Chika on her hometown, her competition, and being nominated for Best New Artist
"I'm the youngest of my family, I'm from Alabama, my parents are immigrants. If you don't say it with your chest, nobody is going to take you seriously," the Grammy-nominated rapper tells EW.
For artists like Chika, long-term greatness is a surer bet than becoming an overnight success. The Montgomery, Ala. musician can both rap and sing, and she built her fanbase by mastering social media through freestyles over industry beats. But she isn't making music that guns for radio, doesn't chase any sonic trends, and doesn't rely on big-name co-signs. She simply makes sincere, earnest music about her life and the world around her. Her 2020 EP Industry Games shines with confidence despite the tough path ahead, and reflects on the imposter syndrome that comes with success. But Chika and the rest of the rap world was surprised in November when the 23-year-old nabbed a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Not bad for someone who just started rapping a few years ago. As she says on “Songs About You,” “my come up was picture perfect.”
Chika spoke to Entertainment Weekly about creating music that makes people think, mentorship from Nick Cannon, and the frustrations of being compared to other women rappers.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: A lot of people first found out about you through social media. You were using Instagram and Twitter to kill other people's beats. Where were you in your life when you first started to make those?
CHIKA: I was 19, if I'm not mistaken. I had just left school. I convinced my parents to let me do a year of trying to get my music to be my primary career. I had a video go viral that ended up springboarding me into having thousands of followers overnight. It was an opportunity to grow, and although it was a funny video, I knew that it was time for me to pivot and show people what I actually do, because I didn't want them to get used to comedic content when I was trying to be a serious musician.
I posted that video, and a day or two later I posted what is now “Crown,” but at the time it was an unknown, unnamed song with an older beat that one of my friends had made. I just started posting covers. I was very, very new to rap at that time. A lot of people think I've been doing it my whole life, but absolutely not. I was too shy and covert with it. But when I saw the response to that video and that verse from “Crown,” it became a daily thing. For the next two to three years, it was non-stop posting and trying to build a platform around my musical ability and not my goofy side — even though they coexist fairly well.
What was the rap scene like in Montgomery, Ala.?
This is going to sound so bad, but it's fair. It was really hard to keep up with anyone local. A lot of people that grew up in the same city as me are just finding out that I'm from Montgomery. That's been a very weird phenomenon, but I think just based on how everyone moves, if you wanted to do music you were supposed to get out of Alabama. Yes, of course you got Rich Boy and you got Doe B, who sadly passed. There's so many, but at the end of the day, we only got to hear about people when they blew up.
Around the time that I ended up leaving school, I used to walk around with my homies and do ciphers, dreaming about what we could do for the city. We knew there was talent there, but there was absolutely no way to connect with one another. There really wasn't [a scene]. My friend and I started throwing concert-style kickbacks because there was no space for Black kids in our city to go perform anywhere. There were no open mics. It was not like Atlanta. So we tried to create that space.
You went to L.A. in January 2019, and got signed to a label that summer. What was your mission when you moved there?
Not that I was mission-less, but I remember towards the end of 2018 being very excited about the future, but also exasperated and being like, "Yo, I have to get out of Alabama." I'd moved to New York for a summer and came home. I had just met Nick Cannon — who's a good friend and someone I love very dearly — in October right before I moved. He was like, "Any time you need to work and you want to be off to the side by yourself, I have a studio. So just hit me up." I ended up just calling or texting him and being like, "Hey, I want to come to L.A. for two weeks." He booked my flight and a place to stay. After two weeks, I wasn't ready to go home. He just kept extending my stay until I felt like I was ready, because I kept feeling like there was more I had to do in L.A. I wasn't moving without direction, but it also wasn't this planned thing where I was like, "Okay, here's my objective X, Y, and Z."
By February is when I went to the Roc Nation Brunch, and we got the line [I rap in “Songs About You"] about meeting Hov and Diddy introducing me. All that stuff was happening by month two. So, imagine me being like, "Uh nah, I'm being put in the right rooms for some reason. I should stay here." I did. I came out here for quote-unquote two weeks, and I never went back. I'm just very blessed to have people who invest in me and love me and want to see me win, and that definitely is all on Nick.
On the intro to Industry Games, you said, “I hope this music makes you think.” Why is it important to you to create music that makes people think?
