Chika is making waves for her charged lyrics and major collaborators on her debut album. - Mission

Chika is making waves for her charged lyrics and major collaborators on her debut album.

By Siena Canales.

Rapper Chika is confronting both the world and herself with outspokenness. 

Before her career took off, 26-year-old rapper Chika was working as a cashier at Chipotle in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. “I was the backbone of that staff. They needed me, okay?” Chika says in our call, her voice warm and twinkling with laughter. A song she wrote between shifts at Chipotle was, four years later, featured on Barack Obama’s 2020 summer playlist, the same year she was nominated for a Grammy. This year Chika is collaborating with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Snoop Dogg on her debut album, Samson: The Album, an orchestral odyssey that pulses across tides of fame and mental illness. An artist who got her start on Instagram, Chika has torn the Internet into fits of fury and laughter with the brazen voice that etches her legacy in rap.

When she was 19 years old, Chika, full name Jane Chika Oranika, bargained with her parents to let her drop out of college and live at home for one year so she could pursue a career in music. School, she says, is something she always had a complicated relationship with. “I was what you would call a rowdy child,” Chika says. “I was a favorite with a lot of my teachers. And then there were a few who were like, ‘Wow, this girl is unhinged. Keep her away from me.’” Outspoken, with a vibrant inner world, Chika excelled in school often, but got into trouble all the same. As her Instagram bio reads: “Grammy-nominated headass CHIKA was suspended thrice in high school. Dream big, kids,” appended with a chuckling emoji.

“I was what you would call a rowdy child. I was a favorite with a lot of my teachers. And then there were a few who were like, ‘Wow, this girl is unhinged. Keep her away from me.’”

After Eric Garner was killed by an NYPD officer in 2014, Chika made local news after getting suspended for putting up Black Lives Matter posters around her high school. Her family received death threats as the case entered the media and her punishment evolved into a larger conversation about civil rights as it flouted the First Amendment. Another time, Chika was suspended for telling a teacher she “needed some d*ck.” “So… sometimes I am righteous and sometimes I am not,” Chika adds with a resigned sigh. More laughter twinkles.

Chika’s high school suspensions foreshadowed a sequence of firebrand statements that would launch her career. In November of 2016, just after the presidential election, the rapper garnered media attention when she posted a makeup tutorial of herself shrouding her dark skin with pale concealer in a video captioned: “Welp. #election2016.” “African American?” Chika says in the video, chuckling as she slops the custard concealer onto her cheek. “Never felt that, never heard of that, never tasted that, never smelled that,” adding, “Barack Obama? Is that some kind of sauce?” Before Twitter took the video down and suspended her account, the video went viral and gained Chika an online audience.

Then in 2018 Chika went viral again when she posted an open letter to Kanye West, calling him out for his support of Donald Trump. Rapping the letter to the beat of West’s own track, “Jesus Walks,” Chika says, “Your views are moving back to the day that trigga n*ggas cause we still hear that whip crack.” She relates herself to Kanye, whose 2004 debut studio album was titled The College Dropout, saying: “Imma level with you ’cause we both dropped out of college, son,” and laments a bygone era of Kanye’s, citing his 2007 album, Graduation. “That n*gga from Graduation, I’m sorry y’all, he gone now.” She looks into the camera, a twist of curls falling between her dark eyes, as she unleashes a forceful and entrancing beat with her words. Her talent is incontestable. The video caught the attention of Erykah Badu, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and Jada Pinkett Smith. By the next year, Chika was performingon Jimmy Kimmel Live! and signing a deal with Warner Records.

“[Fame] is not a healthy thing for anyone, but especially for young people, because it greatly compromises who we end up becoming because we are busy listening to who people think we are.”

Chika made headlines in June of this year for a series of viral tweets she wrote, reviling a mother of two wailing infants on her flight. A stampede of replies pounded in, screaming with racism and fatphobia. Chika took to Instagram to say she was having a manic episode when she wrote the tweets, but the responses were mostly unforgiving. Chika underscores the dissonance between being the spectator and being the spectacle. “It doesn’t feel the same doing it on the other side because you’re one person of millions talking about this topic. But when you are the topic, it’s crazy to be the thing that people are discussing—as though you are not a sentient life form yourself,” Chika says. She goes on to talk about the challenge of evolving under the scrutiny of the public eye, especially as a young person. “[Fame] is not a healthy thing for anyone, but especially for young people, because it greatly compromises who we end up becoming because we are busy listening to who people think we are.”

