Chiedu Oraka is a man who commands attention: not just his physical stature, all six feet and seven inches of him, with a booming voice to boot, but also his carefully articulated observations of working class life that he’s been spitting for the past seven years. In 2015 he came to wider attention in Hull with his video for I’m From A City, a brutally honest yet hopeful paean to a flawed hometown with its refrain, “I love my city, if you do too, just spread the message with me.”
Along with his Lockdown crew – MC and producer Deezkid and DJ Joe the Third – Chiedu continues to work hard to change perceptions, not only of his hometown but of what grime and UK hip hop can be too, through similarly grounded lyrics and assorted beats and bass. He speaks openly of growing up in Orchard Park, one the most deprived wards in the UK, and experiences on the north Hull estate that he says are in his musical DNA.
“It’s hard to say what our sound is but I can say what it represents: the sound of northern working class England really, the grit, the determination and the frustration. Sonically and musically I’d say it’s quite heavy: a lot of bass, a lot of elements taken from all different places.”
At first glance, it’d be easy to pin Chiedu down as a grime artist, especially after his recent success with Flex, but a look through his prolific freestyles, demos and releases belies wider influences, including hip hop, a love for which he credits his big sister, Nkolika.
“When I was growing up that’s when she was in her hip hop phase, so my first CD was Tupac’s All Eyes On Me, that she gave me. That was my early understanding of hip-hop, like most people, and Biggie, DMX, Big Pun, all them lyricists, people who represented something. She used to love Lauryn Hill, Mary J, Aaliyah, so all that’s in my DNA as well.”
Representing something is important to Chiedu and a brush with the law in 2007 “literally saved” his life, pushing him to inspire through his music rather than glorify such events.
“It was a blessing from God,” he says. “I really do believe that. I’m not trying to walk down the street now like I’m the baddest man on the planet ‘cause I’m not. Yeah, I did some bad stuff, I grew up in an environment where you had to go out and get your stripes by having a fight with someone or doing dumb shit, but I’m not glorifying it.”
It’s a topic that he feels many London MCs boast about, of “beating the stretch” and busting charges, but Chiedu is keen to push music away from that. “Don’t get twisted, I love the UK scene, it’s the healthiest it’s ever been and people are making massive moves,” he beams. “Stormzy, Skepta, Kano has an unreal body of work and Giggs is working with people like Drake. Right now the scene is crazy but it’s still a bit too generic. There’s a London rapper born every minute talking about guns, drugs and sleeping with women.”
For Chiedu it comes down to an important question: “What else can you rap about? Look at people that are different, coming from different places,” he urges. “I like that kind of music but there needs to be more lanes and I’m trying to carve that lane.”
It may seem contradictory, given these themes are still present in his own music, but Chiedu’s stories are less the focus of a masculine braggadocio and more contextual: acknowledging where he’s come from and meditating on where he – and Hull – are going. It’s a grounding that he works into his lyrics with cutting one-liners like “All that money my brother, then why do you rent your Mercedes?” It’s an authenticity steeped in an upbringing and a pride in a place where, as he says in I’m From A City, “perception matters”.
“No disrespect to anyone but there is a pocket of Hull rappers that have an American twang when they rap or a London twang,” he says, “but from the way that I speak to the slang that I use and the clothes that I wear, Hull is definitely the epicentre of me. Growing up in Hull is everything, even the stories that I tell in my music, it’s all from past experience and things that I wanna do right now, so I can’t hide away from it, it’s where I come from.”
While Chiedu is fiercely proud of repping HU6, he’s keen to stress that he wants to represent the city as a whole and isn’t interesting in “trying to force a divide”, despite what people may wish to believe. “I’m just representing my area like everyone should. Orchard Park is one of the most deprived areas and has such a bad stigma, where we all shoplift and nick things and we’re just bad people, but we’re not. Don’t get me wrong, there are people like that but there are in every area in Hull.”
