She’s a rapper and a philosopher. A feminist and a poet. She is a Zambian who speaks with an American accent, and she’s also Irish. She has an academic mind, but is a woman of the people. There are many labels that you could use to describe Denise Chaila, but one of them – ‘Rising Star of the Irish Hip-Hop Scene’ – is indisputable.
For a self-confessed introvert, this new-found attention has been strange for the 26-year-old to navigate. When we meet at a hotel bar in Limerick city centre, she has just done a photoshoot and was bemused by one onlooker’s take. “This older guy was on his phone watching us, shaking his head and saying ‘Jayyyysus, you’ll never believe what I’m looking at now… these young people’,” she says, laughing. “It’s weird, yo!”
Chaila may as well get used to being looked at, and not just because of her striking blue hair. Her debut EP, Duel Citizenship (the deliberate misspelling a testament to her unapologetic fighting spirit), was well-received by critics, tastemakers and music fans last year and has already opened several doors. Although she had featured on Let the Dead Bury the Dead, the Choice Prize-winning album by Irish hip-hop act Rusangano Family back in 2016, Duel Citizenship was a statement of intent as a solo artist. It challenged the notion of rap music being gendered (‘What’s ‘female rap’?” she raps on ‘Copper Bullet’) and discusses her real-life Zambian-Irish heritage, too. On the title track, she pledges: “I could show you the spirit of Lucan, Limerick and Lusaka”.
It’s clear that Chaila is a deep thinker; she is as likely to come out with a joke about Kanye West being like her ‘problematic uncle’ as she to say something profound like “society is just collective imagination”. Her forthright lyrics and progressive attitude have already endeared her to some famous names.
One of them is actor Cillian Murphy, who played her on his BBC Radio 6 show last year and interviewed her for Port magazine. Their connection was initially made via Conor O’Brien of Villagers and her eyes widen as she recalls hearing him playing her music.
“I mean, The Wind That Shakes the Barley was a film that was forced down my throat so much in Fourth Year that I could quote it,” she laughs. “My brother was watching Peaky Blinders at the time, and I am personally a Batman nerd, so I was looking at [Cillian] seeing Scarecrow the whole time – I hope he doesn’t take that to heart. But it was a surreal moment. To have someone who’s divorced from my life and has the kind of success that I could only aspire to recognising my art as something that they want to hear? I think there’s something really beautiful about that.”
Chaila was born in Chikankata, a rural village 125km south of Zambian capital, Lusaka. Growing up, music was hard to come by, apart from her doctor father’s cassette collection and the gospel CDs she swapped with the nurses in the hospital he worked in.
“There weren’t very many instruments; there wasn’t very much access to the global conversation about music,” she explains.
“Most of my formative musical experience was simply using what was available. There wasn’t a lot of electricity in Chikankata, so we had to make do. But it’s like, when you come over here and you look at your traditions and your cultures, and you realise so much of it was made and created out of necessity; like, ‘why do you play these instruments? Because those are the materials available’. So we used to have a huge emphasis on board games and clapping games, and stuff that you can do back and forth with other people. That’s why I really love making music where I can have a back and forth with people.”
When her father, a doctor, was offered a post in Dublin, the family relocated when she was 8 years old, initially to the Dublin suburb of Clondalkin. She remembers that period of her life as being somewhat overshadowed by racism that her family experienced.
“A big part of the reason we moved was because I remember someone had thrown a brick through our front window – twice – while I was just sitting watching TV. My parents were like, ‘That could have hit you, twice. And we know why that’s happening. But we’re not going to call that out, because we’re also really uncomfortable saying certain things [when we’re] new in this country. So we’re just going to take a deep breath, chill, and just… go’.”
The Chaila family later moved to nearby Lucan, where Denise discovered her love of reading and books, getting lost in fantasy tomes by CS Lewis, Tolkien and Terry Pratchett; she once aspired to be a children’s fantasy novelist.
Music would come later, in her teens. Destiny’s Child was important because “Beyonce showed me what it was possible to do and be as a black woman living in primarily white spaces. Finding yourself, and having confidence, and not constantly being apologetic about the fact that your experiences just don’t match the people around you”. That led into hip-hop, although she covers her face and groans theatrically as she recalls her first foray into recording as a teenager.
“I didn’t think I could rap at the time,” she admits. “I was really lost in this idea that if you wanted to be a rapper who is femme, you have to do this or do that; you had to be Lauryn Hill or Nicki Minaj, and you couldn’t be anything in the middle. There was no room for nuance or complexity. And I was constantly in spaces with a lot of men and a lot of boys who insisted on casting me as a singer, or a singer/songwriter type. I was happy to do that to a certain extent because it’s easier to go with the flow – and when you just want to step out for the first time…” She trails off, shrugging.
“But I was miserable, because I was thinking ‘I’m better than you! I can write better than this! Why are we saying the same things and talking around in circles all the time? There’s so much more’.”
Her dad’s job moved the family to Limerick at an important juncture in the young Denise’s life. Having just completed her Leaving Cert and lost a close friend in a tragic accident, she was struggling to find a direction in life. It was then that her mother encouraged her to channel her thoughts and emotions creatively, nudging her towards the YouTube videos of spoken word artist, Genetics.
