CHIEDU ORAKA: The triumphant rise of Hull's musical hero
It's no secret that the music industry in the UK is based in London. The offices for all three major record labels - Warner, Universal and Sony - are located on the same strip of road in the affluent West London area of High Street Kensington, so how has a guy from one of the most deprived areas in Hull managed to make a name for himself?
"What separated me from a lot of my peers in Hull and the surrounding areas is that I've always had an ambition to be THE guy from my county and compete with the top guys," states Chiedu Oraka, who over the last ten years has cemented his status as the most exciting rapper to ever emerge from his city.
Powered by his Hull accent and fuelled by an upbringing centred around North Hull Estate where he was brought up and still lives to this day, Chiedu Oraka's journey from dreamer to dancefloor-filler has been hugely inspiring, but whilst sitting and listening to this engaging and dynamic speaker tell his tale I was intrigued to hear that it all began with a teenage passion for an emerging music scene over 200 miles south of his humble upbringing.
"I was never really comparing myself to my peers in Hull, it was always 'How can I be seen to be as good as the guys in London?'. I came up on London rap music, it's all I really listened to as a yout," he reveals before highlighting the fact American rappers such as Tupac, DMX, Nas, and Biggie were the first artists to really grab his attention and stoke up his interest in rap music. Like many youngsters growing up in the early noughties, it was the visuals gracing Channel U that helped open Chiedu's eyes to the world of UK music and from that moment on nothing was the same. "The first UK sound I ever heard was More Fire Crew's 'Oi'. My mum had a friend who lived in Stoke Newington in Hackney and we used to go there all the time. I just remember seeing them and I thought 'What the hell is this? This is just sick!'. When I was about 14 we got Sky for the first time so I had Channel U and after that I was just a fan of Crazy Titch, Dizzee, Kano, Ghetts, Mike GLC - everyone was on there."
Despite now being surrounded by the sights and sounds of London's Grime and Rap scenes on his TV screen, it still took a bit of honesty from a friend to help the teenager find his own voice. "I started writing lyrics but weirdly and cringely it was in an American accent back then. I was 15 and one of my best mates called Crafty was a rapper who influenced me in my local area because he was rapping in a Hull accent and he was getting a bit of buzz around his name in the MSN and Myspace days. We used to just go to house parties and freestyle over American beats and I used to freestyle in this weird American accent," he admits, laughing as he reminisces about those forming moments of his passion for performing. "One day he was like 'Mate, you are good, you've got a good flow but you just can't be doing that,' so I actually started writing properly between the ages of 16 and 17 in a British accent."
"We always made sure, and I think it was cos I had Crafty by my side, that we rapped in a Hull accent with Hull slang, cos even though we loved the London Rap and Grime scene we knew from early that if we did it in our own Hull accent we would stand out."
Performances at youth centres, house parties and other events in Hull soon followed for the youngsters making music that stood apart from the rest of their local community. Olders in the area were still rapping with American accents and couldn't relate to this new breed of "full on chavs", as Chiedu describes his clan of musical trendsetters, dressed head to toe in brands like Henri Lloyd, Rockport and Berghaus. But after he found himself getting into trouble in the local area, Chiedu moved away to study at the University of Lincoln and it was following that period away from his hometown that he really decided to take music seriously.
"When I came back I released my first mixtape in 2011. It was all American beats and a few UK ones but it was just me doing my own versions. I was just out in Hull distributing CDs for £3 in the town centre and I adopted that hustle cos I think I'd seen Mike GLC do all that sort of stuff and so I thought 'yeah I'm gonna do it in Hull'. Them times there no one was really doing that stuff and so I started getting a bit of a buzz."
For context, 2011 saw the emergence of Ed Sheeran, Adele dominated the charts with her album 21 and UK rappers Wretch 32, Chip and Tinie Tempah were amongst those beginning to make a mark on the mainstream's radar. Chiedu illustrates his own situation at that time brilliantly: "Where I come from it's very guitar/Indie-centric; there've been a couple of famous bands that have come from Hull, like The Beautiful South, so rap music wasn't really the in thing. When I was doing this everyone was into the Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys and everything like that, so when I did showcases they didn't know where to put me and I'd be sandwiched in between someone who wanted to be Ed Sheeran and then a band who'd wanna be Oasis. I had to mould my city into liking Grime and UK Rap."
