people who want to be like Cole, Drake, Kendrick and them but, in my opinion, nobody has been able to do it like them—yet. Artists have a lot of ambition right now and everyone is dreaming big, so it’s an exciting time to be there. Eventually, when people are out of the imitation phase, I think there’ll be some really dope and cool shit happening.
Rather than pursue a record deal, you’ve remained wholly independent. How has that decision impacted your career growth in China?
Being independent in China is actually a double-edged sword. I’ve been approached by just about every label that signs hip-hop and people thought I was crazy for turning them down. I found that most of them barely have a clue what hip-hop is, are corny and are trying to lock artists into crazy deals like five to eight years. That sounds like career suicide to me. Being signed can get you some good looks, like bigger festivals and more commercial endorsements, and since you have a team, you don’t have to do it yourself. But for me, I’ve chosen the independent route because as an indie artist, if you’re smart, you can also get those same looks when you grind, get creative, and learn how to work the system. It’s so much less developed than in the US and has less gatekeepers.
How attainable can success be for an indie artist in China as opposed to America?
If you define success by money, that’s definitely attainable—you can make quite a lot just touring and doing festivals in China and develop a rich fan base and tour history just by staying on the road. China is huge! Mainstream success in China is still reserved to corny pop stars, though. That’s why most rappers in China consider making it to America to be their version of success. How attainable that is is still to be seen. No indie artist has done it yet, and I’m trying to be the first.
There are so many breakout, crossover acts, not just from Asia, but from Ireland and the UK. Why do you think transnational artists do so well?
I think crossover acts in a lot of cases just have so much more to offer. Different perspectives, experience of living in different worlds, and honestly we are starting to enter a time whereof “overseas,” where more and more people are living half a world away for school or jobs or whatever. Everybody can relate to the idea of foreign a lot more than we used to.
China recently announced a hip-hop ban. What’s the deal?
I've been doing shows in China since 2015 and I've been watching hip-hop in China grow slowly. But in the last year, it went from underground to mainstream in a matter of weeks. To me, China is just going through changes and growing pains. Honestly, anytime Western influence can cause such a ripple in China—and hip-hop is most definitely Western culture—China will react. It’s not so much about hip-hop, but more about the West having control over young Chinese minds. I’m not surprised at all that China has tried to ban hip-hop… I was surprised that it even got that poppin’ in a country known for its censorship.
So was this ban a long time coming?
I wouldn’t say it’s been a long time coming because hip-hop has gone through this in China already. There have been underground MCs who have been banned over a decade ago for cussing out the government and schools and teachers in their lyrics. It’s nothing new but is happening on a bigger scale. That’s why these rappers who got in trouble just should have had a better awareness of their surroundings and their limitations.
Has the ban impacted the way you make music or, at the very least, your content?
So the ban is actually only applied to Chinese national television, and not many people under the age of 40 even watch television in China. It’s like for people who watch Cops and Antique Roadshow… It’s just not the demographic we care about anyways. So, no, it hasn’t affected me in that way. But in China, there is a screening process for festivals and bigger commercial shows where you have to submit your lyrics and translations and music videos for approval, and this process will no doubt be more strict this year. Content-wise, like I said, I will not compromise out of fear.
Today, you released “Party No More,” a comedic take on the ban, exclusively with DJBooth. Why the comedy route?
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s just the attitude I want to have in 2018: go harder, no matter what. It reflects what’s going on in hip-hop in China. Last year, the scene exploded and was such a party, and this year, it’s like “Party No More!” It’s one of the more aggressive tracks of mine to give context to what’s happening like even if y’all ain’t trying to have us party, we going harder even still.
How much of “Party No More” is emblematic of your forthcoming album, OVERSEAS?
“Party No More” is half Chinese, half English and that’s kind of the format for the whole project. This shows the two sides of who I am, expressed in their own languages. I worked with my boy Yllis, who’s from Singapore but lives in NYC now. We share a lot of similar experiences.
Whether you only understand one language or both, you get the same idea from “Party No More”: let’s stop looking at colors and whatever, and just listen to the music. The hook: “Just so you know, if you ain’t about it before, don’t act like you about it,” meaning that before nobody gave a fuck about Asian shit, besides kung fu and food, but now they wanna jump on the wagon 'cause the shit is popping off and there’s lots of money to be made.
What do you hope new fans will think after hearing the single? Once they hear the album?
I hope “Party No More” and OVERSEAS can really resonate with listeners, no matter where they’re from. I just hope it inspires them to go harder in whatever they’re doing that day or that year and have fun doing what they do and do it to the fullest. And finally, I want people to see that there’s harmony between two cultures that might seem so different. Don’t let the oceans we have to cross or the languages we don’t understand be a barrier. Let the music do the talking.