An Interview With Chiedu Oraka
How have you spent your lockdown? Maybe you started running 5Ks, reconnected with mates on a weekly Zoom quiz or went up a couple of jean sizes.
For most of us, Covid has felt like life on pause. When things get back to normal, we’ll pick up where we left off. Do the things we’ve always wanted to do.
For Chiedu Oraka, the King of Hull Grime and one of the city’s most strident voices, the year of the global pandemic has been one of his most productive yet.
The Black Yorkshireman has released massive new tracks, starred at Freedom Festival, emerged as one of the key figures in Hull’s Black Lives Matter movement, made a documentary series and been awarded a prestigious MOBO grant. He’s even taken up running.
“Yeah man, I had a busy year really. Considering people were down in the dumps – and I understand why they were,” he said, as we settled into our Zoom interview.
“People just gave up in 2020, I get it. But my body just didn’t allow me to do that.
I had a couple of moments where I felt sorry for myself. Maybe a week or two. But then I got really heavily into running as well. I don’t know what changed in me, I just started writing a lot.
Like I say, at first, there was a lack of motivation and inspiration. Then I just started trying to take the positives out of it all.”
Alongside his Lockdown crew; (not a reference to the pandemic) MC Deezkid and DJ Joe The Third, Chiedu released new tracks, ‘The War Chant’, ‘Bianca’, ‘Serve You A Taster’ and ‘Outlaws’ in 2020.
Meanwhile, his burgeoning catalogue continued to be heard by more and more people across the UK. With plays on national radio and recognition from major streaming platforms.
It’s been a long road to get to this point. Born in Hedon Road hospital, bred on North Hull estate, Chiedu knew from the start this was the path he wanted to lead. He wasn’t about to let lockdown (as in the pandemic type) halt his progress.
“I was trying to just think if we’re not going to be able to perform live, if the music industry is on its backside then let me try and plan for 2021 and try to write some songs,” he said.
Chiedu explained he’d held off from releasing his latest single at the back end of last year so he could start off 2021 as he means to go on.
‘Helly Hansen 4’, which dropped on January 15th, is the latest of a series of freestyles named after the Norwegian clothing brand.
“We did Helly Hansen 1 four or five years ago on my estate. I just called it Helly Hansen because I wore the jacket” he said.
“I thought, I’m going to get some things off my chest basically. That’s what they’re all about.
When that jacket comes on, that is when Chiedu Oraka is getting some stuff off his chest. No holes barred I’m going in. I’m taking it back to the essence.”
It was during those heady final few months of a pre-Covid world. The grit and candour of Chiedu’s lyrical flow caught the attention of multiple record labels, prompting him to sign an EP deal in 2020.
And, although he prefers “to leave it open to interpretation” something of this experience has perhaps made it into the rapper’s latest bare all.
The opening bars “I get it, it’s all about the clout”. A not-so-subtle acknowledgement of the fickleness of the music industry.
In a world where many are happy to mould themselves into the perceived ideals and stereotypes of the industry, Chiedu is firm in his refusal to be anything other than himself.
“I am unapologetically black, proud, and from Yorkshire. And if you don’t want to stand with me here, you don’t deserve to be with me in the first place.” he said.
“If you’re trying to change and mould me and not believe in the vision, then you have no place being around me.”
The arrangement “fizzled out” after the EP. But he has no regrets and holds nothing against those he worked with at the label. Instead, viewing the experience as “a journey I needed to go on.”
“They were good people. I have nothing bad to say about them, but it taught me a lesson about this game. It’s not all roses and champagne, it’s tough and I just feel like I’m in a better position now,” he said.
Authenticity is at the centre of everything for Chiedu. He’s not about to compromise his style and his vision to get to where he wants to be – he’s already come this far without doing that.
Hull, although rich with musical talent, was not a city with a strong Hip Hop tradition. Like other post-industrial northern locations with similar demographics, the city’s musical linage is dominated by guitar centred bands – names like The Spiders From Mars, The Housemartins, The Beautiful South and The Paddingtons acting as the chief reference points.
And yet, after years of perseverance and knockbacks, Chiedu Oraka, a rapper, is now becoming one of the city’s household names – etched onto the musical landscape – just look at the crowds he draws for his performances at Humber Street Sesh and Freedom Festival.