The root of me doing what I do and making the art that I do, it stems from me feeling misunderstood a lot in life. Not to make this sad, but sometimes, especially just being a Black girl, a big girl, you're the antagonist. I've thought a lot about my perception of things, of people, of the world, and I've gained this unfortunate amount of empathy for everybody. It's the worst. I really care. So when I make music, I want to shift how we process emotions, because I think that we are so programmed to shut each other out and hurt each other; we don't really listen to how we feel. I don't have the luxury of being able to do that, even if I wanted to. I wear my heart on my sleeve. It's annoying, it's embarrassing, but at the same time I'm like, "I think I have a feeling this is how we were supposed to be as people." Art is consumed for a reason. It's supposed to heal. I'm not out here trying to make a number one hit. If we get one, thank God. But I have always been a communicator, and I think my music has been the vehicle for that.
You can hear that on your album, how secure your sense of self is. Have you always had that strong of a self-identity?
I try to think back to a time where it was not there, and I can't find one. I'm about to get all hippy-dippy on you, but I think the universe, we have our lives, but in a way it's like a choose-your-own-adventure thing. It's kind of scripted, but the universe delegates us to certain aspects that we're going to be good at. I'm the youngest of my family, I'm from Alabama, my parents are immigrants. If you don't say it with your chest, nobody is going to take you seriously.
So, I was born into a dynamic where it was either sink or swim. Often, people ask me how to get there. I don't know, but I will say that I describe life as a book. Everyone is the author of their own book. Anybody that you wouldn't give a name if you were writing your life story, if you wouldn't give them a narrative, they don't matter. The less energy I'm giving to things that don't matter, the more I can put it back into myself, understanding myself, and why I am the way I am and going to therapy.
Last month, you made a point on Twitter to not drag down other women for rapping about sex. I definitely see fans of you and Rapsody doing that a lot: Now, if you want to hear some real hip-hop, listen to a woman that's not selling sex like Chika or Rapsody. But you said, "Don't try to tear down my colleagues, because they rap about their pussy and I don't. Drag them because I'm better." Is it frustrating to be constantly compared to other women?
It's frustrating, but not for the reasons it may appear to be. We can get it out of the way and say that it's annoying to just be put in a category because you share the same genitalia or gender identity of somebody when you don't do the same thing. It’s dismissive of the work you do, and that doesn't just go for me. That's where that frustration lies, but it's also frustrating because that type of validation, I've never wanted it. I'm not out here trying to beat the girls. I'm not trying to be your next favorite female rapper, a title that I despise. I don't want any of that. I make music, and I've been making music before I was a rapper. When I was over here playing guitar and chilling, nobody was like, "Yo, she's coming for Taylor Swift's neck!" Nobody did that. It's a competitive sport, I get it. But when you're only allowing us to compete in leagues, you're suppressing the growth that could take place within the genre. I've always had a weird relationship with womanhood anyway, because I'm not the quote-unquote typical woman, although I don't think that f---ing exists.
So, me being very confidentially myself ruffles feathers for a lot of other people. We saw that with the tweet, too, when I was just like, "Drag them because I'm better.” Joke. But people took that opportunity to call me all types of names and body-shame [me]: Yeah, you don't rap about your pussy because you can't, and you don't have any sex appeal. Which is untrue. You can ask all of my partners. But it's already a weird place to be, being wedged in this world where all I want to do is rap. I'm not competing with the girls only. I'm competing with everybody who touches a mic. I feel like we're in the renaissance of women in hip-hop right now, and we're in a renaissance of hip-hop in general and how it's the leading genre of music. We have such a huge look and platform to do so much dope stuff. I'm just like, "Why are we talking about gender?"
People generally feel like the Grammys don’t really understand hip-hop, that they vote in people without knowing what's going on. How did you feel about the Grammys before your nomination? And how do you feel about it after seeing this year's nominees?
Absolutely the same before and after. I've had those moments of being a fan and not seeing someone who I think deserves it be nominated. I fully understand the frustration and confusion when it comes to people being like, "yo, they don't ever get it right." I also think that people think that the Grammys is for white people who are like, "All right, give us the songs. Now let's begin." That's not how it works. There are people who work on these songs and who are in the industry who are given the opportunity to nominate people based on how the year is reflected. With that being so subjective because it's art, they're always going to miss somebody. It's the nature of awards.
Even with me getting this nomination, I celebrated the way it felt, because who knows what's going to happen the day I show up? I'm not going home sad though, because I already won. That's the way I want people to look at things.
So, what do you have coming up for the rest of 2020 and 2021?
A whole lot of music. I've been working on an album and another project simultaneously, and just applying more pressure and having more fun. With this Grammy nod, it's such a confirmation that I can do whatever I want, that I'm going to have fun and make things that I think people like. I hope they like.
The 63rd Grammy Awards will air Jan 31, 2021 on CBS