Hip-hop and spoken word artist Denise Chaila is making waves in the music industry. She has something to say and we need to listen. *This article was originally published in January 2020
Phone interviews can be tricky. The absence of face to face communication can make it harder to listen out for subtext. There are no subtle facial ques to move a conversation along and the awkward moment when two voices intersect with one another happens almost consecutively every five minutes.
Thankfully, a recent phone interview with emerging hip-hop artist Denise Chaila was anything but. Hanging up the phone I felt both inspired, informed and wholly content. Not many interviews can be described as enlightening, but this one was.
We bonded over her close proximity to my home county and how different country life was to city living. During the call, the postman walked through her door to hand her the post. She pointed this out and we laughed about how unremarkable this is to people living in the country, while city slickers find it odd.
Now based in Co Limerick, Denise describes herself as a "grime poet" and is currently gearing up for the 'Perspectives: Imagining Ireland. Speaking Up, Singing Louder' show which takes place Sunday, February 9 at the National Concert Hall. A legion of women's voices in Irish literature, music and poetry will take to the stage and share their voices. For Denise, this is an opportunity for her to expand on a conversation that is important to her.
"It's a whole cohort of women and voices that are full of uncompromising candour who don't sound the same as each other and there are no men on the stage but that doesn't mean we are coming here to create an island outside of what the world is and saying we can't facilitate change in our spaces. This is a celebration supported by the communities that we come from."
The artist is on the lips of every music insider and her song 'Copper Bullet' became one of the standout releases of the past year. It's an exciting time for hip-hop in Ireland and she is relishing it. "I can't even name names anymore because it is so exciting to see that everyone has a heart for excellence. I feel every day now that I have a reason to get up and get better and learn more."
Born in Zambia, Denise lived there until the age of eight when she moved to Ireland with her family. Her formative years were spent in the same manner as any other Irish teenager, and she disagrees with people who box her into one category. She believes her heritage to be fluid, saying: "I feel as much raised by Zambia as I do by Ireland but when I was trying to find my own voice and seeing who I was as a person, that was happening in Lucan when I was begging my mom to let me go to the GAA discos. It's just funny when I hear people attach me so closely to an idea of Zambianess that I am not going to model perfectly."
This fluidity has influenced her music by what she calls her "healthy disregard for borders" and her healthy scepticism of people who do. A point of frustration for her is the stereotyping of identity which joins in tandem with issues such as race.
"We are in a place as a country where we are ready for some really big conversations. The way Ireland is treating race and gender is not the same way the UK, wider Europe, the US and even Zambia are treating the issues. This is fertile soil. I think the more we try to limit people and stereotype them and force them into obsolete archetypes, the less we are able to have those necessary conversations that lead to healthy change. We are ready for nuance."
Community and collaboration
Embedded deep within the psyche of Irish people is our common need for a sense of community. Throughout the interview, Denise speaks about the need for community and collaboration in music, gender, race and sexual orientation. "We are representing more than just women. It's also for men to see powerful women and learn how to relate to them and internalise and take joy in that confidence that doesn't challenge the ego."
She continues, "It's the same thing when looking at black people being and working and speaking in this country, and for disabled and queer people. It's not just 'oh, you are talking to black people because you are black' – I'm like no, I live in a community and I am interdependent and it is my joy to celebrate these things about myself and that it enriches us all when we learn how to work in a community."
With a performance in the Barbican in London on the cards, the career trajectory for Denise looks clear and bountiful but she won't let herself be defined as anything.
"My big joy is there is no single definition of anything. There is no one Irish perspective. So often, we try to get a label and force ourselves to fit in the box instead of doing what we should do, which is getting the label to fit us as changing people who deserve the opportunity to define what we are and not by what we think we should be."
Following the interview, my mind was invigorated, my ideas broadened. I then realised it was because Denise Chaila has something important to say.
And we should all be listening.
To find out more about Perspectives: Imagining Ireland. Speaking Up, Singing Louder or to buy tickets for the show, click here.
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