Trying to convince a city of 250,000 people to fall in love with the sounds that you're so passionate about would be no easy task for any artist, but Chiedu is built of tough stuff. Having witnessed the results of poverty first hand on his estate, in his early years Chiedu also had to deal with the fact that he was the only black kid in his area, which occasionally resulted in him being subjected to racist abuse from his fellow Hull locals. "I'm of Nigerian descent. I grew up on an estate called North Hull Estate which is one of the most deprived areas in Britain and I grew up there in the nineties. There wasn't much diversity or inclusion - it's not like London, it's not even like Leeds - Hull is very different."
"Hull loves to play on the Wilberforce legacy but that was definitely not reflected in people's attitudes on North Hull Estate in the nineties. They'd never even seen a black person before, so when you're moving on the estate and the elders are being blatantly racist it makes you have a thick skin. I definitely got beat up a few times, but then something just clicked and I was like 'Nah this isn't happening no more' and so I had a lot of fights growing up. It wasn't even just the kids; parents were not letting their kids play with me because there was a narrative that I was some sort of wild child. I went to two good schools, two Catholic schools and there wasn't a catchment area so kids were from all over the city. They were seeing this black kid who's quite boisterous and not really understanding why I'm boisterous and why there's a bit of anger from me because when I come to school it's a good place, but when I go home there are some struggles on the estate."
Using his experiences to propel himself into a music career where he has the space to tell his own story in his own way has seen Chiedu turn some of those negatives into positives and reach superstar status on the estate where he once suffered some traumatic experiences.
"I'm now a celebrity on my estate and I'm loved but it wasn't always like that. The early years were tough but you grow up and learn to stick up for yourself. Where I'm from often the only language they understand is violence. It really is poverty where I'm from and the role models are the thieves, the hard guys and the drug dealers but after I got into a lot of fights I gained respect and after the respect comes love. That's obviously stuff I'm not boasting about and I'm not proud of but it's something that did happen as a result of some of the trauma that I had when I was a bit younger."
"Because a lot of the hardship and struggle was when I was younger, I've sort of batted it to the side and it's only now when I've gone to a few BLM protests and I've got up and spoken that a lot of the trauma's come back to me. I'm an advocate of mental health but it's something that I never thought I ever struggled from until this whole George Floyd and BLM stuff recently brought old memories back. I'm not gonna say my childhood was all bad - that's probably only 15-20% of it. My childhood was great; my mum took us everywhere and I was exposed to so many different cultures and cities. There were horrible times in my area where I was called the N-word and made to feel left out but I had some great times as well - definitely more better times than worse times."
Chiedu openly admits that despite some of the negativity he faced as a youngster he never felt like turning his back on his hometown and harbouring bitterness about some of the experiences he was subjected to from fellow residents. "There's never been a time I wanted to walk away because it's all I know. Hull really is all I know. It's the place that I was born, so I feel like I've got a duty to represent it. The reason why I do this music is because no one from Yorkshire or Hull has made it in UK black music, so I feel like there's a bit of pressure on my shoulders because the kids and the youth in my city love me. My shows are filled with the youngsters so I've got a big responsibility and yeah it's gonna take me a bit longer than some of my other counterparts but I'm confident that I will get there in the end cos I've got no choice. I need to do this for my people."
Having lived in Hull his entire life Chiedu has seen the levels of diversity in his area increase over the years, but he feels strongly about the lack of support from the local council in bringing people together. Schooling me on the Kurdish community in Spring Bank, the Polish community in Beverley Road as well as the strong Asian community of Park Avenue, it's clear that Chiedu Oraka is a true son of his city. The area runs through his veins and he beams with pride as he tells me how the young people of Hull have got their heads screwed on when it comes to doing what's right, revealing his pride at the diverse ethnic build-up of crowds at recent Black Lives Matter marches
In this digital age though, the internet has allowed artists to share their music far and wide and for Chiedu the moment that really saw his music explode outside of his area was when his song 'Flex' was picked up by the current UK Executive Vice President of Atlantic Records, Austin Daboh. However, before Austin was helping the track reach millions of listeners, another industry mentor in the shape of Capital XTRA's Robert Bruce was helping to curate the song's entire format and Chiedu pays a lot of credit to both men in his breakthrough. "'Flex' was initially a freestyle, it was just bars on that beat, but Rob Bruce helped shape it. He was like 'Bro you need to structure this, it's catchy and the beats sick but you need to get a hook'. So we took one of the bars and that became the hook - everything changed from 'Flex'. I actually had a song that people would sing back to me; I actually had a song that would get wheeled up; I actually had a song that was loved by people outside of Hull. That's the first song I ever got editorial love for on Spotify."
