By Jocelle Koh
We last caught up with pioneering Chinese-American rapper Bohan Phoenix in 2019 where we went beyond his cultural identity and dove deep into his personal philosophy. While best known for incorporating themes of racism, diaspora culture and multiculturalism into his music, instead we discovered that his spitfire raps and outspoken ways were driven by a deep well of empathy that reaches past hate to advocate for understanding.
This year, as we are driven apart by barriers that seem almost insurmountable by the COVID-19 crisis, as well as the need for change that has peaked into the #blacklivesmatter movement, a decisive voice like Phoenix’s is needed now, more so than ever.
“I think we just need to realize that even outside of hip hop, we are all just humans. I know it’s so corny for some people to hear, but I truly believe that loving each other is the final frontier for humanity, regardless of race, creed, gender, etcetera…”
Often signing off with the tagline “love love”, it’s clear that love is a core principle of the rapper’s philosophy and worldview. And this intention is what has helped Phoenix win over even his most defensive opponents; be it in person or via the interwebs.
Referring in particular to his efforts surrounding the #blacklivesmatter movement; from participating in rallies to trying to educate his audience and peers about the relationship between African American culture and hip hop music, Bohan has set the standard for how one can respectfully participate and even give back to Black culture. We got his advice on the best way to be allies to the movement, especially for Asians participating in Hip Hop culture.
“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. Beyond money, I’m talking about confidence, identity and purpose…hip hop helped me find belonging as a Chinese immigrant kid growing up in America. It sustains my livelihood now. It’s allowed me to travel the world and meet amazing people, expand my worldview. I will always be grateful for that. I’m not asking people to donate if they can’t, but everybody can do something beyond just posting a black square with a hashtag on instagram. Talk to your parents about their biases. Speak to your coworkers, peers and friends about ways they can be better allies. If you’re afraid of having these uncomfortable conversations, examine yourself and seek to understand why that is. At the very least, educate yourself and know that not all activism and progress comes in the form of protests…it can also be personal. 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.”
As a respectfully ‘woke’ Asian American hip-hop artist, it was no wonder that Phoenix was also recently named an ambassador of Vans’ Musicians Wanted campaign, a competition which supports up-and-coming hip-hop artists around the world. As part of this year’s judging panel, the rapper already looks to play the ‘nice’ judge role; but nevertheless shared traits he’d be looking out for in this year’s submissions.
“It’s an honor to be able to take part in the campaign, and I already know there are going to be so many talented artists. It’s going to be hard to say no to anyone, period! But I think for Vans and with the #offthewall idea in mind, I think I’ll be looking for people who are willing to take risks and do something different. I think individuality and originality will be super important to me.”
Now with his own custom VANS shoe line inspired by his hallmark tracks “JALA” and “Overseas”, the grounded artist has certainly been busy despite the slowdown that has happened due to COVID-19 this year. While this time hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park for the artist who divides his time between being in the States and China, he nevertheless chooses to look on the bright side.
“I’ve always gone back to visit my family and now has been the longest I’ve gone without seeing them. It’s really unsettling. I miss my family, as they are a big part of my life. When I was last in China, my baby niece had just been born, and now I’m watching her grow up through photos. It’s beautiful, but I wish I was there. That being said, I’m super grateful they are healthy and just trying to keep a positive attitude until things get better.”
And despite having to overcome personal obstacles, it seems that Phoenix has nevertheless found a way to continue connecting and creating a community for those who need it the most in the midst of the chaos. But to him, it’s not really anything that has changed within him, but the environment which renders his music increasingly relevant to those around him.
“If anything’s changed, I think it’s the way people receive my work. While we’re all at a distance, people need community more than ever. And while people in the US look critically at things like racial injustice, listening to songs about turning up in the club feel empty. I’ve been talking about representation, community and how different cultures interact with one another for years, so I think some of my work feels more meaningful to people now than before.”
A farsighted individual with a magnanimity that gives boundlessly in a world that seems to continue issuing new challenges, Bohan shared some sound wisdom with us in the form of a Legend of Korra anecdote.
“It’s funny- I just saw this Legend of Korra episode. The series is a sequel to the Avatar cartoon, but she tries to kill the Evil spirits of the world and the Good spirit tells her that it’s an ongoing fight and there will always be Evil in the world as long as there is Good in the world. I believe we just have to keep doing the best that we can and not let the new challenges and issues discourage us. One thing I keep reminding myself is that in tough times, I’m not alone. I think we really need to focus on things that bring us together instead of divide us.”
Bohan is an icon of diversity in the times we live in; an entity calling for change by way of understanding instead of coercion. While one may seek to divide in order to conquer, conquering anything is the last thing on Phoenix’s mind. As he continues to use his platform and music to speak out about the things he believes in, I can only hope that more people continue to listen.
Check out Bohan’s custom line of VANS shoes featuring JALA and Overseas designs over at vans.com.cn, and follow Bohan on Instagram and Facebook to learn more about his exploits.