Chiedu Oraka: Northern grime trailblazer’s story proves he’s a fighter

Chiedu Oraka: Northern grime trailblazer’s story proves he’s a fighter

Keen to act as the necessary representation for many Black people around the UK, Chiedu Oraka’s no-bars-held approach to music is putting him ahead of his contemporaries. Hailing from a council estate in north Hull, the 36-year-old rapper’s grime tracks are an unfiltered and provocative reflection of the Black, working class, Northern experience.

“I’m sick of the Black stories that are being told in the press, and in music,” he tells NME over video call from his home. “We’re not all Top Boy characters – we’re not all on the road in inner city London. There’s so many Black experiences, so it’s important to tell these stories to feel represented.”

His recent mixtape, ‘Misfit’ (released via EMI North partner Launchpad+), showcases this range. Standout track ‘Own Kind’ shows an elevated level of introspection in his lyrics, where Oraka pairs catchy beats with social commentary. “Question Blackness, do I sound ‘not Black enough?’ / We all have struggle, but they’re still trying to call my bluff,” he raps – calling out the music industry and its binary approach to Black artists. 

‘Misfit’ is his personal ode to his journey so far. Spanning 12 tracks, the project traverses themes such as identity struggle, mental health, masculinity, and self love. “Looking back, which this mixtape has made me do, I wouldn’t change anything that’s happened to me,” he says. “It’s made me the person I am and I’m a spartan because of it. I’ve been to jail, I’ve been to uni, I’ve started a rap scene in a city known for indie bands. I’ve overcome serious battles of racism as a young Black kid in Hull – I’m a fighter.”

The process of reaching this point, both personally and artistically, took several years of hard work, self-discipline and creativity. Oraka is aware that this mixtape is only the first step to the rest of his career; he recently performed at the British Music Embassy showcase at SXSW in Austin, in collaboration with UK House to promote the US premiere of Skepta’s new film, Tribal Mark. “That was a real proud moment for me,” he says today.

NME spoke to Oraka about championing Northern voices, growing up as an ethnic minority in white spaces, the music industry’s homogenisation of Black struggle, and his growing confidence as an artist.

Why did you first start rapping?

“My aunt lived in Stoke Newington in London, so every year we’d head down for Notting Hill Carnival since I was a young ‘un. I remember the first time, in London, I heard More Fire Crew’s ‘Oi’ – it was the first time I’d properly noticed people from the UK, with UK accents, rapping like that. I wasn’t used to hearing that and obviously I became obsessed with it.

“Then we got Sky [TV] and Channel U changed my life. People like Dizzee Rascal, Kano – Channel U made me realise I want to do music myself. My friends used to make fun of me – because on Channel U the videos were kinda of tacky, they were very DIY. But I was onto it from an early age – around year 10, so maybe 2003. Then I realised I wanted to do music when I was around 16 or 17 – that’s when I started rapping.”

Some of your lyrics discuss growing up as the only Black kid on your estate and in your school. What was that like?

“I was so used to it. In my primary school I was the only Black kid until around year 5, and in secondary school I was one of around six. And on my council estate I was literally the only one. I definitely had some dark times, but that was more when I was younger. I suffered from racism, and even parents didn’t let me play with their kids.

“Someone asked me the other day when I realised I was Black, when I realised I was different, and I knew it from young. My mum gave me the talk about having to work harder than everyone else, and she warned me – so that was always drilled into me. It was quite a big burden to take on as a kid, but for so long it was normal.”

When your existence is politicised like that from a young age, you can become more hyper-aware than other kids. How did that experience impact your sense of identity? 

“I’ll be real, I was lost for a while. I always say I went through an identity crisis. Obviously I knew I was Black and I was proud of certain elements of being Black – but I wasn’t always embracing my culture. The people around me were all white and they’d throw digs and jokes and I just wanted to fit in, like every young kid. So it didn’t make me comfortable in my own skin, I was always the running joke. People would make digs at me about my clothes smelling of African food, and I was even embarrassed to wear my African clothes and go to church.

“Although I started getting better with it from the age of around 16 to 20, because I was hanging out with a group of friends who I guess you could call a ‘gang’. There were a few South Asian boys, mixed race boys – and we started to form this group that had people from ethnic minorities. There was a real brotherhood and camaraderie. It gave me the confidence to be the person that I am.”

Why do you feel so passionate about telling your story?

“I don’t know any rappers who talk about being a Black kid from a white area; it frustrates me that all the stories told in mainstream media are around Black boys drug dealing, or knife crime, and that sort of stuff. The Black experience is so much more: there’s Black people who watch anime, there’s Black people who listen to punk and indie music, there’s Black people who grew up in predominantly white areas.”

‘Own Kind’ talks about how the music industry homogenises the Black experience. Why did you choose to call this out?

“I get frustrated, and I know other people do too. That’s why I got Manga Saint Hilare as a  feature because I know he feels the same. Me and Manga, at times, embrace being outcasts. We rap about how the industry has treated us. I can only speak for myself here, but if I only rapped about negative stuff such as drug dealing or crime, I would be bigger, I would be celebrated more.

“This is my frustration with the music industry: I want a level playing field for different stories. In the US, regional artists from different cities are uplifted and celebrated for their differences – I want that to happen here.

How do we move forward from here?

“I don’t think we can move forward until we stop doing it. Lots of the best music comes from pain and struggle – I get that. But as soon as you get a Black person who’s educated and dressed well they get called a ‘sellout’. You just can’t win, and sometimes this criticism comes from within the Black community. We should want Black faces to exist in all different spaces, and Black ownership.”

“I’ve overcome serious battles of racism as a young Black kid in Hull – I’m a fighter”

Which track from the mixtape are you most proud of? 

“I’m proud of all of them. ‘If I Had A Fire In The Booth’ is probably the most vulnerable I’ve ever been on a track, I like ‘Counselling’ and I hope it helps people realise that it’s not a bad thing to ask for help. If I can change one person’s mind and they decide to go to counselling, then I’ve won. There’s so many songs I love from [the mixtape], I’m very proud of it – this is my first body of work where I feel like the songs are cohesive. You can tell it’s more like a compilation.”

Credit: Luke

What do you want people to take away from your new music? 

“What I want people to take from the mixtape is to want to hear more from me. I don’t think my status is at the level to be releasing an album… but when I eventually do I want to be compared to the Stormzys and Daves, I have high standards for myself. I know we’re in the era of fast food music, where one day someone releases an album and the next it’s forgotten about – but I’m from the era where you’d go to HMV and you read the credits in the CDs and you become attached to the album for a year or two, at least. This is going to be the sensational introduction to me, for people to want more.

“I also want people to be inspired, as there’s so many people who grew up or live somewhere they feel ostracised but were too scared to say anything. This is for them, to give them a voice.”

What would a younger version of yourself think of this mixtape?

“His mind would be blown, but he’d be proud of the journey. I think younger me would learn a lot from this mixtape, and feel hopeful.”

Chiedu Oraka’s ‘Misfit’ mixtape is out now via EMI North/Launchpad+

The post Chiedu Oraka: Northern grime trailblazer’s story proves he’s a fighter appeared first on NME.

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