On the Road… with Bohan Phoenix

The 2022 Pirelli Calendar aims to capture the atmosphere for an artist on tour. For rising rap star Bohan Phoenix, performing live and connecting with his fans is “what I do it for”

It was dusk in West Hollywood as Bryan Adams lined up his Pirelli Calendar shoot with Chinese-American rapper Bohan Phoenix. After an initial set-up in an underground garage, Adams felt inspired to take Phoenix out on to Sunset Boulevard to see what would happen. As the traffic slowed to watch, Phoenix took to the middle of the Strip and rolled out some of his martial arts moves. “I’m a black belt, I did eight years of that, and I was like, let me add a little of my culture to this,” said Phoenix. “I loved it; I wish we did more of it.”

Phoenix has learnt to do things his way. At the age of 11, having recently moved from China (he was born in Hubei) to Boston, and knowing no English, he was entranced by the story of Eminem in 8 Mile, a white aspiring rapper struggling in a predominantly black world. Phoenix started rapping himself, sang in a gospel choir in high school and began recording himself singing on his mobile phone. At first, he tried to emulate his hero, but then began telling his own story via his songs, rapping in both Mandarin and English. After attending NYU, he moved back to China where he collaborated with such artists as Chengdu hip-hop group Higher Brothers and producer Howie Lee. He has also worked with Chinese rapper Vava, American DJ Makj and British radio presenter Benji B, among many others.

Phoenix’s bilingual songs address issues such as cultural identity, drawing on his experiences living in both the US and China. They aim to bridge divides between US and Asian hip-hop and bring the cultures closer through music. He has called for Asian American support for the Black Lives Matter movement and donated proceeds from his May 2021 single But I Still Love You to the anti-racism Hate is a Virus campaign. His records include the EPs Foreign, Jala, Overseas, Yaode and lovelove. In June 2021 he signed with JUUICE Hip-Hop, a Warner Music China imprint, and is working on a new full-length album due out in 2022.

After the shoot, he talked about connecting with his fans and breaking down cultural barriers through music.

How did it go?
Oh man, today was fun. Bryan was dope, the whole team was dope, the Pirelli team’s been amazing. I’m having a great time.

How was working with Bryan?
Working with Bryan was super amazing. I mean he knows what he’s doing. He’s telling me do this, do that, do this, and if I take a little too long, he goes, ‘we got that already’. I was like, ‘OK cool, we’re moving on, we’re moving on’, so it’s been fun.

What does it mean for you to be in this Pirelli Calendar?
I was telling my friend, two years ago I wrote a song called Move to LA, that’s coming out on my album next year, and on it I talk about ‘Pirellis peeling’ and then I move to LA and now I’m on a Pirelli shoot, so this has been kind of an incredible thing like, yeah, I’m just super honoured to be here.

What is your relationship with LA?
My relationship with LA has been one that I’ve been kind of flirting with in the last few years. Every time I come out here, I’m like, yeah, I love it out here, but then I go back to New York. And then in December I just drove out here and I decided to stay, I love it, yeah.

What are the hardest challenges of being on the road?
The hardest thing is being far away from loved ones, from my family, and so, yeah, it’s always good to get home after the road.

How do you make your accommodation feel like home when you travel?
You know, I’m so used to not having a single place to call home. I was born in Hubei then moved to Boston where my mom is and then I really found myself in New York and now I’m in LA. So I’m used to taking home as where I’m at, instead of where I’m from, and that’s how I feel comfortable wherever I go.

In what way does music bring two cultures, two cultural identities, together for you?
I think sometimes words fall short, like especially when we have the language barrier. I feel like music is able to tug at your heart strings and emotional strings in a way that maybe speech just can’t really replace. So, music can definitely break down the language and culture barriers and bring people closer together.

Can you talk about your relationship with your fans?
Oh man, I’m just so blessed to have all these people who could listen to anybody they want, but they choose to listen to me and support me. I’m just blessed that, you know, I started recording 15 years ago when I was 13 and I’m blessed that I can continue to do what I do.

What does touring mean to you?
I love touring because even though I like the process of making music in a studio, you don’t really get to have that dialogue until you’re on a stage and you have the people in front of you and you’re doing the music live and you’re seeing them react to you. And you’re like this is what I do it for, and it’s a great time.

The experience of travelling, moving around, seeing new places, new cultures, new people – does that influence your creative process?
Yes. I always say, you know, wherever I end up with this music thing, this journey, the people that I’ve met, the places that I’ve been, the music that I’ve made has truly been the irreplaceable and priceless harvest from this journey so far.

Do you write on the road?
I write on the road all of the time. Matter of fact, I love writing on the road more than I do when I’m still. I love writing on the plane, I love writing on the subway, I love writing on the go, because something about being in motion helps my train of thought flow a little better.

Do you have a good relationship with photography?
I think I’m pretty shy when it comes to photography, but I’m learning to have more fun with it and working with photographers like Bryan just brings it out because they’re so comfortable in what they do. When I’m working with them I’m just kind of like, OK, I’ve just got to do me.

Would you like to share anything else?
One thing I want to share is it’s a crazy time and I just hope everybody keeps compassion in their heart and understands that each and every one of us really all deserve to be loved and respected, no matter where you’re from or what you look like. And I know some people might think this is corny, but love is all we got and we need to talk about it more, so yeah, that’s that.