And it was at Spotify, where Austin Daboh was a Senior Editor at the time, that Chiedu's career was thrust into the spotlight on a national scale. "I sent Austin a tweet with the Spotify link saying 'Listen to this', not thinking anything of it and then I remember him tweeting me back and saying 'Love the artwork, very catchy' but I still didn't think anything of it."
Days later a friend text Chiedu to say his song 'Flex' was on Spotify's Grime Shutdown playlist, one of the biggest in UK music at the time and the song's success drove him on to try and relive the excitement of seeing his music appear on a playlist alongside established stars such as Skepta and Kano. "When you have that you're trying to capture that moment again and again so I was like, 'I've had ‘Flex’ now, I'm gonna sign up to Spotify and all my other tracks are gonna be on Grime Shutdown' cos back then that was the playlist that everyone wanted to be on."
But whilst he went on to release further tracks which garnered support from the likes of the Guardian and the BBC, none hit the heights that 'Flex' had. Then 'Darcy' came along.
"Me and Deezkid recorded it ['Darcy'] in his box bedroom in an estate called Orchard Park; no budget with a little mic and that was it. We liked the song but we didn't think it would do real well. We were in the mentality that nothing's promised so we thought we'd put it out, it might get a bit of a buzz but nothing else will happen." But 2018 release 'Darcy' proved to be even more successful than 'Flex' had been a year prior and finally saw Chiedu appear on the Grime Shutdown playlist once more, hitting the heights he had craved for so long.
"The momentum of that track was crazy. It stayed on Grime Shutdown for over 300 days and we were just getting tweets and DMs from everyone for 18 months. I remember Jaykae sharing it on his Instagram story, Darcus from Island Records co-signed it on a BBC Introducing show and I'm probably even forgetting some of the moments. But then I became the face of the Grime Shutdown playlist and the Instant Grime playlist on Deezer and then the labels start coming."
"I had a sit down with Austin at Spotify. I took Deezkid with me and it was only for 30 minutes, but for a man like that to give up his time for two boys that are from council estates in Hull, we were just gassed. That same day we had a meeting with a label and another one a few days later and momentum was good. We decided to go with a label and that's when 'Men Behaving Badly' came out. But 'Darcy' was the game changer."
At this point Chiedu was getting love from some well known faces and his music was cutting through on national radio, with spins on Radio 1 and co-signs from tastemakers like Huw Stephens and Tom Robinson. "Big up Toddla T as well," he exclaims, "He really supported us with plays. He played 'Men Behaving Badly' quite a lot, he championed 'Helly Hansen 3' and he really rid for our 'War Chant Remix' with Majestic."
Having picked up interest in his music from an audience outside of Hull and tasted the addictive elixir that is success, is Chiedu happy with where his journey has taken him? "I feel like the journey for me has just started," he quickly responds, "The industry can be very snakey and I've had my own label experience now which I was so thankful for and I was so grateful for the opportunity. It definitely taught me a lot about the industry. Big up the people at eOne but I feel like for me now it's time to start this independant journey. I heard too much in my ear about how music should sound. If you look at my catalogue I've always done different types of sounds - me and Deez always say we make UK Rap-based music. We rap on Grime, Garage, Funky House, Drill and UK Rap. When I finally do make my album it's gonna have a couple of different sounds and I don't really get why an artist should be penalised for that."
"I'm not from the roads but I'm from a different struggle. My UK black experience is very different to someone like Giggs or Dutchavelli or Tion Wayne but it doesn't mean that we haven't struggled here. For me, if tastemakers are really tastemakers they should understand that and wanna reach out and broaden their horizons so your radio show for two hours doesn't just sound the same with the same sort of accent and the same sort of story."
With new music just around the corner and the promise of at least two exciting new EPs coming in 2021, it's a simple but poignant candid comment during our chat that for me sums up the against-all-odds story of this incredibly talented artist and leaves me safe in the knowledge that Chiedu Oraka has character to be able to carry the Hull rap scene on his shoulders for a long while to come: "How are underdogs meant to have a chance if people don't bet on them?"