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Chika Explains It All: The Polarizing Rapper On Her Debut Album

t’s nearly two
weeks until Chika’s debut album drops, and two stylists — one for her locs and one for her makeup — are hovering around her near the door of a New York City hotel room. Even as the women buzz around her, preparing her for the photoshoot accompanying this interview, she’s trying to keep an eye on me. She’s playful, animated, and occasionally firm as she talks to me via Zoom through a laptop angled at her chair. “Sorry, should I look up?” she asks the makeup artist. 

Things are, in fact, looking up for Chika, the 26-year-old rapper who’s made a name for herself as a complex rhymer and what some might call a chronic oversharer — the latter sometimes to her detriment. Her debut album, Samson, is reflective, unguarded, and triumphant, a hip-hop hero’s journey complete with an intro from Lin-Manuel Miranda (a huge look for Chika as a former theater kid) and a series of emotional reprises. Snoop Dogg, Freddie Gibbs, and Stevie Wonder also help her draw parallels between herself and the Biblical character the album is named for, a demi-god anointed by the Big Guy himself. 

In the Bible, Samson’s enemies sap his superhuman strength by sending a seductive decoy, Delilah, who learns his weakness during “pillow talk,” as Chika explains it. His strength is in his hair, he reveals; God warned him never to have it cut. In turn, that shit is promptly chopped, and he’s enslaved. After much torment, Samson pleads with God to be forgiven and regranted his strength. He uses it to pull down the pillars of the building he was chained to, killing everyone inside — including himself. 

“I think that my strength has always been my vulnerability, but at the same time, it’s always been my weakness because that’s the thing that’s weaponized the most against me,” she says, seeing herself in Samson, the strong man who lost everything in a moment of softness. “I wanted to tell my story based on Samson because there’s been a lot of pitfalls; things that have publicly been about me that would look like a loss.” The precision and intention Chika put into this album is clear. She’s been through hell and high water to get here. Specifically, that meant bouts of mania and suicidality, public outbursts, subsequent shaming, and even allegedly having her completed album stolen by its lead producer.

I’ve alternated between following and unfollowing Chika on Twitter since her immaculate 2020 Tiny Desk performance of songs from her first major label EP, Industry Games. It was complete with a seven-person ensemble of musicians, one playing a Peruvian cajón, and is one of the popular platform’s most special from a newer and bubbling act. Chika is undeniably talented but also has been openly troubled. She can be irate and incessant on Twitter, sometimes in those spells of mania. Last month, she caught the internet’s ire for venting venomously — and some might say humorously — about being unable to sleep on a cross-country flight due to a crying child. 

Her rant started like this: “To the lady next to me who thought it would be a good idea to buy yourself and your twin infants first class seats on a red-eye flight, who just woke me up by bringing your screaming bastard to OUR seats to soothe her, I just bought $34 Wi-Fi at 4 a.m. to call you a stupid bitch.” Many people responded with horror, anger, and their own venom. Then, it turned out that the child in question is T.I.’s granddaughter, so the discourse continued for what felt longer than your average main-character-commotion. The incident was both a distraction and her essence; Chika is smart, witty, creative, and admittedly mentally ill — and learning to cope as a young adult. Here, she details her album, her psychological journey, and why she has to be so unapologetic.

Tell me about the line on the album where you reference pillars being pulled down like Samson. 
In the intro, it’s “Now that you gouged out of my eyes, I can’t make out no prize, ain’t no point but to pull down the pillars.” At a certain point, I feel like I lost a lot of steam and understanding. There’s a honeymoon phase when you become this new artist that people love, where you feel understood, loved, and accepted, then the tides turn against you. People turn it far more inhumane. They look at you as a product or an entity, and they don’t really see you as a person. My thing has always been trying to be open and share, but that literally is what leads to people taking shit and using it against you.

