"This Isn't Social Justice. It's A Moral Thing."
Chika sounds off about protest, Pride, her debut EP and her craziest year. “You know, before 2020.”
In moments of stress, Chika cleans house, literally and emotionally. The night before she spoke to NYLON via phone from Los Angeles, where she’s been living for the past year and a half, the 23-year-old rapper and social commentator had stayed up late wiping down every crevice of her apartment. The act of cleaning, she explained, was a way to channel the excess energy and anger she had been feeling since George Floyd, a 46-year-old father of five, was killed, while handcuffed and pinned to ground, by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. “Just mundane things that remind me that being a human is not always despair,” she said.
Some of her energy also found its way to Twitter. “there needs to be a full uprising,” she wrote. “the hashtags don’t work. the videos [of police killings] just provide proof while traumatizing the masses… it’s sick and i’m personally tired.” Five days after Floyd’s death — full uprising fully in swing — she was one of nearly 400 protesters arrested, and was detained for seven hours by the Los Angeles Police Department, before being released with an October court date for “failing to comply.”
A self-described child of the internet, Chika knows the power and limitations of social media more than most. Born Jane Chika Oranika in Montgomery, Alabama, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants grew up in Alabama and quickly took to writing, first crafting poems at age 9 before venturing into music and raps. Her skill earned her acceptance to the Berklee College of Music, but the $50,000 price tag made it inaccessible. After one year at the University of South Alabama, Chika dropped out to focus on her music career. Then Donald Trump was elected and Chika posted the video that launched her career — first to Twitter, which got her account suspended, then to Instagram.
In it, she paints her face with pale foundation in a mirror and practices pretending that she is white. “African American?” she says while covering her skin. “Never felt that, never heard of that, never tasted that, never smelled that.” In 30 seconds, the then-19-year-old captured the fear many Black and brown people had going into the Trump presidency: that they were unsafe. Those fears are now being played out on social media as police forces across the country escalate peaceful anti-brutality protests.
Not long after going viral, Chika began sharing music with her growing audience of followers, developing an artistic persona fueled both by her unfettered politics and her contagious self-confidence. As a performer with a knack for reading the currents of the internet, she continued to go viral. Once for a 2017 queer pride rework of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and again with a 2018 video called “A Letter to Kanye Omari West,” in which Chika castigates the rapper for endorsing Trump over his “Jesus Walks” beat.
This March, she released Industry Games, a buoyant debut EP recounting her rise from social media maven to full-time rapper. But while most young artists get a honeymoon period of sorts after releasing their debuts, Chika’s coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. She passed the time in tranquil isolation — setting up her new apartment and home studio, listening to music she calls nostalgic (J. Cole, Lauryn Hill, and B.o.B.), and making Nigerian stew — until anti-police brutality protests in Los Angeles brought her out of quarantine. The justice-focused rapper talked to NYLON about her career journey, the current protests, and how she uses her ever-growing platform.
How have you felt seeing the uprisings across the country?
I feel emboldened and empowered and happy to see people finally fed up. We've been told for so long that you shouldn't respond to certain atrocities with the same energy you've been given. That's a tool of the oppressor to tell you that you can't do anything to get out of the hell that you're living in. So to see people break the simulation and stop being compliant and complicit with what's happening, and fully f*cking shit up, for lack of better words, I stan. Of course, [f*cking shit up] in a safe manner and in a way that doesn't harm anyone else. But these corporations, they don't feed us. They don't care about us. Lives cannot be replaced. These buildings, merchandise, all this stuff can be replaced.
What do you see as your role as an artist and as a person with a platform in moments of heightened awareness and action, like right now?
I have a responsibility to be vocal about things that are what I consider... It's not even really social justice, it's a moral thing. I can't imagine sitting by and not saying anything, or just retweeting and not being able to share my actual thoughts right now.
I am a child of the internet, I grew up in a town where it is encouraged to speak [your] mind and to be vocal. And I learned a lot of political information from social media, and from seeing people — not celebrities, regular people — speaking their minds.
I'm always going to maintain the integrity that I had on my social media prior to anyone watching me. I, of course, have to be a little bit more careful with how I word things. I think we need to also challenge each other to think a little bit deeper on things. Like, I remember making a joke about the ridiculous shit Trump said about injecting Lysol. Not a joke that encouraged it, just one being like, "Am I looking at this? Are y'all seeing what this man said?" and made a character out of it. And Instagram [told] me that I was promoting suicide. I was like, "What do we mean when there's a man in office who can say these things and tweet these things out and I can't make a statement about it as satire?"
You put up Black Lives Matter posters in your high school and got suspended. How did you get to where you are now ideologically?
Well, I'm a child of immigrants. I am a Black woman. I'm queer. My entire existence has been criticized since the day I was born. And my parents made me very aware of what this country looked like to them and, as Black people and immigrants, how we'd have two different wars to wage on the same side. So I've always been hyper-aware of injustice and what it looks like. Especially growing up in the South where I'm a Black kid and I can see white kids being treated differently or having certain privileges that I was never afforded.
As I've gotten older, I have the vocabulary to describe what I see and to apply different terms that have now been popularized, and even just invented. We have more words to describe our reality, but I've always known it. And it's not something that I think any Black person has been blind to unless you’ve been shielded by wealth or some other thing in life that keeps you from seeing what the world looks like. There's a certain level of fed up you get to where you just have to speak. And watching people die is not something that will ever not trigger me. It's not something that will ever cause me to stay silent.
