Photo by Kana Motojima

By Jocelle Koh

Effortlessly funky basslines and guitars reverberate, weaving in and out of a jazzy brass section as Chinese-American rapper Bohan Leng, who goes by the stage name Bohan Phoenix spits a love letter to the Big Apple on the opening track of his debut album New York Made Me. In this live music-inspired ode to the city where he’s lived since 2010, he spits out line after line of his signature straight-talking wit:

Got the fuck up out the country then I realized
What I needed was in front of me the whole time
I don’t know what I would do without these trill lights
Without these vibes I could probably kill life

-New York Made Me, 2022

A seasoned performer who has divided his time between China and the U.S. for a large portion of his career, Bohan pays homage to New York, LA, Boston, and Chengdu in his long-awaited full body of work Cities are for Fools, a cumulation of the rapper and activist’s philosophies regarding life, and how the cities he’s lived in have shaped him.

Choosing to construct a heavily live-inspired sound for this record, featuring big band instrumentation and lines of Soul and Funk; this is a sonic universe that Phoenix has been edging towards for some time now; but is very different from the sound he became iconic for since releasing his first ‘LoveLove’ EP back in 2015.

Marked by themes of being “too foreign for here, too foreign for home” and the push and pull of finding ones’ roots whilst being far from home, Phoenix dropped tracks such as “JALA” (2017), “FOREIGN外國人” (2016), and “OVERSEAS 海外” (2018) which fast solidified his niche as a rapper who focused on the ‘in-between identity’, acting as a bridge between Chinese and American culture.

No matter the language I spit in the verse
I make sure I know what I’m worth
The powers preserved within all these words
Make certain I thrive on this Earth
The noun and the verbs are never rehearsed
They come to me natural as birth

– OVERSEAS 海外, 2018

With bilingual chilli-hot lines laid down over extravagant, dissonant trap beats, Phoenix’s offerings made him one of few Chinese American rappers; alongside pioneers such as MC Jin, the first Chinese American rapper to be signed to a major US label and Taiwanese American superstar Wang Leehom who created his own “Chinked Out” sound fusing Chinese traditional with Hip Hop elements; to display his heritage at the fore of his music.

But more than just incorporating elements of Chinese culture and themes of racism and third culture identity overtly into his distinct vein of hip hop, Phoenix seems to have cultivated a nuanced perspective of how these two polarising cultural perspectives can exist side by side; through his experiences living in both China and the U.S., and also through his multidisciplinary experiences as an independent artist and creative professional in both industries.

Born in China but having moved to the US at the age of 11, Phoenix’s musical journey is deeply intertwined with his personal journey of putting down roots in America. Describing himself in a LIFTED Asia interview from 2021 as not being able to speak a word of English when he arrived stateside, a young Phoenix, instructed by his mother to watch American films to improve his English and pick up the accent, saw the film ‘8 Mile’ and resonated deeply with Eminem’s role and backstory.

“For a kid just moving to the States from China, where I grew up in rural Yichang with my grandparents, I felt lost, too. I felt like an outcast, and the story of 8 Mile and Eminem is what drew me close to Hip Hop, and I thought it could give me the same confidence and the same feeling it had given him. Slowly my obsession with Eminem branched out to listening to the artists he would rap about or talk about: Pac, Snoop, BIG, Rakim, and so on. Before I knew it, Hip Hop was all that I cared about.”

Photo by Kana Motojima

Phoenix’s reverence for the genre; having been brought up with it and built his livelihood on it has made him a strong ally to the Black Lives Matter movement; notably using social media as a platform to reach out to Asian artists and collectives such as 88rising to rally support, while further exploring the ethical responsibilities of being an Asian hip hop artist profiting off Black culture. In a 2020 interview with Asian Pop Weekly, Phoenix spoke out about how he feels responsible for supporting this cause.

“For anybody that’s profiting off of Black culture, I would encourage them to realize that they are indebted to Black culture and should feel a responsibility to give back and uplift it…hip hop helped me find belonging as a Chinese immigrant kid growing up in America. It sustains my livelihood now…I will always be grateful for that…The reason I tagged so many Asian artists in my posts about donating, protesting, and respecting Black culture was not because I wanted to boast or tear anyone down. It was my way of using my own voice and platform to encourage others to look at themselves and do the same.”