This project was symbolic, meaning if I never put out anything else again and telling this story in my own words kills me, at least it’s going to kill everyone else in this bitch too. It is my last attempt to get people to understand me. It’s also me reflecting on all of the parts of me that I don’t necessarily get to address on a regular basis. That’s why I created this parallel between myself and Samson. Not really calling myself a demi-god, but I was given a gift of music, writing, and storytelling. I think a lot of people wish I would shut the fuck up. And I get it. I really do. I’m a talkative bitch, as you see. Oftentimes that ends me in a lot of trouble. I saw that the one thing [Samson] wanted and the one thing I’ve always wanted was to be able to be weak with somebody, to be able to be vulnerable, to be able to feel heard, seen, and accepted. The entire album is less about the biblical story and more so about that shared experience of being given this gift and also having it taken.

I also read tweets by a religious leader who posited that, essentially, the Bible is just a bunch of stories about people fucking up and trying to please God but being deeply unable to. The Bible might not necessarily be a rule book like in The Fairly Oddparents.
It’s a book of allegories and different anecdotes that you can take and apply to the human experience. I don’t think it’s a rule book in any way, shape, or form. If anything, it’s more so an old and dated documentary about different people who fucked up in certain ways and how they were able to get back to themselves. The story of Samson is absolutely one of those. In most stories, there’s a happy ending. But the happy ending in this story is the fact that he doesn’t get a happy ending. He also dies. 

For me, and it’s not that I want this, but I’ve almost resolved that if my story isn’t meant to be happy, at least I know I’m not going out by myself. If I take out this entire industry with me, if I got to be the person to walk in this bitch and put out a project that’s this musical, this cinematic, this real, raw, and cool, if it kills me, at the very least, none of you all will ever be able to touch this shit ever again. I’m going to leave my mark and that’ll be it.

There was something that you said when you were telling the story of Samson that stood out to me; that he essentially realized his suffering was his fault, but it also wasn’t. Do you feel like that? When you think about things that are your fault but not, how does that apply to your relationship with social media?
It’s a mental health thing. For me, there’s a lot of complex trauma and PTSD there. I’m used to being vilified. I’m used to being adultified. I’m used to being made to be this hyper-masculine version of who I am. As a kid, you feel helpless and voiceless. Now as an adult, when I’m being attacked like that, people are always like, “Well, yeah, that’s what comes with the territory.” But you have to understand [that] when you’ve been dealing with that your whole life. It’s not a territory thing that you can ignore because it’s an isolated incident. This is the treatment that I’m used to. So mental health wise, it’s harder for me to ignore things like that because I’m used to that shit. It’s not a new thing that I can chalk up to being a rapper.

It wasn’t part of my job when it was happening in high school, and I was isolated from everyone for posting Black Lives Matter postings. It wasn’t part of my job when I was fucking working at Chipotle and rapping on the internet, and people were telling me to shut the fuck up. It was never a part of my job at those moments, but I’ve always been mistreated in that way. So when it comes to my relationship to social media, a lot of the ways that I interact with people is very much based on the ways that I’ve been interacted with in my personal life. I know that it’s my responsibility to heal from all of that.

At the same time, it’s not my fault that all of that shit happened. The ways that I respond can end me up in places that are negative — that’s why it’s my fault because I’m the one responding. However, the trauma that leads me to be this way is not my fault. And the way that my brain is wired at this point is also not my fault. In the same way, Samson, it’s not his fault that the person he told his secret to was a secret op. That wasn’t his fault. He didn’t put himself in that position. However, the one thing that he did promise was that he wouldn’t tell his secret and he wouldn’t give up whatever his vulnerability was.

He can either choose to put it all on Delilah and be like, “Man, fuck her. And she’s the reason.” Or he can take some responsibility himself. Oftentimes I find myself in that position too, where it’s like, okay, you all are doing the most, and I hate you all. I hate the internet. If my brain were wired differently and I didn’t feel the need to interact with you all, I probably wouldn’t be in this situation. If I was able to take it better, I wouldn’t be perceived the way that I am.