I may not be wanting to post videos of carnage anymore, but that's because I'm far beyond the point of using Black people's death to incite change. We've seen it happen so many times, there's no point in continuously showing people Black death. And so reaching this ideological conclusion as an adult is just a product of me existing in the world as a Black person. There's no way I would have not reached this area unless I just chose to be blind.
At home, when you were growing up, did you and your parents talk a lot about the politics that were going on in the country at the time?
Not really, but I saw a lot of things, like if my parents have been discriminated against. There is literally, at [my dad’s] job, a discrimination lawsuit for him and hella other immigrants. That happened before I was even old enough to know what was going on. I found that out later in high school.
It was subtle. It was a subconscious thing. They never brought it up at the dinner table or anything like that. But in terms of how we carried ourselves, I was told to be careful about certain things. I always gathered what I needed to.
What do they think of your music career and your platform? You've said that they were hesitant about your career at first.
Oh, for sure. They didn't know what I was doing. But now I get why you'd be terrified to see your kid just be like, "Hey, I'm going to drop out of college and be a rapper." Like, "Girl, sit your butt down and go to class." But for me, the solace I've had since I was a kid was that I was going to make it. And that sounds really narcissistic, but I've always felt this security in it. I wasn't telling them that I was going to do something because I just wanted to. It's because I felt the obligation to since I was a kid, since I was literally 2. It's crazy.
So, the moments I get to have with my parents now are that of, like, "Your child wasn't crazy this whole time."
On your album, you talk about the obstacles you've faced in your career, but also what you just said, believing that you were going to make it.
I had to fully convince myself every single day that I worked towards this that I wanted it for real and that it'd be worth it. Now, here I am, and this project is something I'm super proud of. I got to tell the story of my craziest year, you know, before 2020. I wasn't even a full-time rapper when I blew up. I had just written my first rap song. So I think I just have to challenge myself as I continue. Luckily, that reflects in my skill, not always in my maturity.
What do you mean, not always in your maturity?
I'm young, so people really be like, "Oh, you have all these eyes on you, you should definitely be more responsible." And I'm like, "I'm also 23, leave me alone.” I'm still a kid. I have a good head on my shoulders so people don't expect me to mess up. And when I do, it's like it's worse. If you speak well and you happen to make a mistake, everyone will literally pin you to the cross for it. So I'm very mature, but I'm still a kid. In terms of my skill, I've definitely improved. And I've matured a little bit; I'm just not where everyone wants me to be yet.
You should be able to have a "Can't be Tamed"-era if you wanted.
I would love to. Put my leg in the air a couple of times, my [Josephine] Baker era. I think that for me I never — and this is the thing that happens with Black people in general — we don't get to be kids. We don't get to be young and wild and do stupid shit. ’Cause if we do it, then we're the N-word and we were raised poorly. It's forgotten that we're still kids, because we've had to mature so fast. It is a mess. And it's something that I speak on a lot, especially via social media, cause I don't misspeak often, but I offend quite a bit.
I try to remind people regardless of whatever position you may put me in or whatever pedestal you might have me on, you don't have to agree with me. You don't have to think that I'm right and this check mark next to my name does not mean that I will never make a mistake or never misspeak. But you do need to respect me. That's basic decency.
This morning I watched the Donald Trump video again. I remember watching it right after Donald Trump got elected and being like, "Hahaha, ugh." And then now I watch it and I'm like, "Ugh."
What do you think when you rewatch it?
I’ve seen it so many times these past couple years. I sampled it on “Balencies,” but even today thinking about that f*cking video, I was so spot on. I'm not even trying to give myself much, ’cause anyone could have did that video, and they would be spot on. But that was the point of it.
I remember it being taken out of context and people being like, “This is white face,” which doesn't f*cking exist. But here we are as Black people under this administration, dealing with what we're dealing with to this very f*cking day.
I said that the night that we got confirmation that this man would be the president. And then here we are, the president said that you could shoot protesters. Bruh, come on. I'm so over it.
Because you spent so much time building up your presence on social media and your platform, do you find it hard to step away when you need a break?
No. I find it harder to deliver now more than I used to. For a year after I first blew up, I posted almost every single day. I still had a job. It was terrifying. It destroyed my health and sleep patterns. I still have not returned to them. I went to bed at 9 a.m. this morning.
I love stepping away from social media. I still like it because I know how to use it. I like to talk to my fans. But when it comes to my mental [well-being], it's unhealthy. We don't know what social media does to your brain yet. Stepping away is a blessing.
I want to make sure before our time is up to ask you about Pride. Happy Pride. What do you do to celebrate?
I’m prideful every day! Last year, I lived in West Hollywood on one of the main streets of the parade, but I had to do a photo shoot and I missed Pride. I was like, you know what? I'll catch the next year, and here we are! So I don't know. I don't typically celebrate, and not because I don't want to. There were no Pride celebrations where I grew up. I just got here a year and a half ago. I never got the opportunity to. Maybe you get to be outside for next year’s Pride. Who knows if we will get to be outside in 2022?
You never know what's going to happen. You never know. So I am going to make sure we make my first Pride count. I just might be the one in the onesie or a rainbow swimsuit. That might be the thing.
Top image credit: See Rose Go jacket; Freddy Beezy bandana; ASOS top; Martine Ali necklace; Versani necklace, rings.
Photographer: Emman Montalvan
Set Designer: Kelly Fondry
Art Director: Erin Hover
Fashion Director: Tiffany Reid
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