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Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China
US-China Today spoke with Bohan Phoenix, a Chinese American hip-hop artist based in New York about Chinese hip-hop and its power to bridge the cultural divide between east and west.
Originally published by US-China Today on May 2, 2019. Written by Markus Sherman.
Chinese hip-hop is becoming a global phenomenon. With stars like the Higher Brothers making waves internationally and the seemingly overnight success of the Chinese language rap competition Rap of China (中国新说唱), Chinese language hip-hop and rap artists are receiving more attention than ever. The increasing influence that western culture has on the modern Chinese hip-hop sound brings up contradictions regarding cultural appropriation, identity, and intention as Chinese artists struggle to tell their stories on a global platform.
What makes you unique and what brought you to rap as your medium of expression in the first place?
I’m from a pretty rural place in Hubei (湖北). I shared a bed with my grandparents for the first 11 years of my life. My mother was never around because my pops left before I was born, so she was hustling in Shenzhen (深圳) and sending money back to us. Even without my mom, without a father around, I was just like any other kid. Just playing around and whatnot. But in China the academic situation is really disciplinary. My school grades as a kid were not that great so my mom realized that it would be really tough for me to go through middle school, high school and college in China. So, she had a colleague in the states, and she had heard that US education is more well-rounded. So, she thought going to the states might be easier for me. It wasn’t really the American dream – ‘going for a better life’. It was more just so I could go to school and then maybe go back to China.
When I got to the states in 2003, I didn’t speak any English. Watching cartoons and movies were methods we thought were helpful for learning English. Flipping through movie channels one day, I somehow landed on “8 Mile”. The language barrier made it difficult for me to understand what was happening, but from the way things were being portrayed, I could tell that Eminem, a white guy, was having a tough time in a predominantly black world but was still able to succeed in his own way and find a comfort zone with hip-hop. Rap was by far the furthest thing from being understandable because, not only was it a completely new genre of music I had never heard, it was also full of English slang that I couldn’t understand. So, it wasn’t really a beginning with rap, it was more of a fascination with Eminem and his life and his story. I related to it because as a kid in Boston who didn’t speak English, who really missed his grandparents that were basically his father and mother, I thought one of the ways that I could be cool or maybe make friends and find a place where I can have fun and feel comfortable was rapping, the same way that Eminem did. So, I basically started off just imitating him. I started writing and recording. When I was in high school, I joined the gospel choir because I just felt like there was always a side that I was missing by just listening to rappers. So, Gospel choir in high school was where I really started understanding rhythm and everything.
I ended up going to NYU. Once I got to New York, the vibes there made rapping feel more real to me. I went to open mics at Pyramid Club, and the Karma club. And then I realized, the Apollo Theater is in Harlem. That’s where everybody did their thing, from Michael to Lauren to James Brown. So, I went to amateur nights like six times and never got booed off. And they invited me back to do a BET show with Doug E Fresh, Gladys Knight and Michael Bivins. I guess while every other kid was doing internships at NYU, I just kept rapping. When I graduated NYU, I couldn’t get a job. I applied to all the record labels for internships and they said, ‘you have no work experience besides your caddying back in high school.’ So, I got a job working at Lucky Brand folding jeans to just pay my rent. It was a struggle, but it was the most beautiful struggle, because it shaped my perspective on the world, how I saw life, and how I saw music in relation to myself… Around 2014 or 2015, I stopped folding jeans, quit, and started treating music as if it’s the only thing that I got.
Everything starts with imitation, I was imitating for the longest time. I remember, I thought I had the most unique [sound]. Back in 2011 when I put out a mix tape with 42 songs, my producer and best friend said, “Yo, stop trying to sound like J Cole.” I slowly figured out – the only voice, the only story that other people couldn’t tell, was my story. So, I started writing down my story, and I realized that people who didn’t have the same experience as me, were still able to relate to my songs even though they were from South Africa and had moved to Russia. Then I realized I got into music because Eminem’s music left such a heavy mark on me – I thought that’s what I needed to do. It was a moment of clarity for me. From then on, I could never talk about what everyone else was talking about in songs. Going back and forth between China and the states, the duality of my identity, and speaking both languages, all contribute to this type of music that I am making today.
So how did music specifically help you find this cultural identity as a Chinese born child living in America? Did you have a set of educational experiences, or things you learned along the way? Did it help you fill your own space?
