Chika launched her career with a front-facing camera and a stick of conspicuously pale foundation. On November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency, Chika, then 19 years old, posted a hilariously poignant video to Instagram. “African-American? Never felt that, never heard of that, never tasted that, never smelled that,” she murmurs in an overly affected voice, looking into the camera while furiously applying the makeup to her face. The joke, centered on the fundamentally sound prediction that life was about to get a lot harder for black people in Trump’s America, contributed some much-needed levity to the collective post-election mood and quickly went viral. By the next morning, Chika had gained 17,000 followers. “That’s the moment when everything changed,” she recalls while speaking over the phone on a recent winter afternoon.
Jane Chika Oranika was born in Montgomery, Alabama, the last of her parents’ three daughters—and possibly the loudest. “I was the problem child,” she says with a giggle. “I was very misunderstood and pretty eccentric.” In the Oranikas’ Nigerian-American household, gospel, reggae, and traditional Nigerian music reigned supreme, alongside top 40 and the occasional hip hop. Though her interest in performance was apparent at a young age, Chika quickly fixated on poetry. As a pre-teen, she began channeling her emotions into verse, obsessing over rhyme schemes and composition.
Though it would be some years before she began rapping, she was edging closer and closer to the form. “It’s very conservative in the south,” she explains. “And that means when it comes to outlets for performing and doing certain things, it’s not the same as growing up in New York or California.” For high school, Chika enrolled at the Booker T. Washington performing arts school, studying musical theater for four years and honing her skills by entering district and regional competitions. At church, too, she indulged her love of performance by participating in similar events focused on worship music and poetry. Writing songs on guitar and crafting slam poetry, she knew she’d found her lane. But when she was accepted to Berklee College of Music, one of the world’s leading performing arts programs, the ,000 per year price tag presented an obstacle.
Instead, Chika reluctantly enrolled at the University of South Alabama in Mobile with an undeclared major. “I didn’t talk to anyone, I didn’t make friends, and I hated it,” she remembers. “Second semester, I wasn’t going to classes, I was just focusing on getting music out. I started prioritizing, which [meant] that music comes first.” After that miserable first year, Chika reached an agreement with her parents: she’d move back home, get a job, and spend the next year trying to break into her chosen field. If she failed, she’d go back to school; if she succeeded, she’d have their blessing to pursue music full-time. “I understood that my voice, it stretched far beyond what I was doing in school,” she said. It only took her a few months to prove her conviction to them.
During her shifts as a cashier at a local Chipotle, she brainstormed and ideated in her head. Back home at night, she’d write songs and verses, having taught herself how to rap by applying her poetry to a beat. In the mornings, she’d record the verses and post them online. “I understand how social media works and how a platform can provide you with so many opportunities,” she says. “I’m a product of that generation who grew up on it. I always knew, if you ever get [a lot of] followers, just work your ass off and share what you do and get better at it.” Within months, she’d uploaded the now-infamous Trump video and began feeding a growing audience. And she had musical offerings cued right up.
In February 2017, she launched the #EgoChallenge, named for the cheeky Beyoncé song, as a self-love and body-positivity anthem. “They never meant for folks like us to walk around with confidence / But I ain’t finna hate myself because of your incompetence,” she spits over Bey’s familiar horns. It, too, quickly went viral, with women the world over chiming in. A few months later, Chika delivered a take on Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You,” a personal reflection for pride month. Yet another, an open letter to Kanye West, used the rapper and producer’s own beat to take him to task for his support of Trump. That year, she released a poetry EP on SoundCloud and a handful of acoustic loosies: dreamy, emotive soundscapes that showcase her range.
But it’s her earnest, straight-from-the-heart reflections on issues of the day that resonate most strongly online. “I think people want to hear someone talk about something real, something important,” she explained. “[But] not all of my verses are heavy-hitting and super social justice-y. It’s also the fact that my delivery and the fact that I’m a woman and I’m confident enough to do what I do. Also, I’m not trying to be like anyone else in my lane.”
Every three months in 2017, Chika managed to go viral, through a combination of her social media savvy and a keen understanding of what her fans want to hear. She quickly earned praise from personal heroes like Erykah Badu and Missy Elliot—yet more affirmation that she was on the right track. But social platforms can be tricky to monetize for musicians, who do not get paid for likes or retweets. “I haven’t worked a quote-unquote traditional or real job all year,” she admits. “I live off of my art. However, I don’t get paid for my Instagram videos, and I just started getting paid for SoundCloud.”
And so as she transitions from social media sensation to legitimate recording artist, Chika is figuring out how to preserve her voice while expanding her range. She’s spent much of the past few months in sessions with producers like Mark Batson and the Rascals, who’ve worked with Ariana Grande and Post Malone. It’s required a major shift, going from the privacy and sanctity of the closet she calls her “bootleg studio” to professional set-ups with handfuls of people watching her creative process come to light. 2019, she says, will be the year of Chika.
PHOTOGRAPHS RAFFAELE CARIOU
TEXT RAWIYA KAMEIR
FASHION DANIEL GAINES
MAKEUP BRITTANY WHITFIELD
PRODUCTION HANNAH HUFFMAN
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