There’s a line on your new song “Prodigy” where you say, “I will not live in apology.” So what is your philosophy on apologies? When do you do it? How do you do it?
I apologize when I feel necessary. I apologize when I’m sorry. I think that a lot of times in being an artist and a public figure, we’re expected to perform contrition, and a lot of times, that is also done by being dishonest and lying. I’m the type of person…I don’t want an apology if it’s not genuine, someone understanding or truly identifying with whatever hurt they’ve caused.

I’ve literally been in this “limelight” since I was 19. My God, I’m doing my best to adjust. Three of those years have been locked in a house in a pandemic. The last two years of my brain developing, I was stuck inside trying to figure out if it was the peak and end of my career.

There’s a lot of mental shit that I haven’t had the opportunity to actually process and go through without people first telling me who I am. So, until I’m in a space where I can feel like who I am, I know I’m not going to apologize for who I am. Makes no sense. Nobody else is expected to do that. 

I’m not apologizing to the world about shit that doesn’t affect them because they saw it. The fuck? On “Prodigy,” when you hear, “I will not live in apology,” that’s a young woman who, from a very young age, has always apologized for being visible, for making myself too big in too many spaces, for having an opinion and emotions. Even when I’m hurt about something, a lot of times I was gaslit about it and ended up apologizing. What you hear on “Prodigy” is this new self — not fully realized ’cause I’m still growing, but more fully realized than in the past — saying, “I’m not fucking sorry. I’m learning, and I’m okay with that.” I’m not going to sit around and tell myself that I’m a horrible person because people want me to. 

Aijani Payne for Rolling Stone

In terms of the things that you feel are on you, what are the areas in which you want to do better? And what tools do you have or are you working to develop?
I’ve entered into a career that literally requires me to care about what people think about me. It’s very difficult because, as a person with the mental health issues that I have, it’s not healthy for me to know what everyone thinks about me. What’s on me right now is to be able to separate that from who I am as a person. It’s really difficult. The world will not. They do not know me. They are not in my house. They’re not in my room. They’re not my friends. They don’t hang around me, so I can’t read into what people are saying as much as I already do and actually get affected by it. 

There’s a lot of healing that needs to be done on a very deep, white-meat level that will then make it easier for these surface-level attacks not to hurt. If you have a problem that’s down to the bone, when you’re doing the work actively every week in therapy to fix those issues, if someone is constantly throwing alcohol on it, it’s going to burn, and you’re going to have a reaction. Right now, I need to be able to insulate myself in a way that I don’t lash out, I don’t feel like I have to defend myself, and I don’t feel like a shitty person anytime I do anything that is a human error. In order to do that, there’s a lot of talk therapy, behavioral therapy, a lot of different things I’m going to have to take into consideration. That’s where it all starts. I’ve been actively trying to do that for some years. 

I do think that we have to talk about this incident in which you were venting pretty harshly about not being able to sleep on a plane because of a crying child. That seemed different to me from the outside, like a turning point in the conversation around you. Did it feel new or significant to you?
I feel like people used that moment as a reason to dog pile. It was completely blown out of proportion. I have a lot of thoughts on that actually. I think that any other person on this fucking planet being frustrated and venting like that would never be taken as “harshly” as everyone else took it. I’ve always been a very vocal and creatively worded person. When everyone’s in a good mood, everyone understands that I’m being hyperbolic, but when it’s this thing where there’s a hill to die on, people will take the shit that I say and make it literal so that they can make a character indictment. The way that I speak has always been colorful. I’m literally a rapper.

So, when I’m upset, instead of lashing out, especially in person and to people, the way that I handle it is by being as colorful and extra with the way that I talk because I’m getting those emotions out. I’m going to tell you all how I feel right now. I’m pissed at this person, and I hope [they] get a paper cut between every single finger. That’s how I talk.

I’ve been publicly going through it and talking about being in a manic episode and dealing with my mental health and trying to figure it out. I was on the way home to my parents the day before I had hit my therapist and was like, “Yo, for the first time in a year, I have had a suicidal thought.” That’s the day I flew out. It just so happened that there was a celebrity child involved. I didn’t know they was fucking famous; I just knew that the baby next to me was kicking me and screaming, and I vented about it like a regular person. I do this victimless thing in the midst of a mental health crisis that I’ve been open about, and I’ve talked about, and then the entire world is like, oh, this person is vile. In my head, it wasn’t even a turning point because I’m used to [this]. When it was blowing up, I was like, here we go again. It’s happened to me several times. It didn’t feel like a turning point in the conversation. It felt like what the internet is going to do. The internet is going to internet, and there is no room for empathy and grace unless it’s for somebody else.