Battling perceptions is also part of his day job. Chiedu doesn’t make the connections himself between his music and his work as an achievement mentor at Andrew Marvell School, but they’re evident and fall into his wider stance of being a positive role model
“I work attendance and mentoring a lot of kids who’ve troubled home lives and single-parent backgrounds. It’s proper deep east Hull with a lot of kids coming from deprived areas and they just need a positive male role model.” And do they feel his music? “The kids love the music, even the parents love it,” he laughs. “I say some naughty words but they still seem to love it.”
That’s one way of building an audience but it’s far from orthodox. While grime is blowing up nationally Hull is lagging behind and only just “cottoning onto it”. Chiedu agrees that the demographics of a largely white city play some part, including its history of nurturing guitar-based music, but while “there’s a pocket of Hull MCs who are doing their thing, it should be more, it’s not very healthy really.”
“Hull’s known for its bands and for a long time there was only me and a handful of MCs really doing anything,” he adds. “But if they see someone successful – I hope that will be me – even more, will come out of the woodwork. People in Hull don’t know how good grime is and that’s what I’m trying to plow through, that there is a different world to the local band.”
Pressed on why that might be Chiedu points to a conservative streak among promoters and fans in Hull and he wants to encourage them to take more risks. “The [wider] music scene in Hull is booming,” he’s quick to affirm, “but I just want the figureheads to promote everyone equally. If you really love the music you shouldn’t just look at the band you know will get the crowd in; you gotta be daring, push those boundaries and put people on that are going to do well, that you’ve got confidence in.”
Those dates are starting to come for Chiedu now, including appearances supporting Life, Middle Child’s gig theatre epic at Welly, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, and his own party at the Adelphi to celebrate the success of Flex. That release, in particular, has helped raise his ambitions as he realises “there’s a bigger world.” Nobody outside the city “really had an opinion on Cheidu Oraka until Flex,” he says, but that single “has done wonders for me, done a madness,” with messages of support coming in from Poland, Croatia, Belgium, as well as Manchester and Birmingham closer to home.
Appearing on a major Spotify playlist will do that for you too, which Chiedu managed to wangle by sharing Flex with the platform’s editorial manager, Austin Daboh, on Twitter.
“He said ‘It’s a sick tune, nice production, nice flow,’ and I didn’t think anything of it. Two days later I’m on the Grime Shutdown playlist, with over 500,000 listeners. I couldn’t believe it. I tweeted Austin thanking him, he said, ‘It’s a good tune, don’t worry about it, we’re looking forward to hearing more from you.’”
“I’ve learnt now that that’s where my music’s going; it’s not staying local,” he continues. “I know it’s good enough, now I’ve tested the waters with Flex and that’s on a grime playlist with Skepta, Stormzy, Bugsy Malone and P Money. My song is standing next to them and getting over 80,000 listens in just under a month, so that’s made me think a Hull boy can really do this.”
His Hull fans still figure highly in Chiedu’s plans though as his Lockdown crew continue to push on in 2017 through various gigs and new releases. “I just want people to carry on supporting and not give up ‘cause if they keep on following and supporting I promise they’ll have one of the biggest acts to come from this city,” he says, without any shadow of a doubt that it will happen.
“I just need the local fans to really rep for me, man, really rep,” he concludes. “I do have a lot of support in the city but you always want more and if I have the solid hometown fanbase who are willing to ride with me over time then we can take on anyone.”
Anyone who caught his recent set at The Sesh can testify that Chiedu is going places: there aren’t many acts who’ve whipped the crowd into a bouncing, stage-invading frenzy. That must be the Flex.
Chiedu’s next EP, 21st Kid, is scheduled for release in early May. Catch him live at Middle Child’s All We Ever Wanted Was Everything at Welly on Saturday 10 June and at Humber Street Sesh on Saturday 5 August.
Words: Jamie Potter
Images: Chris Pepper