Every so often, you stumble across an artist who you can’t help but believe in. Such was my experience pressing play on Alabama rapper CHIKA’s debut EP, Industry Games. CHIKA, 23, went viral in 2018 for her freestyle admonishing Kanye West. I was into it, sure, but there had to be more to the artist than slick bars about being let down by a great. From the first blush of Industry Games, I quickly realized there is so much more to CHIKA, born Jane Chika Oranika, than anyone could have imagined.
Industry Games runs the gamut of wit, soul, gorgeous chords, and quick-fire bars. CHIKA does not coast on this EP. She attacks instruments, but with a level of care. Nothing about the EP is messy or miscalculated. CHIKA delivers stunning display after display of tenderness and affinity for hip-hop. You can tell she loves it from the way her voice drips with conviction. “I’m about to change the world,” CHIKA announces to kick off Industry Games—we believe her. The amount of heart CHIKA packs into Industry Games is admirable. There is no pomp or air to her work; there is simply a real passion and hunger driving her.
“The work I put into it, it’s almost like when a parent has a child,” CHIKA explains to me over the phone. “Of course I love it. But at a certain point, a child is work, money, an investment. That’s the same thing, in terms of having to perfect my skills and be up and having to post all the time. Stay relevant. That’s the work… Even if I hate what the world around me may look like in terms of the industry, I love this thing because I spent so much time trying to perfect it. At this point, I’m gonna have it, because I put so much work in. I deserve to be able to live off of it and also love it.”
For all CHIKA’s spirit, we cannot understate how good she is at the physical act of rapping. Track to track, CHIKA brings a bouquet of rhythms and flows so involved and enticing. The titular “INDUSTRY GAMES” is dizzying in the best ways. “SONGS ABOUT YOU” slows down the deliveries to make sure we feel every syllable CHIKA spits with our chests. When CHIKA slips into her gentle and grand melodies, too, we sink into her world. CHIKA is an artist you can bet on without reservations.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: You went viral in 2018 for your Kanye West freestyle. What’s been the biggest downside of virality?
CHIKA: I really can’t look at anything from that period as having a [downside]. There can be a negative side to it because people are inherently negative sometimes. Still, the opportunities that freestyle gave me far supersede any other negativity I would’ve [experienced] at this point.
Talk to me about the moment you realized you wanted a full-fledged rap career.
As soon as I got a social media presence and platform, I began to see the effects of what I was doing, and how people were so readily willing to support me and my dream of being a musician, which I’ve had since I was little. Me posting freestyles and doing that for so long; I told myself to continue and keep going. I would still post videos of me playing guitar and singing, and doing covers. I saw the reception on my poetry and my rap and was like, “This could be something!” I knew I’d be able to, if I wanted, write rap songs, and had been incorporating rap into my music anyway. I started just playing guitar. But, when I saw the impact of [the music], I made sure I dedicated the time to perfect it.
Your debut EP, Industry Games, is astounding work. The first thing that struck me was how in love you sound with hip-hop. Where does that love come from?
The work I put into it, it’s almost like when a parent has a child. Of course, they love the child, and they’re there—I’ve been here since the beginning, writing and doing all this stuff. Of course I love it. But at a certain point, a child is work, money, an investment. That’s the same thing, in terms of having to perfect my skills and be up and having to post all the time. Stay relevant. That’s the work.
At a certain point, even with parents, the work begins to supersede the love for the thing. You realize how much time you’ve invested in that thing, which makes you love it more. I want the best for it. That’s where I have been with my music: Even if I hate what the world around me may look like, in terms of the industry, I love this thing because I spent so much time trying to perfect it. At this point, I’m gonna have it, because I put so much work in. I deserve to be able to live off of it and also love it.
“SONGS ABOUT YOU” is the clear standout for me. Could you break down the writing of that track?
It starts with “I met Hov last week…” I began writing that a few days after the Roc Nation Brunch last year. I ended up in a weird-ass situation where it was just my manager and me in this corridor as JAY-Z and Diddy were arriving. I was only there to get away from everyone else at the party, only to run into these two men. I was like, “Oh, my God!” Hov and Diddy acknowledging me made me begin to want to tell that story and assess where I was at. That greatly affected the writing style of [the song], because I didn’t feel like it was necessary to rap with speed and do all these acrobatics to get the point across. I’m gonna tell this in the most direct way possible. There’s wordplay and fun, but at the end of the day, it’s the most cut-and-dry song [on the EP].
With each verse, you can hear me getting more and more—not intense in delivery—intense in feeling. I started [the song] after the Roc Nation Brunch, but I kept revisiting it as my year went on so I could add new things and not have it be stale from last February; I finished writing “SONGS ABOUT YOU” in September or October of . I wanted that song to feel like a snapshot of where I’ve been. I kept adding to it like a puzzle as the year went on, and the one thing staying the same was the hook. The rest is history.
I also love that you’re openly queer; it means a lot to me. Can you talk to me about the decision to be queer in writing as in life?
For me, it would be more difficult to not. In the same way that I’m bisexual/pansexual, whichever is most accurate to me, I wouldn’t feel weird writing songs about a guy, I predominantly date women. I don’t feel weird writing songs about a girl. We politicize everything, and we look too much into our own identities, instead of writing what feels natural. Straight people don’t necessarily have to be like, “Hm, how do I present today?” They write about their truth.
In the same way, I’m writing about mine. If I’m talking about a girl, I’m not gonna change the pronouns. I’m gonna speak specifically to the person. It doesn’t matter what the person’s gender is. I’m gonna be honest as the rest of my music is honest.
What’s one thing you wish people would stop assuming about you because of your identity?
I think people pigeonhole queer artists in general, in terms of asking whether or not we feel weird about being ourselves or whether or not I feel comfortable in my expression. For me, I’m not thinking about it! Everything else, I’ve always thought about and questioned and dissected, but who I am? I just move through the world as everyone else does, with the same amount of ease, or lack thereof, as any other human would. Queer people are regular humans. I get the experiences are different, so it’s a great thing to ask because of perspective, but the assumption of, “Oh, she has to be uncomfortable.” Why? Why would I have to be uncomfortable when I’m just being a human and [making] music?
That’s what I love about your music: how secure you sound. When did you become so comfortable being you?
When I realized everyone else has to be them. I remember doing a verse back in the day about my queerness and growing up in the south, and how I don’t think God makes mistakes. With that being said, I began to let go of all the things put unto me and programmed into my brain about how I should think about myself as a person in this world. I was like, “Yo! Nobody else has to live with the burden of questioning whether or not they’re some kind of defect. So, I’m not gonna do that.” I’mma be myself, the self that they created, and if there’s anyone to answer to, I will handle that myself. As far as me being on Earth, I’mma move comfortably.
With the various industry games you’ve brushed up against, do you think you’ll ever stop loving rap? At least, is there a fear that the business could suck the life out of yo creativity?
Sometimes I feel that way, and I express it when it comes down to boundaries and time, and needing to be an artist and not just in the business. I am a person, and I want to create and not feel pressure. I don’t think [industry games] will ever stop me fully. I’m the type of person where you could get me to the worst point, and I would feel like I’m at rock bottom, but it’s still a springboard for me to go forward. “Let’s make art out of it!” I will do what needs to be done to maintain the sanity I’ve tried to build. On top of that, protect this baby, like I said, that I’ve worked for.