Phoenix’s vocal stance especially on the lack of social responsibility of Asian diaspora collective 88rising when it came to the Black Lives Matter movement sparked a wider questioning of whether creatives in the Asian hip hop scene are doing enough to give back to the movement. In a 2020 piece by Variety on how Chinese rappers are contributing to Black Lives Matter, Phoenix; who notably was a key player in the signing and early success of Chinese hip hop group Higher Brothers with Asian diaspora collective 88rising; called out the latter for not contributing enough to the movement. Announcing that 88 had donated $60,000 towards the cause, Phoenix estimated this to be less than a fee for a single Higher Brothers performance in China, calling for more accountability from the label.

“I’m tagging people who I know have made racks from hip-hop and can match me,” he wrote in an Instagram post to “Asian friends who make money by means of black culture,” calling on them to make donations or match his. “I see some of you donated $25 or $50 or your halfhearted copy-and-paste posts, but nah, that’s not it. You know I know how much you make.”

As one of the most visible Asian heritage-driven collectives who have clocked over 10 billion streams on video and audio platforms and boast over 180 million fans worldwide, 88rising now hosts a menagerie of meteoric talent such as China’s Jackson Wang, and Korea’s Chung Ha. But the success of Higher Brothers was an early milestone for the collective, spurned on by a 2017 viral reaction video where credible (and notably black/person of colour rappers) expressed their admiration for these then-unknown rappers from China, opening the doors for a native Chinese-speaking group of rappers to achieve critical acclaim in the US. With their fiery flows and unabashedly Chinese lyrics; Higher Brothers turned negative Chinese stereotypes on their head in songs such as “Made in China” and providing a refreshingly playful insight into China today on “Wechat”; songs which may not have entered the Western public consciousness if not for the efforts of Phoenix in their early days.

Gaining a wealth of experience as an independent artist since beginning to play music in 2008 as part of hip hop duo ‘Hiphopaganda’, Bohan credits much of his understanding of the industry to his independent efforts, even his notable role in the signing and managing of Higher Brothers. Thus it was an interesting call for Phoenix, ‘China’s most uncompromising indie rapper” (as Bohan had been dubbed by DJbooth) to sign a deal with Warner Music China, one of the “big three” major label conglomerates, to distribute his momentous debut album in mid-2021. But as an extremely family-oriented person who often references his loved ones in his music, such as his mother in “OVERSEAS 海外” (2018)  and his stepfather in “Possible” (2022), the decision was personal for Phoenix.

“The deal with Warner Music China was actually an interesting decision, because you’re right, I have always celebrated the idea of independence, I still do…But I was born in China and besides my mom, all my family is in China…And so (it) happens that they think they could bring me in as…a foreigner, so I could get some sort of business or employee visa, and I’d be able to see my family…But unfortunately, they tried and we tried and still not able to get a visa…if I could go back in time, would I sign it again, even though I am running into a lot of restrictions and challenges and difficulties?…I probably would sign it again, because if I could get back into China, then I was willing to do it.”

While Phoenix’s motivations for maintaining his ties with China are largely personal, he has nonetheless spent a significant amount of time between 2016 and 2019 living in China and immersing himself as part of the scene there despite the notoriously high entry barriers for overseas artists. In an interview with Mixmag Asia in 2020, he shared that the impetus for his decision to move to China was the understanding that there was a “new wave of popularity” for hip hop happening; and that was something he wanted to be part of.

