BANGKOK — Chinese American rapper Bohan Phoenix has straddled both countries in his career. Working with Chinese rappers like the popular Higher Brothers, he has always interspersed English song lyrics with a catchy Chinese chorus.
Far from the flex-heavy culture of rap songs in the Top 40, his latest album “Make You Proud” is a heartfelt, bilingual exploration of the musician’s life. In it, Phoenix hits back at the haters who say his Chinese isn’t good, and speaks of his own naivety in the commercialized space that is the music industry, and what he’s most known for: the dual strands of his Chinese and American lives.
The album was a personal challenge, Phoenix said. He’s most proud of its eponymous first song, in which he raps about his average grades in China and moving to the U.S. at age 11, over a repeating series of piano chords.
“When I was posting on Douyin and Chinese social media, people were like … ‘his Chinese sounds weird,’” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. The comments got to him. “It just got to a point where I was like, I do feel like it’s time to challenge myself as an artist.”
Once he decided to take the challenge, the rhymes came naturally. His lyrics are different from Chinese rappers who try to compete in the complexity of their rhymes, often using chengyu, four-character literary proverbs. It’s straightforward, though critics say the vocabulary is simple, at the level of a third-grader.
Phoenix said he’s happy with the result, “I had never been able to tell my story so clearly in Chinese before,” he said.
For an artist who started rapping in English, Chinese was at first just an ornamentation in his music. But as he got older, Phoenix says he felt more compelled to use Chinese and being more in touch with his mother tongue. When he moved back to China in 2017, he said he “couldn’t soundcheck without someone’s help, because I just didn’t know how to say certain equipment on stage.”
His album also touches on politics, though Phoenix says he has never thought of himself or his work as political. Yet its release comes a year after China lifted strict COVID-19 lockdowns, during which passenger flights were reduced and pandemic border controls kept families separated. Phoenix himself couldn’t get a visa to go back and see his family for three years.
His music touches on the rise of rap in China as well as the pointed questions raised when Black Lives Matter protests burst out nationwide in the U.S. after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, who was Black, by a white police officer. On his latest album, “Love for you,” Phoenix apologizes to Higher Brothers for saying they were not speaking in support of Black Lives Matter.
During that period, Phoenix said he saw a lack of “accountability” from the Asian rapping community, and “as Asian rappers who made a boatload of money from Black culture, it was only right that we showed up and donated to the cause.”
Phoenix had called out 88Rising, a label that features Asian hip-hop artists, as well as Higher Brothers and Vava, some of the biggest names in the Chinese rapping sphere. The label later announced a donation of $60,000 in support of funds against racial inequality.
Phoenix’s criticism led to a rift with Higher Brothers that hasn’t healed. The group told Bohan he should have reached out privately instead of writing about it online. They also said they didn’t understand the situation in the U.S.
Back in the U.S. during the pandemic, Phoenix donated money and marched in the streets. He also served as a moderator for a panel about Asian American support for Black Lives Matter. “Everything felt really urgent,” he said of the time.
Politics and racism again reared its head during a sharp tick in anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S., and very visible attacks on elderly Asian Americans in major cities like New York and San Francisco.
Phoenix said he immediately thought of his mother, and worried about her getting attacked in New York. He released a song called “but I still love you” as part of a campaign #HateIsAVirus, which features people of different ethnicities dancing and singing together. Again, he spoke of Black and Asian solidarity, and of seeing everyone as human first.
“I know I look nothing like you, but I hope that you still love me,” the crowd sings in the chorus of the song.
Phoenix is clear on why he does what he does.
“But my need for music isn’t about money or fast cars, when I have nothing, it gives me confidence and joy,” he raps in “Love For You.”
For now, Phoenix is focused on his work in China, in part because he wants to spend time with his grandfather. He still shuttles between the U.S. and China, and is one of the few artists who perform and attract audiences in both countries. He appears as confident in Harlem as he is in Chengdu.
Phoenix is due to join the next season of a popular hip-hop competition show, Rap of China, which has brought rap to the mainstream, in the spring.
To him, China represents possibility.
“For me I’m confident in my music to be in the States, but being in China … I have always thought, Oh man, what would it be like to be in New York when hip-hop just got started?” he said. “To me, China kind of feels like that. It feels like the wild, wild West.”