Yeah. Because I was performing and rapping as a Chinese face in New York, especially on a stage like Apollo, where it’s predominantly black and Hispanic people going there just to boo people, I realized that as a Chinese person living in black and white America, it’s hard to be neutral because there’s always a lot of racial tension – if you’re not on one side you’re on the other side. Growing up, I noticed it all around me, but the only time that goes away is when music is in play. I realized that all my homies in Brooklyn, never saw me as different because we’re all just speaking the language of music. When I brought them back to China, the only language barrier that existed was outside of music. So, music helped me look at everybody on an individual basis instead of as a group. When I encounter somebody, I don’t think about skin color or how we should have a conversation. I look at it as where is this conversation going? Am I speaking to a good person? Am I speaking to somebody with their own personal agenda? Music really helped me realize that.
How did you feel going back to China then? How were you received as an adult, as a rapper there?
I have this line called “too foreign for here, too foreign for home”… So, when I’m in China, I look Chinese, but the minute I open my mouth people say, “You probably spent some time in the states.” Even with my family out here, when we talk about certain things and I ask, “what does that mean?” They’ll go in on me for a few seconds. In the states, although it’s a “melting pot”, it’s still black and white America. So, when I’m over there, I speak perfectly fluent English, I get the culture, I get all the idioms, I get all the subtleties. But there are still many moments where I am treated as an outsider.
I was born in Hubei. My grandmother’s grave is there, [so] that’s obviously my home. But my grandfather now lives in Chengdu, my mother lives in Boston, and New York is where I found myself and all my homies. So, this idea of ‘where is home?’ was at first conflicting. But then, one of my favorite lines by Mos Def is from Habitat: “it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you at.” You become a piece of where you’re at and then you’re able to move on. So, when I came back to China, people definitely looked at me differently, especially because most of my songs are still predominantly English. But there isn’t really much discrimination in the way [Chinese people] look at me. It’s more a sense of curiosity. In all the years I’ve been rapping, not a single black or white person has said to my face that I shouldn’t be rapping. Funnily enough, the only time I’ve been confronted about the idea that I’m Chinese and a rapper was when I did a show [at] Oberlin [College], in Ohio. Their Asian student organization invited me to do a show and asked, “Can we have a discussion panel on culture beforehand?” I sit down, and it’s all Asian kids, not a single white or black person. This Chinese girl says, “How do you deal with the fact that you’re Chinese and a rapper?” I’m like, ‘how do I deal with the fact that I’m Chinese? I never thought about it like that. What do you even mean by that?’… I’m challenging what her world of being a Chinese American is supposed to mean. I’ve seen it while performing so many times. Looking down and seeing audience faces and how confused they are when I’m rapping – it’s like they’re trying to enjoy the music but they’re still trying to figure out why am I up there.
You talk about, “Chinese rappers” versus “Chinese people doing rap” in a recent Radii article. You say, “Chinese people doing rap” aren’t trying to steal culture away from the black community, but that’s a really difficult line to find, and then navigate. How have you as an artist navigated that line?
I mean a lot of people don’t even know this, the first time the Chinese national anthem was sang on record was by Paul Robeson, a black person. So, the Chinese and the black experience have been intermingling for decades now. Again, I look at everything on the individual basis based on intentions. If I wanted to say, anytime one person does another person’s culture, that’s appropriation. Then let’s talk about Wu Tang Clan building up their entire career off of Chinese culture. If Wu Tang was in the forefront of New York hip hop, then the whole New York scene, kind of owes to Chinese culture. But of course, that’s not how I want to look at it. For them, the only thing that was seeping through the television was martial arts and the only thing that was able to get to the hood was Chinese food. So that’s all they knew of China. If they appreciated this so much that they’re willing to mix that into their form of expression, that’s beautiful. To me, that is a beautiful [method] of cultural exchange, the way it’s supposed to happen.
But if you’re a Chinese rapper and your intention is to be more famous, become more popular, so you get a face tattoo, you get the dreads and you drop the n-word on tracks to be more provocative, to me that’s just running away from the fact that you don’t want to put hours into your craft. People just think hip-hop is like – once I get my lifestyle figured out, everything else will fall into place. And unfortunately, that’s kind of how it’s working out for a lot of people now because of social media. But everything will always go back to the music. I’m all about making the money, but I think there’s a right way to do it and then there’s a wrong way to do it.