“I was really struck by how honest it was,” Chaila nods. “There were a truth that she spoke that I had been thinking, but that I’d never heard anyone say. And the more I investigated poetry and spoken word in particular, I was like, ‘This is a hybrid between acting and prose. This is a hybrid between poetry and passion’. There’s something really compelling and magnetic about watching people say things that make me want to cry. It was just frank, and blunt and real – and I was like, ‘I need to do this’.”
Despite her blooming creative life, she would go on to study Politics and International Relations at the University of Limerick, with the intention of returning to Zambia to work as an advocate for women’s health.
“I didn’t want to disappoint my parents because I had artistic dreams and visions that were taking me outside of the kind of pre-ordained path that we had made together,” she admits.
She would later abandon the course and go on to study English Literature and Sociology, but her life took another direction when she crossed paths with fellow African-Irish rappers GodKnows and Murli – members of the aforementioned Rusangano Family – in Limerick in 2014.
“I ended up bumping into them at a conference at a Brazilian church here. I had never seen people rapping in church before,” she recalls, laughing. “So I was drawn to this community of people who were doing and saying what I was doing and saying with my life – but openly and with so much confidence and grace. And I wanted to be a part of it. So I just wandered into their friendship circles, and sat myself down and was like, ‘No! I’m not moving!’
“They were doing music, but I wasn’t; I was doing college. I was trying to be perfect for my family. I was trying to be that politician. I was trying to be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll work for the UN one day, it’ll be great.’ And then eventually, I was hanging in the studio with Murli one day, and they had this dancehall tune. They were like, ‘Jump on it’.”
Most importantly, the duo didn’t try to pigeonhole her as a ‘female’ anything – something which she continues to defiantly rail against, both on her own song ‘Copper Bullet’ and on dancehall collective Sim Simma Soundsystem’s ‘Man Like Me’.
“If you insist on putting me into this marginalised space, I’m going to break it and I’m going to keep making noise, because it’s not OK,” she says, referring to the wider hip-hop community. “If you’re going to look at the world and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a female bartender. That’s a female doctor. That’s a female architect…'” She rolls her eyes.
“My womanism doesn’t have space for that. I am femme, I am proud, I am a woman, I am here – but I’m not going to be diminished. And I am not going to be asked to sit at the kiddies’ table while the big boys have their ‘real genre’ over there.”
Her spoken word turn on Rusangano Family’s album track ‘Isn’t Dinner Nice’ proved revelatory, introducing the subject of women’s rights and abuse in a striking manner. Murli would go on to produce Chaila’s solo material, which continues the thread of gender, politics and racial identity. She claims that there are more similarities between Zambian and Irish cultures than most people realise.
“I got sick of feeling like in Ireland I’m African, and in Africa I’m Irish; it was too much, after a certain point,” she shrugs. “And I began to realise that people compartmentalise you because they need a frame of reference for what you are. And if you frustrate someone’s ideas of what the world is, they can get really emotionally violent towards you.”
She continues: “I am sitting at this nexus between the two cultures that think they’re so different and I had to find common ground, or lose my mind. And so I went from a culture of storytellers to a culture of storytellers. A culture of musicians to culture of musicians; from poets to poets, from immigrants to immigrants. From people who know about diaspora to people who know about diaspora. I actually was so excited when we first moved here, because I thought ‘If I’m gonna live in a country of white people, I want to know that those white people know what it’s like to be oppressed, too. I want to go to a place where there is a sympathy for what it means to have cultural erosion because of like oppressive institutions’.”
With Denise, nothing is – forgive the clumsy pun – black and white. She, like anyone else, is a multitude of concepts and contradictions at any given time, and her forthcoming mixtape LP Go Bravely will expand on those theories, as well as her own struggles with depression and mental health.
“It’s important to be whole, and to recognise that you shouldn’t bend to fit the world and its labels,” she insists, nodding. “Duel Citizenship was me taking the reins and harnessing the narrative before it even got a chance to be spun; being like, ‘Hey, this is who I am – when it comes to gender, when it comes to race, when it comes to identity and culture, I have some opinions, and this is what they are.’ This next project is me as a human being. It’s me and my vulnerability, it’s me and my intimacy. It’s me talking about my mental health; about ‘fitting’ or not ‘fitting’. I’m kind of having to walk this line between saying ‘Yeah, you can be fully vulnerable and fully confident at the same time.
“You can have a mental illness and be a professional at the same time. Your contradictions are not contradictions. There are different facets of you.'”
With performances at Other Voices Ballina, a gig at St Patrick’s Festival and more exciting opportunities on the horizon – all off the back of a 2-track EP that was only supposed to be a taster – she has a busy year ahead.
Go Bravely, due out around April, may be a more pertinent title than Chaila first imagined.
“I was nervous about being an artist,” she admits, audibly exhaling. “I was nervous about the scrutiny; I was nervous about whether or not I’d be able to be ‘perfect’ or be able to sustain certain things around my mental health. But if the only thing people take from my art is that what I’m saying is the truth, as earnestly as I can find it, and as openly as I can make it? Well, I have faith that that will connect. I do,” she declares with a wide grin. “I have faith.”
Denise Chaila releases new single ‘Chaila’ on February 28. She plays Other Voices Ballina on February 28 & 29 and the Guinness Storehouse as part of St Patrick’s Festival on March 14