“UK Rap music was not taken seriously in this city when I first started,” he said.
“There have been ups and there have been downs, there’s no point in denying that.
I’ve been plying my trade for a long time in this city. When I first burst on to the scene I wasn’t always getting the love.
Put it this way, the promoters weren’t overly eager to put on a rapper. I was sandwiched in between indie bands, punk bands and acoustic guitarists – people weren’t coming to see me.
But the tide is changing. I realised I’m going to have to do this my own way and we’ve built a community now.”
It’s a triumph Chiedu is proud of and could be one reason he is so passionate about the importance of emerging young talent rapping in their own dialect.
It’s something he’s stuck to ardently from day one, making his thick East Yorkshire tones some of the most distinctive in his genre.
“Unless you’ve lived in America or live in London there’s no reason you shouldn’t be rapping in a Hull accent,” he said.
“The amount of young kids that send me music on Instagram rapping with a London twang, I tell them straight away – I’m like that needs to stop. Cut that out.”
And the same goes for the subject matter.
“You’re talking about things you can’t even relate to in this city because let’s be real there is some naughty stuff that goes on in Hull, but we haven’t got a massive knife pandemic in this city, we haven’t got gun crime,” he said.
“I’m just unapologetically a Hull boy and proud. I talk about Hull places. In Helly Hansen 4 I talk about Yankee Land, I talk about Cranbrook Ave.
You can’t get more Hull than Chiedu Oraka and that goes for any genre – there’s no one that represents Hull more in their music.”
Away from the tunes, Chiedu’s relentless year was focused on the Black Lives Matter movement. As one of the most prominent black voices in Hull, he felt compelled to speak at the demonstrations in the city centre.
He’s seen attitudes in the city improve since he was a kid, but still notes a lack of awareness and responsibility when it comes to racial equality.
“The thing is with Hull people they love to lead on the Wilberforce legacy… We love to claim it, but general attitudes in Hull don’t reflect that.
The number of complaints I saw, I had to delete, I reckon, over 200 people off Facebook who were just saying barbaric small-minded things, so there’s still a long way to go.
People saying, we don’t need to deal with America’s issues. Even in our own city, Christopher Alder, that happened in our own city and there are people in Hull that don’t even know about that story.”
It’s through the desire to counter such ignorance that Chiedu Oraka teamed up with Bud Sugar’s Bacary Mundoba to embark on making a four-part documentary series, Black Kings Upon Hull.
Commissioned by Back To Ours, the films shed light on the black experience in the city.
“If anyone said to me, what did you do for Black Lives Matter? I can present them with Black Kings Upon Hull and say this is what I did and I did it in my way,” he said.
The first episode of the mini-series went out on social media back in October. Focusing on the pair’s upbringings on North Hull Estate and Preston Road Estate respectively.
But it’s the most recent episode, released on February 5, that is likely to create the biggest waves with a moving examination of one of the city’s most reprehensible chapters, the circumstances surrounding the death of Christopher Alder in 1998.
The series’ next instalments will continue to delve into Hull’s relationship with race. Focusing on the education system and most pertinently the city’s music scene.
The latter being an area which has undoubtedly been shaped for the better by the pair’s contributions.
It’s a progression that has been recognised by arts organisations outside of the city too. 2021 kicked off with the announcement Chiedu would receive MOBO’s Help Musician’s fund alongside two other black Hullensian artists: Downtown Kayoto and Dragg.
“Hull’s black music scene has come a long way,” he said.
“It’s great an organisation like the MOBOs have recognised my talent and vision and given me a bit of money to take my career to the next step.”
This recognition is much deserved and a long-overdue endorsement for Chiedu and the city’s black music community, of which he has done so much to shape and grow.
A fitting end to big 12 months or maybe the perfect start to his biggest year yet…
So, what can we expect from Chiedu Oraka in 2021? “Expect loads,” he said. “I’m not coming to play this year. I know everyone is saying we’re not going to get back to normality this year. But for me, I’m just grafting.”
Listen to Chiedu Oraka’s new single Helly Hansen 4 (produced by Deezkid); on Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music now. View the music video below.
Watch the latest episode of Black Kings Upon Hull on Back To Ours’ Youtube Channel below.