Abandoning banking to becoming Shanghai’s purveyor of party
John Bowdre just graduated and had a job lined up at global financial services company UBS when he dropped into Muse for a fun night during a study abroad trip. Club-goers crowded around his group as they sang and danced. Afterward the staff came up and asked him if he was a rapper. He said yes.
Two years later, 25-year-old Bowdre (AKA MC Lambo) has traveled to 30 cities across China performing with his younger brothers, James and Joseph Kemp, with whom he runs Double Victory Entertainment, a company that coordinates events and helps Western acts gain exposure in China.
“I have a hard time calling myself a rapper,” Bowdre says. Before China, he’d rap with friends some but always thought of himself as a finance guy. His transformation wasn’t as straightforward as his discovery at Muse. It was, however, tied to the US mortgage crisis.
Bowdre graduated high school when America’s real estate frenzy was in full swing. So when he heard his barber say he bought a three-bedroom house for US$500,000, Bowdre didn’t see why he shouldn’t be able to buy a house too. “I wanted to be the black Donald Trump.” He began reading up on real estate and perusing thousands of online listings. During his sophomore year at Florida A&M University, Bowdre secured a mortgage by having friends sign rental contracts so the bank could see promise of future income. At age 19, he became a landlord.
Bowdre spent two summers on Wall Street at JP Morgan and Barclays. The stock market was flying. Bonuses were record high. He was dining with billionaires. Then it all changed. As an intern banker, Bowdre watched workers scrape away the Bear Stearns sign when the 90-yearold bank collapsed. Back in Florida, a devastating hurricane caused insurance rates to skyrocket. Bowdre had to raise rent by 30 percent. Many houses on the block headed for foreclosure, including his.
After graduating in winter 2008, he came to Shanghai for a finance course. He’d already accepted the job at UBS, slated to begin summer 2009. After the night at Muse where they asked if he was a rapper, he picked up a regular gig MCing. When his study term ended, they asked him to stay.
“It was very nice singing and dancing with you, but I’m a banker,” Bowdre recalls thinking. He left to travel in Europe, but seated in a cafe in Madrid received the fated email: due to the global financial crisis UBS froze his job for six to 12 months. Bowdre pressed ahead and moved to New York, but Muse continued to email, asking him to come back. He began drafting business plans and mulling it over. And in January 2010 he returned to Shanghai with his brothers in tow. They now perform at many places around town (Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at Brown Sugar) as Armada RED, a “rockstar rap band.”
The brothers see the group as a conduit for understanding. As young black performers in China, they’re no stranger to shock and wonder. Occasionally people will gasp passing him on the street, Bowdre says. One time, in a club outside Shanghai, a group of girls stood around kneading the skin on his arm as if trying to rub out the color. People have told him they think black people are strong, athletic and criminallydisposed, but he says Obama has done a lot to change that stereotype here. And Bowdre sees the club as a perfect intersection for forging relationships and broadening perspectives. “They like you; they’re in the mood to like you. Then you meet them for lunch and they see, wow, you’re smart.”
This summer one brother, Joseph “P.I.” Kemp embarked on a six-city European tour. Double Victory recently signed a German Michael Jackson impersonator for representation in China. But the thing Bowdre is most eager to talk about has nothing to do with entertainment. For several days in July, Double Victory hosted 56 high schoolers from an inner-city Los Angeles neighborhood. Some of the teens had never been outside LA before. Put together by the NAACP Urban League with the help of corporate sponsors, the trip allowed teens to explore the city, meet Americans working in Shanghai and hopefully see one day they too could live abroad.
Bowdre and his brothers grew up in a similar neighborhood in southern California and have a passion for students from underprivileged communities, “I remember when we didn’t have the money for rent – had our lights turned off,” he says. “I want to make money to help people.”
That’s Shanghai, 2011
Photo by Nicky Almasy