Working with some of the scene’s most prolific and critically acclaimed hip hop acts such one of China’s most famous female rappers Vava on their single “Money Game,” to Xinjiang rapper 阿克江Akin on “Grandpa 爺爺,” and even being asked to join popular reality show Rap of China (which he declined), Phoenix has a better understanding than most of the nuances and differences that exist between the US and Asian hip hop industries. He shared some of the insights he gleaned during his time in the industry:

“I know a lot has changed during the pandemic, and that has affected the scene as well. But from what I understand, there’s still a very big idol chasing culture aspect, towards the hip hop scene in China. And a lot of that is contributed by the variety of hip hop reality shows, competitions. So that in itself is very different than the United States where a more organic route is encouraged or celebrated. But that might be smoke and mirrors as well…”

The ’idol chasing culture’ that Bohan refers to is the construction of independent artists and rappers as ‘idols’; products to be profited off and worshipped. This is largely due to the commercialisation of alternative genres through the creation of mainstream reality TV formats, such as high-budget televised singing competitions like ‘Rap of China’ which have allowed underground acts such as Vava and Vinida Weng to attain unprecedented levels of visibility and propelling them to A-list artist status. Yet despite the weighing of challenges in both markets, Phoenix still remains optimistic about each of the markets’ potential for artistic growth.

“But I do think both scenes right now are extremely exciting, because we’re on the cusp of a lot of changes culturally, technology wise…I think right now it’s a time to really dive in and have fun and not really hold yourself to any limitations or in a box.”

Photo by Casper Yen

As for his efforts in bringing more visibility to Asian diaspora artists in the U.S. music space, Phoenix offered us his opinion on the most productive way towards sustained visibility for diverse creatives.

“I definitely think there’s space for POC (people of color) and Asian musicians in the Western hip hop space…But…I think (it) takes a lot of time to build. Because not only do we need the gatekeepers to slowly be infiltrated…to have people in front of the camera who are Asian or, you know, people of color. It’s also important that…POC kids and Asian kids aspire to be the executives, the directors, the casting agencies, because we really need to have a strong narrative in order to have our story be spoken about with the same respect and the same consideration as the other people in the West.”

As one can see, Phoenix’s incorporation of ‘Chinese’ elements into his music only represents the tip of the iceberg for the rapper. Walking the talk like few others have, it seems Phoenix has to the best of his abilities reflected on not only how his music can be constructed to contribute to wider discussions on race, identity and cultural acceptance, but also on how his process and personal experiences can also further his contributions. So despite ‘Cities are for Fools’ marking a change towards a less explicit focus on identity politics, the sentiment still remains in all the rapper’s efforts nonetheless.

“I definitely have thoughtfully interwoven my career through all of these perspectives and experiences (spending time in both China and the States). But honestly, with this current album, the idea was to just bring it back to making the music that I want to make and being less explicit about the ‘in-between’ identity…So in a way, this album (has the) least intention to contribute to the idea of bridging the gap. But in another way, I also realized there’s nothing that I can do to a song or video that’s going to be more Asian than my face, than who I am. So…while I’m glad that I explored my identity so explicitly on songs like “JALA”, “Three Days in Chengdu” and “OVERSEAS海外” and whatnot, I do think right now I’m going through a phase where my focus is on making the grooviest and dopiest music that me and my friends will like…”

Often signing off with his tagline “LoveLove” which was the name of his first official EP back in 2015, it seems that through all the ups and downs, Phoenix has never forgotten his roots and the people who are closest to his heart. Even on a skit included in the new album titled “Jachary’s Intermission” he gives shout outs to significant collaborators such as close collaborator and album producer Jachary and DJ Allyson Toy, who managed Phoenix for an extensive part of his career. And this generous honesty is on full display throughout Cities are for Fools.

An honest homage to the big cities that have hosted his dreams; from New York to Chengdu; from Boston to LA; from the listening experience to the behind-the-scenes of the album’s creation and negotiation of its ownership we see Phoenix at his most vulnerable, loose, and spontaneous. Moving away from the iconic theme of “foreignness and “dual identity” that he’s built his brand on, Phoenix nevertheless continues to find different ways to exert his representation and share his unique perspective in a constantly changing environment. While “home” is often a complex concept for someone like him, it seems that at least on this groovy live-inspired record, he sounds more at home than we’ve ever witnessed before.

Bohan’s album ‘Cities are For Fools’ is now available on all streaming platforms. Follow him on YouTube or Instagram for more. This story was originally published as part of Asian Pop Weekly’s collaboration with The World of Chinese, and is an adaptation of the original.