Denise Chaila: “Every Time I Listen, I Flex”

(This is the full, unedited version of a piece published on RedBull.com on Friday April 12th, in advance of the brand’s ‘Free Gaff’ weekender event in Dublin)

Following the release of two-track single ‘Duel Citizenship’ in January, rapper Denise Chaila is poised to change Irish hip-hop, combining a newfound confidence with a burning passion for addressing the big social questions facing the scene. Ahead of her appearances at Red Bull Free Gaff, Mike McGrath-Bryan sits down with the ‘Man Like Me’ wordsmith for a conversation.

We’re approaching the height of exam season, and amid all of the usual stress and strain that students all over the country face, Denise Chaila conveys a quiet, well-spoken confidence down the phone. Fair play to her for keeping a level head: balancing a sociology degree with a burgeoning musical reputation is no small feat. Not that she’s one for small feats: having contributed to the success of Limerick/Clare outfit Rusangano Family as a spoken-word collaborator, Chaila directly addressed some of the major discussions in Irish hip-hop in January with the release of debut extended-player ‘Duel Citizenship’, almost immediately garnering wider attention, and premiering tunes via tastemaker blog Nialler9.com.

The road to ‘Duel Citizenship’ was a long and winding one, taking in her involvement in the ever-vibrant Shannonside music scene, and spoken-word work. Bringing her ideas and vision to Rusangano man MurLi, the process of getting the music out and into the world was the end of another journey. “(Now that it’s out), it puts me into this space where there’s so much more I want to create… the process of working with MurLi probably began in 2012, when I moved to Limerick. I was around when they started the band, a really cool thing to see happen. In some ways, I’ve been working on a body of work for quite a while, and when I decided my emotional and mental health… all these things were in a place where I could commit to music, MurLi was the first person I rang. I went over to the house that night, and MurLi’s always cooking. He was able to compose this stuff, and marry it to my hopes and dreams, really, as fluidly as if he was living in my own head!”

The E.P.’s leadoff, ‘Copper Bullet’, addresses the conversation of what a ‘female rapper’ is, and rightly calls out the idea of gender or identity as a sub-genre, a novelty to be used as a tagline for promoters or music writers. It’s met a hugely positive reaction, and most importantly, has initiated conversations. “I think it takes more than a single statement to effect change, but it’s made people more conscious of how they use the terminology. If that’s happened, I’m really grateful, because we define our world by the words that we use, and if I’m not going to say, ‘she’s a female architect’, or ‘she’s a female doctor’, I really see no reason why we should keep to this idea of ‘femaleness’ as a novelty, not something that you can represent within the canon of musical literature. I think that what it’s done is made people more conscious of that while talking to me about their favourites, which is an interesting byproduct of that. Just the fact that it is being emphasised makes me proud. I want to hear your Foxy Browns and Lil’ Kims next to your Jay-Zs and 2Pacs.”

Nowhere is Chaila’s resurgent swagger more evident also than in her contribution to Sim Simma Soundsystem’s track ‘Man Like Me’ alongside God Knows, taking direct aim at some of the insecurity inherent to male-dominated cultural spaces. It’s a big tune, tackling a big inequality, borne from collaboration and mutual support among friends. “It was fun, and it’s a song that came from such a place of joy, that every time I listen to it, I flex (laughs). God Knows’ little sister, Geraldine, that song is hers. It belongs to her, and my little sister, and so many others… my family has taken that song and ran with it. I thought that was really interesting, because I’m also finessing pronouns. I’m frustrated by the way people speak about me on that song, like ‘do you need to have a conversation on gender?’, but at the end of the day, it was incredible to see so many people across an age spectrum really adopt (that attitude). In the studio, Ben (Bix) did a tonne of ad-libs that made us shook, we were vibing and dancing to it, it was just… joy, and by the end of the track, I’d imagined this angry song, I was just giggling, I lost the plot in studio.”

Studying sociology at the University of Limerick has informed Chaila’s ballsy approach to the conversations of gender, sub-genre and identity in Irish hip-hop, but that love in turn was sparked by music to begin with, something that’s evident when she talks about how she implements those ideas. “For me, music is a process of trying to create the world around me. There’s a writer, Anais Nin, and she has a quote, ‘one writes, because one has to create a world to which one relates’, and sometimes you look at the world that your parents or school have made for you, the way people have taught you to define yourself in relation to other people, and it just doesn’t work. I went into academia as a child of grime, hip-hop, dancehall, someone who has learned to remix my reality, to make it fit me before I understood what it was, because culture wasn’t made for me, I didn’t fit in the boxes my friends did growing up, and it gave me a real sensitivity to language.”

Red Bull’s ‘Free Gaff’ weekender, happening in Dublin city centre from April 19th to the 21st, will be her first major live outing since the extended-player’s release, and she finds herself sharing the billing with some of the country’s most vital artists, producers and DJs, across three stages. It’s the kind of challenge she’s been waiting to take. “I’m excited. I’m more nervous about the fact that I want to see people play, and want to be part of this space as a punter. I’m also really excited to see my name on that line-up, with Jill Staxx and Daithí, all those people that are just… I’m nervous (laughs). I’m really excited about the idea of being onstage again, after all this time, having been a rapper, intermittently, it’s the exception, rather than the rule. Having a space where I can look around, and just vibe. I feel like there really wouldn’t be a better place.”

With her year off to a huge start, and Free Gaff serving as an essential port of call in the run-up to the summer festival season, there seems to be no stopping Denise Chaila at the moment, a state of affairs that’s being backed up with more music and projects in the pipeline. “More music. More music this summer, actually. I’m still in studio with MurLi, and we’ve been really cooking. I think that’s what startled us a lot about the reception to ‘Duel Citizenship’: when we put it out, I just wanted to say ‘hi, world’, and the world said hello back, and it was like, ‘oh, hey’ (laughs). I thought I would just slide through, and go back into hibernation, and no-one would notice, but now it’s really amazing. I’ve been playing, making things, reading and writing, and learning, getting to know my artistic personality. Now that I’m settled, the next thing is a mixtape, then getting ready to tour and gig more consistently than I am now!”

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