Do you see the Chinese hip-hop scene moving away from that?
Chinese hip-hop exists in the sense that I’m a Chinese person doing hip hop music. But Chinese hip-hop in itself is kind of a contradiction… I remember sending stuff to Fader and HYPEBEAST forever. But, until they could place me as a Chinese hip-hop artist, they never even looked at my stuff. So Chinese hip-hop is such a selling point to sensationalize us, to sensationalize this music and some Chinese hip-hop artists are trying to use Chinese hip-hop as an easier way to promote themselves. It’s a very ambiguous term that’s become a cheap way to sensationalize what we’re doing. There’s Chinese artists that say, “I’m out here spreading Chinese culture.” I’m like, where?! The way you’re expressing your [message], your hairstyle, the way you talk and the way you dress – it’s all black culture. It’s just too confusing. I’m not saying that at every step, we have to decide this is black culture, or this is Chinese culture. I’m saying don’t do the other side of that – using race alone to sensationalize yourself.
Are these types of artists already fading out of the limelight because there are other groups that are more authentic to the Chinese experience?
You just nailed it. The Chinese experience, the Chinese narrative is our own narrative. We can still use this form of expression, but we don’t have to talk about stuff that’s not our narrative. Going back to Eminem, there’s a funny skit on Slim Shady where Steve Berman is like “Dre is talking about blunts, forties and b*****, you’re talking about homosexuals and Vicodin.” The point is not to not rap, it’s about the intentions. Chinese rappers who still rap about girls and guns, they’re unoriginal. They just think, “oh what’s working in the West? That is working in the west. I’ll do that.” Because their intention is to blow up really quickly, capture the limelight and squeeze the money out of it. There are plenty of hip-hop artists in China, and in the states, who are not trying to copy other people’s experiences and narratives. But because that is so far removed from what is being spotlighted, it takes a lot of artists with a healthier state of mind to move this thing forward.
So, music obviously has the incredible power to bring individuals together, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, etc. Do you feel like you’re bridging this cultural barrier between the two worlds, especially coming from this unique perspective?
I think we all have the responsibility to just, be good. So, if music is my medium, I guess from an outside point there’s this responsibility of bridging that [cultural barrier]. But, the more you think about trying to bridge this culture, you find yourself asking what does that exactly mean? How do you bridge this culture? To me, at the end of the day, it’s making the best music I can make and making sure that what I’m talking about is true to my life. If I’m making good music, people can listen to the music first and then realize that I’m Chinese. So, I guess in that way, I feel the responsibility of making good music more than, intentionally trying to bridge this east and west [gap]. Again, I think when any artist says, “I am the “culture bridg-er of the east and west,” that’s just sensationalizing. You don’t have to be talking about it if you’re doing it. People will recognize, people will hear it. So, when I get asked this question in interviews, “do you feel like you’re the one bridge?” I mean, if that’s how people look at it, that’s great! But, it’s hard for me to put that title on myself.
When you’re doing tours and shows and trying to post music to platforms like QQmusic and Douban (豆瓣) what has your experience been with having to change lyrics? Do you feel like your message is being in-authenticated by these types of difficulties?
I have a pretty easy time because my subject matter isn’t really challenging of the Chinese government, which is the quickest to get flagged. Most of my content is about my personal journey, life, love. So, I haven’t had any direct conflict in that sense, but me being an American citizen, trying to tour out here and book shows has definitely become more challenging as hip-hop music becomes more popular in China. I remember two years ago when I toured [in China], there was no approval process. Nowadays, there’s a lot more headache with permits and approvals [that] both artists and promoters have to jump through, and it’s putting a lot more pressure on the indie/underground scene than ever before. It’s definitely a more difficult game out here, but it’s still totally doable. I think people who are doing music for music’s sake, are going to keep doing it no matter what. But [the restrictions] will discourage a lot of people who are doing it for the fame. But I think if China was going to put a ban on hip-hop for real, they could ban it overnight. It’s so early, it’s hard to say.
