Bohan Phoenix represents what the future of music can hold. The NY-based artist raps in two different languages and has been gaining the attention of both Eastern and Western cultures. With his hands dipped into both China and the US, he is becoming unstoppable and tapping into underground culture in a way that's hasn't been seen much in the past. It's a proud moment in Asian American culture to see things change, and Bohan is an example of someone at the forefront of Asians in entertainment with shifting stereotypes of the race.
With his latest EP Jala, out now via Bandcamp, we sat down with him to learn more about what Jala is exactly, his hometown Chengdu, Higher Brothers, and more.
Hey Bohan, thank you for taking the time to talk to us! Your Jala EP just came out. How are you-feeling post-release? And for those that don't exactly understand what Jala is, what is it and why did you name your EP this?
It always feels rewarding to put something new out, feed it to the world and see its impact on people. I’ve been working on JALA EP for a while now, and I’m just excited that it's out because I consider it one of my most conceptually oriented projects.
JALA (or its accurate spelling of pinyin JIA LA) means “add spice” or more commonly just mean “extra spicy.” My home is Chengdu, the spice capital of China, and everything about Chengdu is JALA, the food, the people, the atmosphere bubbling like the hot pots you see everywhere. JALA is an attitude -- you go after things you are hungry for in spicy and flamboyant ways while always keeping it tasteful.
JALA represents me, a product of the East and the West...a product representing a mixture of culture and identity. That's why unlike my previous project FOREIGN which was produced entirely by Howie Lee, JALA has a mixture of Asian motifs mixed with a Western trap themes made with producers all over the world
Also, I spelled it JALA not JIALA (technically correct spelling) because I remember seeing mad people in China wearing shirts with English on them but spelled wrong or just not real words. I wanted to play on that aspect of the culture exchange that's been going on, and how ironic it is.
When I say "I'm the plug from overseas," I mean that I'm the plug for culture, that is, a different perspective. I am internationally trying to share and exchange our identities to show that we can speak the same language of music, of differences and of love. Also I mean, come on, the best food is spicy food ;)
I think for me (as an Asian American myself), I grew up struggling with my identity, especially growing up in a suburban neighborhood. How did you come up with the idea of rapping in two languages? Did you feel a disconnect between how our ethnicity can be portrayed in the media? From now on, what do you think we as an ethnicity need to do to keep being included in the conversation and in the spotlight (as well as what does the media need to do to be more inclusive)?
I guess I had some struggles with my identity too, but I had an easier time identifying as Chinese because I was born there and came here at 11, so I had enough time in the motherland to understand what it means to be Chinese. Also with my family being there, I go back at least once every year. I always saw myself as a transplant who will eventually return, and although I have an American passport, I feel more Chinese than I ever did nowadays.
I think everything is timing and right now it’s pretty obvious the Asian community is on a mission to express themselves and be recognized and respected in creative fields, and anyone would be kidding themselves to say that we aren’t coming with some authentic fucking fire. I think the disconnect had always been a result of a lacking in communication- the West always felt itself to be superior to the East and the East had always been too proud to care about what the West was doing. But in recent years through popular culture, this has been changing. In order to be in the conversation, we have to “speak up” and contribute, so I can never get mad about how little we’ve been represented because I really do believe in timing, and everyone, or nation, or what have you has their time.
And to be 100% honest, as an observer, it wasn’t until recently that the East has been coming with that juice! So it's a more exciting time than ever to look forward rather than backwards on what should have or could have been. As a teenager, I always thought my ethnicity would be a life long hindrance in the West, but now with grown eyes, I’ve realized if anything my ethnicity and my identity make me strong and proud.
You working with Magnetic Mag and being Asia and consciously writing about Asian artists in our community is you doing your part major! We just have to get into positions of power and represent each other, but not on some Asian only shit, but on some love for everybody type shit. We here now, listen up.
You've worked with Higher Brothers. How did you meet them? What is the rap culture scene in China currently like? Who are some of your boundary pushing artists out right now?
I met the HB when I was on tour with VICE China spring of 2016, as I was shooting some cyphers out in Taipei and Chengdu because a blog called Teambackpack wanted me to go out there and start Teambackpack China. TBP didn't end up using the footage but VICE China shot their own versions and it was fire and was released last year.
My boy M4 who’s born and raised in Brooklyn came with me on tour and he was tatting himself in the cypher while rapping. It was so raw. Since then I've kept in close contact with The Higher Brothers, and they are one of the main forces contributing to the rising rap culture in China. They pack out shows and bring a lot of energy, their image and songs are all reminiscent of the Western trap style but flowing in that Sichuan dialect where even most Mandarin speakers can’t understand. It’s some really cool shit. My homie Kafe Hu is also doing his thing, real jazzy style accompanied by Chinese rhymes and live band, J.Fever from Beijing is also like, a lyricist to the very core of that word. The amount of artists experimenting with new and cool ways are in abundance in China right now, and its only the beginning.
You've worked a lot with Howie Lee, and each of your visuals for your songs to tell a story. Who creates this storyline and where can we expect to see you next?
Howie Lee is the future. I love having other outlets aside from rapping and writing, because I can’t play instruments and sometimes it’s really frustrating when I can only express myself vocally. And I love movies, so since day one, I've wanted to direct all my own videos and come up with the concepts and ideas because I feel like nobody knows what I'm going for better than me. Obviously, I'm open to working with other people, though a lot of the people I want to work with I'm not on their radar yet, but will be soon. My ideas and plans change so much from day to day but I plan to keep going full speed ahead, speaking to both East and West through my music.
If you could say anything to your younger self, what advice would you give him?
Definitely would tell him to have more patience, with himself and with everyone in his life. I think a lot of disappointments and failures I’ve experienced come from a lack of maturity, lack of patience, and that stemmed from within. So as time went by I realized the universe has its own timing and nothing right can be rushed. And also take more risks, I was a little bitch for the longest time cuz I was just scared. I don’t know when exactly it was the switch got hit, but once the switch was hit I was like, let me try anything and everything.
Finally, what can we expect from you for the rest of 2017?
In 2017 and 2018 and 2019 and beyond y’all can expect a lot of music, good or bad I can’t call it, but I'm definitely out here and I’m excited to keep building and spreading the love. In June I’ll be moving to China for 6 months to a year, going to explore Asia, some temples and maybe hang with some monks, climb a bunch of mountains. So many plans so we’ll have to see how everything unfolds. But one of the main goals is be with family more, and thats why I’m moving to Chengdu, so you can expect so much more JALA in the rest of 2017.