You’re plus size, dark-skinned, vocal, and not apologetic. It’s even worse for you. At that point, I had no real reason to even approach anyone else with grace when I don’t get handled that way. If I tell people what I’m going through, they’re like, “Oh, she’s using her mental health as an excuse.” There was no conversation about what it looks like to be in a manic state and not to have slept for 48 hours, and you get on a plane thinking that you’re going home to your parents and you’re going to take a nap and wake up and instead, there is a child next to you kicking and screaming.

There’s a lot of moving parts there that people wanted to ignore in order to have a different conversation, so I allowed them to. If I were to have read into it any further, it would’ve killed me, and it almost did. So ultimately, just let that conversation happen and let people think what they want to think because who I am is going to shine through all of that shit anyway.

The idea of it being victimless is interesting to me. I think the internet is like it’s big and anonymous, but it’s also very small. We can say things anonymously about people, but as it did here, it can get back to them.
The reason it got back to them was because it was taken out of this isolated thing and blown up to begin with. So let’s say there wasn’t this reaction. This would’ve never gotten back to them. That’s the point. So yes, the things that I take accountability for [are] the fact that I said it, and I meant it when I said it because I’m allowed to be that person. When it comes down to it, what I was saying at that time, literally did not harm anybody. How is it that my engagement could be low as fuck, and as soon as I say something that has nothing to do with nobody on the internet, it blows up so much so that it gets back to that person? I feel like the internet and people who have questions about this need to take accountability for their part in it even getting back to them.

For me, if there’s a chance that someone could take offense to something I’ve said, like they find it harmful, or it could hurt me just for having said out loud, I wouldn’t.
Now, think about that, but put yourself in the perspective that anything you say is taken that way. How are you choosing to live your life? Are you living your life thinking about everybody else, or are you choosing to live your life knowing that even when you say nice shit, it’s taken out of context? I’m not about to sit here at age 26 and let the world dictate how I communicate.

I got a DM from Ari Lennox. We’re good friends. She was like, “Yo, we all know that you’re being hyperbolic. We all know that you aren’t a mean person, and you’re getting your anger out by joking. Just apologize because they see it differently than we who know you do.” And I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t want to feed into that type of world where people can’t be themselves or communicate. It’d be better if you asked me what I meant than for you to assume and then ask me to apologize. ‘Cause what the fuck am I apologizing for at that point?

I made my entire career on Twitter. I made my entire career by being myself on the internet. The tides have changed now, they’ve turned, and there’s a way that people respond to certain things now that is not how it was and it’s not how it’s been historically, but in those moments, I’m not considering that. I want to go home. I’m tired. I have not slept. I cannot eat. I just had therapy a couple hours ago, and I’m venting because I’m on my last fucking leg.

By the way, babies are allowed to be bitches. They’re babies. In a moment where I’m about to snap, instead, I [made] it about why would you expect a child to shut the fuck up at this hour?

What’s the relationship between your mental health and your creativity as a musician?
I think that they are directly tied into each other and that if I didn’t have some of the mental problems that I have, my music would sound very different. That’s not saying that I relish having those issues. I really don’t. If I could trade it and have a regular 9:00 to 5:00 and be content, I would absolutely, because I would have less people chiming in on what kind of human I am. I think that the mental health aspect of who I am is so directly tied into the art that it’s almost unbearable to have people critique one side when they love the other.

You mentioned you were going home to your family. How has your visibility and your mental health been on them?
People are harassing them too. When that shit was happening on the internet, they didn’t want to tell me that people were calling and blowing up the house phone and sending death threats. Over stupid shit. I can use harsh words, and people can identify those words as harsh, and that’s completely fine because it’s true, but I’m not out here reaching out to the family of those children and being like, “Fuck you and fuck them kids and I hope you all choke.” 