To give you one valid example of what you are saying, a couple months ago I woke up and I had a lot of messages on my Weibo asking where my song “No Hook” went. I checked on my 网易 (Netease), a Chinese streaming platform, and “No Hook” was gone along with thousands of rap songs. “No Hook” had no profanity in it, it had nothing that was topically sensitive, and neither did a lot of artists’ songs that got taken down with no hopes of [being put back up]. I asked them, “is there a lyric problem? is there some things that I should have censored? if so, let’s do it and put the song back up. It’s a popular song.” They said no. There was no explanation. But again, it’s just one song… If I’m a hip-hop artist in China, I know my boundaries and limitations. If I make a song like “Mosh” here, knowing the consequences, then that’s just me not being smart. The fact that a Western influence such as hip-hop can still thrive in China the way it is now is fascinating to me. The fact that the government has allowed hip hop to come here and do its thing is crazy to me. I’m just grateful that I am still out here rapping more than anything.
It gets chalked up, at least in America, to be this kind of big red wall, but after speaking with you and SFG [Straight Fire Gang (直火帮), a Shanghai-based rap group], it seems more like a hassle than anything else.
I’m still to this day more scared of the New York police than the Chinese government. The funny thing is the states tell you that you have freedom of speech. This is a free country, you can do whatever you want. We all know that’s not the truth. You walk up to the police and you call them “pig”. You might get yourself in trouble. But in China they’re real[ly] transparent. They tell you ‘don’t talk about the government, don’t talk about drugs and guns and killers and you’re good.’ You walk up to a police officer in China you can call them whatever you want to his face. They don’t have a gun. They can’t arrest you. They just walk away like “are you freaking crazy?” Like you said lyric censorship definitely is a nuisance. Again, I have it easy because of what I choose to express through my music, but there’s definitely hip-hop artists in China, that want to express something more provocative, something more challenging, that’s being censored more. That’s unfortunate because that doesn’t happen in the states. But that goes back to me saying, if you’re functioning in an environment like China, if you’re playing a game here, you have to know the rules. If you’re a boxer, you think “I’m a fighter, just like a UFC fighter. Why can’t I kick a guy in the face?” Well, because you’re playing a different game.
So, where do you see Chinese music, or hip-hop produced by Chinese or Chinese diaspora artists in 10 years?
Basically, better music. One of the main problems that’s slowing down the process is the lack of appreciation for producers in China. So right now, as always in China, the idol culture is so strong that people behind the scenes are easily overlooked. So, people love the rappers, but they don’t know what the whole producer role is. They don’t want to understand that without the producer, these rappers are slam poets. Rappers are making money hand over fist, while producers are getting a very small flat fee for their beat upfront… There’s no infrastructure yet for a producer to really support themselves the way people in the states do… But in 10 years, there’s definitely going to be a lot more awareness, a lot more good music, a lot more communication between Chinese artists and American artists and just the two markets in general.
Bringing it full circle back to the start of our conversation, you were a kid once. On the track “Back in the days” from your last EP Yaode, you talk about being a kid and growing up while having this Chinese American experience. If you had to give one piece of advice to a bi-cultural or multiracial kid living in the states to help them navigate identity struggles, what would it be?
I’ve dealt with identity struggles. It’s brought me nothing but headache until I realized I had nothing to struggle about. The whole world is completely coming together. Whether you are actually an immigrant from overseas or not, your mind is everywhere because of the Internet. So, I wouldn’t even think about that as a negative thing. If you’re from multiple backgrounds, you’re blessed right now. Absorb everything. Learn about where you’re from, don’t forget about where you’re from, but look full steam ahead and think about the possibilities that you could do a with your backgrounds. If you have different language skill sets, man, utilize that. Do your part as a human being to just be a good person and realize that it is not easy being a mixed person. You have this hardship. Realize how hard it is and [how] hard other people might have it too, and just be a good person. My advice to anybody, whatever profession, music or whatever – all of that is easy as soon as you learn the disciplines. But the hardest part is being a good person. Man, I’m still trying to learn that every day. So that would be my advice.
Bohan is currently working on a new full-length album set to be released early next year. He will be kicking off APAHM at ChinaWeek in Los Angeles, headlining alongside Faded Ghost (aka ChaCha Yehaiyahan), Kai Luen (aka Soulspeak), and MC Tingbudong at Radii’s china.wav event on May 3rd.
Photos courtesy of Bohan Phoenix
Please join the USC U.S.-China Institute for a short reading and discussion with Jeff Wasserstrom on his new book on Hong Kong.