In July, Chika released her debut album, Samson: The Album, an unfettered telling of her inner life. The first song, “Overture,” opens the album like a velvet curtain. A cello swells as a full orchestra encircles the soundscape, then Lin-Manuel Miranda’s voice shines in like a light spilling onto a dark stage. “Our stories are all we got / So if you’re gonna tell it, tell it boldly / Tell the truth without fear,” Miranda says. Chika had asked Miranda to open a different album but pivoted after writing Samson. “It’s such a big album,” Chika says of the 20-track album. “And it’s theatrical […], so what better way to open it, for me, as a theater kid, than to have friggin Lin-Manuel Miranda’s voice,” she says, joking, “Is that Alexander Hamilton?!”

The album’s eponym, Samson, refers to a tragic hero in the Bible who dies as the result of a betrayal, a motif seen throughout the album. In the biblical story Samson loses his strength and is held captive by the Philistines after being betrayed by his love, Delilah. With a final prayer, he finds the strength to overcome his captors, but at the cost of his own life. The story’s coup de grâce was a lesson of determination in times of darkness for Chika. “It’s a statement of ‘I’m gonna make it,’” Chika says about the story. “And if I have to go, that’s fine—but you all are gonna go too.’”

Just a few days before the country went into lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chika had just released her EP, a moment she describes as a felt betrayal. “I was right at the doorway of my dream,” she says. “That feeling of having everything snatched away from you.” She describes her pre-pandemic self as a “kiddie, fairy-tale dream Chika, a cheeky, grinning little kid who is coming to L.A. and is excited.” But when the world stopped, seemingly so did the life of that inner child. “It was a struggle to hold myself up every day and to continue to look forward to things.” As Chika’s mental health was crumbling, the album was a statement she was determined to get out and it became an unprecedented healing journey. “I was able to mourn what could have been if the pandemic didn’t happen, but also heal enough to look forward to what still can be, even though the pandemic happened,” she says.

“Delilah is a really personal song—a real and raw song. I wrote it about my best friend who saved my life on many occasions.”

The album’s penultimate track, “Delilah,” is a love letter to a best friend, a precious decrescendo from the album’s bolder sounds. The song moves like the gaze of a wakeful passenger on an airplane, pensive and slow as it wanders a night sky. A piano falls delicately into the silence with wintry chords. Then a cello glides in, aching under Chika’s tender voice. Here she depicts Delilah not as a betrayer, but as someone she can seek refuge in. “Delilah is a really personal song—a real and raw song,” she explains. “I wrote it about my best friend who saved my life on many occasions.” Chika says she wrote the song last year after her best friend threw her a birthday dinner after a long period of not speaking. There was no animosity between them, she clarifies, but it had been a long time since they had connected, so the gesture was unexpected. “Sometimes I feel like an asshole because I can be a little bit aloof when people are trying to help me, because I’m not used to that,” she says. The near-death experiences Chika alludes to are threaded throughout her lyrics about mental health, which include mentions of suicidal ideation and psychotic episodes. “I have what you call ‘a spicy brain.’ There are a lot of extra seasonings in there that I have to take care of and make sure that I am okay. And that is easier said than done,” Chika says with soft laughter.

Chika details the excruciating interaction between her mental illness and the public eye in the song “Mad,” a track with blaring horns and a howl swirling in the beat. She incants, “Bad girl, really, mad girl on the low / Make a sad girl get a bag off of no hope / And then after, I ask for a box and a rope / And I hear an applause as I cough and I choke.” Fame is something Chika says she wishes she could renounce in spite of the success it spawned from. “You ever sat around and dreamed about relinquishin’ fame?” she confesses in the song “Outro.” “It’s a twisted position, I wish your life was the same / Before the highest of praises, before the world knew your name.”

As our call comes to a close, I thank Chika for her time. “I had a blast!” she says, her voice bright. Chika is an artist whose cosmic inner life rips at the seams of her mind. It spills into her work and online. She shares herself generously, almost as a compulsion, because she can’t help but say her truth, and she will do so as an astounding wordsmith, a “spicy brain,” and a feeling person.

Homepage image by Tosin Gbadmosi. Other image courtesy of Warner Records. This article first appeared in Mission’s Music issue.