My parents didn’t want to tell me because they didn’t want me to feel worse ’cause my mental health is very fragile. It still is, even at this point. I’m holding it together ’cause I got shit to do, and we got an album coming out in two weeks. They didn’t want me to feel like the actions of other people were tied to me. That’s those people, those weirdos.

The features on your album are insane. I’m a huge Freddie Gibbs fan. Everybody’s a Snoop Dogg fan. Everybody’s a Stevie Wonder fan.
Freddie and I are cool, and so I hit up Freddie and was like, “Would you be down to do a verse with me?” [He responded with] “Fuck yeah. What do you mean?” Me and Freddie have a very colorful and ridiculous relationship. I wasn’t going to require too much from him ’cause he was on tour. [Just] a quick eight bars. I guess he heard the song and told them, “No, this bitch is rapping-rapping on this. I’m not going to do eight…” He extended it to a full feature. I was like, “Okay, Fredward.” It took forever to get it because he was hypercritical of himself, so I was thinking we probably not going to get it. Then he DMed me and was like, “I got a gift for you.”

Aijani Payne for Rolling Stone

Quick question based on what you’ve just said. In your friendships with other artists, what is the through line? You mentioned Ari Lennox, who is a particular type of person; so is Freddie. They seem funny. They seem insightful, like they take things seriously, and are also very publicly vulnerable…
All of my best friends in the industry are so… They’re real. I’ve never for a second been like this person’s being disingenuous. One of my favorite people in the industry is Kehlani, and that’s because she’s just honest. The people that I end up connecting with like that — even Amber Riley, big sister —  are finding their humanity in a genuine way. They understand me to the point that they’re like, “Okay, this person is not fucked up.” Like the way that the world may perceive me, they’re able to overlook that and actually get to the type of person I am. And I can do the same with them. ‘Cause there’s plenty of times where I’ve seen people mischaracterize them or what they’re going through. 

Snoop Dogg and Stevie Wonder are huge musical icons, and so if they’re fucking with you, maybe that says something. 
Stevie would call me. Stevie is so chaotic. I love him so much. He calls himself my big brother. But it’s funny because he’s like 72, and I’m 26. But he does act like a big brother. He doesn’t act like an uncle. He doesn’t act like a dad. He acts like a big brother, and he calls me and tells me about all of his chaotic stories from the past. But also, he’ll check me when necessary. When you have an icon like Stevie Wonder tell you, “Hey, girl get off the internet real quick,” I don’t give a fuck about what Instagram and Twitter are talking about ’cause they don’t know me like he does.

I’ve been able to cry to him. This is someone who is one of our last living legends. I am more than blessed to have made his acquaintance. First of all, we connected because he wanted to work with me. I featured on one of his songs, and then from there, we formed a friendship where we can sit and talk for hours. I feel understood and seen by someone who had it far worse when it comes to industry shit. The racism that he was going through….the respect level that I have for him, and also just the gratitude…He asked to be on the album. 

I asked him to come in and listen to it ’cause I just wanted my big bro and idol to come in and listen and tell me what he thought. He asked to be on the project. He grabbed my arm on the second to last song and said, “What do you want from me?” Just, “Whatever you want. Can I be on it?” I was like, “Are you for real?” He was like, “Yes. I want to be on this project.” I have that fact to hold very near and dear to my heart that I didn’t ask for Stevie to be on it, he wanted to because he felt the impact of the story and the mood that I was creating.

But on top of that, even with Snoop, it’s the same thing. I reached out and was like, “Hey, I need a voice memo. Here’s what’s going on. It’s part of the album.” I sent him a snippet of the song, and he was like, “Oh, shit. Got you.” And had it back to me within three hours. These are people who bend over backwards to let me know that they care about me and that they love me, and that they see the value in me. And so I’ve gotten really lucky with the icons that have chosen to align themselves with me. ‘Cause even they don’t think I’m problematic. They get it. I’m growing.

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