Limerick rapper Denise Chaila is talking about her past year, one dominated by a pandemic but also the ubiquity of her all-conquering breakthrough track ‘Chaila’. It led her to interviews on the Late Late Show, attention from overseas, and regular radio play, while the mixtape it opens, GO Bravely, won the Choice Prize for Irish album of the year.
Chaila’s rise also led to sadly predictable vitriol and racism, however, so much so that she asked RTÉ, sponsors of the Choice Prize, not to tag her Twitter handle in tweets about the award. “I don't do music without risk,” she says, explaining that the idea of ‘oh isn’t she great’ that’s developed over the past 12 months, in the context of the nastiness she's been subjected to, has seen something lost in the narrative.
“I'm doing an exceptionally difficult thing in exceptionally dangerous territory, with a view on an exceptionally violent section of Irish citizenry that a lot of people don't have,” Chaila explains. “And I'm persevering not because I want to be a pop star but because I'm learning every day that it's extremely necessary, if I'm still eliciting this response, for me to continue making this music, and to make it on my terms. And to make it without apology.”
The 26-year-old adds that the aim of all this is not to be successful in music, but to leave her mark. “To say that I was here and I said this and I said this as an Irish person who is also black - not a black Irish person, but an Irish person who is also black; a very important distinction to make. “And I said this as a Zambian person who is living in Ireland. And I said this because it matters. And because people try to shut me up because they say, ‘No one has said this before, no one has wanted to say this before, and nobody has tried to say this before, so we shouldn't listen to you.'”
Chaila knows she carries a burden, but her path is one that will undoubtedly inspire others. “I have nieces and nephews, young cousins, and little girls and boys who send me messages who are like, 'I saw you on the Late Late Show, and you had your curly hair out. And it was really great. And I didn't know anyone could do this'.”
Chaila, who moved to Ireland at the age of three when her father got a job as a doctor, realises the value of being visible to the next generation. These considerations have also played into the aesthetic for some of her music videos, which see the rapper dressed in armour and wielding a sword.
“You need to see me strong,” she says to those younger fans. “You need to see me not bowing down. You need to see me happy, actually, you need to see me playing, which is why 'Anseo' looks like that - because you need to see black people playing and having a good time being fairy princes and things. And you need to see that you don't have to capitulate to pressure.”
Reflecting on her rapid rise last year, Chaila says she was genuinely taken aback: “Let me be really honest, it still hasn't hit me. I still don't understand.”
Of course, 2020 was a strange year to make an impact. “Sometimes I talk to the guys about how unfair it seems like all of my dreams came true in a year where I wasn't able to share them with anyone and feel like they actually happened. Because it doesn't feel real still. It feels like maybe 2022, 2023, I'll be able to be like, 'Oh my gosh, wow, that was super cool, guys.' I'll be super late to my own party, but who cares? At least I'll make it there.”
The 'guys' Chaila is referring to are God Knows and Murli, Choice Prize-winning rappers in their own right. They all work together, encourage each other, and have each other’s back. All for one, one for all. That’s an ethos that extends through her new single, ‘061’. That number is the Limerick area phone code and it’s where Chaila calls home.
“I chose to talk about the 061 because I feel that for the last decade, there has been an enormous amount of personal growth that I've done here. Like, so significant in such powerful ways that I can never erase this from the story of my life.”
Chaila has already made an impact outside the 061 area, but what’s the dream? “My aim, my goal, my dream since I was five is that I wanted to sell out a stadium like Madison Square Garden one day in my life. Don’t know how it will happen. To have a show, to have people who I love on a stage with me to be able to be unapologetically dramatic - because I am!
“To deck everyone out in sequins and have fire and do like those old Earth, Wind and Fire gigs where Maurice White and everybody just came out and they have choreographed dances and there are pyrotechnics and everything was just intense? Like, oh, what a dream!” Not surprisingly, some people have suggested that Chaila would be more likely to achieve such dreams from a city like London or LA. Has she ever thought about leaving?
“Heck no! I really feel like we need to acknowledge that where we are is where we are for reasons sometimes. If it is part of your story for you to leave and that's what you need personally, that's one thing. But the premise that you must go in order to attain success, to me, is flawed because that's not something you can promise. You can promise someone success wherever they are.”
She stresses that she's happy to be in the south-west, letting her music document the authentic world she inhabits. “Because you can very clearly see, I think, that I'm not really trying to be anyone else. I hope that's clear. And I hope it's clear that I'm investing in this place not because I've nowhere else to invest in - because I absolutely do - but because I choose to invest here. Because I choose to see value in where I'm at.”
- ‘061’ is out now on Narolane. Denise Chaila headlines the pilot festival at Kilmainham on July 3