NME Radar: Breakout

Denise Chaila: “What’s special about the Irish hip-hop scene is that we own who we are”

The Limerick MC is yet another powerful voice in her nation's burgeoning hip-hop community

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

In Ireland’s blooming hip-hop scene, the name Denise Chaila holds regal status. The Limerick MC’s first ‘Duel Citizenship’ EP in 2019 announced the arrival of a mesmeric, call-to-attention voice, one who could dismantle sexism over grime beats, and then elucidate the meaning of her Zambian-Irish identity with Maya Angelou gravitas.

The rapper, poet and singer’s ascent is founded on close collaboration with fellow Irish MCs, including members of the award-winning Rusangano Family, MuRli Bo and God Knows, and Dublin’s Sim Simma Soundsystem. From her musical family to her solo output, Denise has gradually become a spokesperson for the Black Irish experience. “I learned how to be Irish / knowing that some people would always think / that I was beyond the pale”, she says on ‘Duel Citizenship’, shining a light on the hardship that comes with finding your space in a hyper-traditional and historically monocultural country.

‘Go Bravely’, Denise’s debut 2020 mixtape, provides an essential narrative for the New Éire generation. Tapping into hip hop, dancehall and Afrobeats, the wordsmith explores what it takes to move from a place of trauma and vulnerability, to harnessing your inner strength. In Denise’s verses, Gaelic is mixed with references to Galileo, and Nelson Mandela is name-dropped alongside Beyoncé-worthy affirmations: “I’m the girl of my own dreams”, she declares on the 808 drops of ‘Down’.

Following a shimmering array of award nominations and chart-topping success with her eponymous single ‘Chaila’, Denise has become a household name in the Emerald Isle. What should have been her most celebratory year, however, was tainted by racist abuse on Twitter. On her most recent single, ‘Anseo’ (meaning “here”, in Gaelic), featuring the Irish rapper Jafaris, her retaliation to such intolerable bigotry is unequivocal. Denise Chaila is both a “black James Bond” and a “Pharaoh”, she says, breaking down barriers and steering Ireland towards a brighter future.

On a Zoom call with NME, the multi-hyphenate musician reflects on growing up in Ireland, personal growth through music, and her love for UK grime.

2020 was a real break-through year – how are you feeling now after such a whirlwind journey? 

“So many beautiful things happened for me in 2020, but receiving abuse online was extremely difficult and heart-breaking. If I were white, I could just be a musician and enjoy this experience without having to be serious very quickly and worry about my safety and that of my family. We have to address this head-on, and move into a culture of deep justice work that’s so much more than these people who want to harm me. It’s dependent though on the idea that racism isn’t a black person’s responsibility; we all have a responsibility to sit with each other and have frank conversations. It’s like breaking a bone again to set it properly so that it can finally heal – that’s what we have to do now to move forward.”

You were born in Zambia and moved to Ireland aged three. What was your experience like growing up there and getting into music?

“When I was growing up, there were hardly any other black people where I lived. I had no-one to relate to culturally or physically – doing normal teenage things like going to discos was hard when Boots doesn’t stock foundation in your skin colour. Instead, I immersed myself in books and music, particularly the writers Richard Pryor and James Baldwin, but also loads of different musicians like Julie Andrews, Lauryn Hill and Prince. I really came into my own after moving to Limerick, where I found people who helped me to embrace my identity through spoken word and music.”

You’ve collaborated with a lot of other Irish MCs and co-founded your own record label, Narolane Records. How do you think the Irish hip-hop scene has informed your music?

“Historically, there’s been a lot of shame in Ireland for rapping in Irish accents about Irish things – irrespective of being black or white. So we’re bound by not subscribing to an inferiority complex and always support each other. Every time another Irish rapper does something great, it makes more room for me to grow and vice versa. We’re not looking for something bigger or a move outside of Ireland to legitimise ourselves. What’s special about the Irish hip-hop scene is that we own who we are.”

Credit: Róisín Murphy O’Sullivan

“I make anti-imposter syndrome music – I want people to know they don’t have to have a certain background to be validated”

Outside of music, you’ve used your platform a lot to speak about Irishness and social justice issues. Could you see yourself going into politics one day? 

“I make anti-imposter syndrome music. I just want people to know they don’t have to have a certain background to be validated, politically. Everyone has the right to hold their state accountable. So who knows, maybe I will run for office one day… but probably with Missy Elliott as my right-hand woman! For now, I think I’m in the most powerful position I can be.”

Your mixtape ‘Go Bravely’ explores the concept of belonging, and overcoming personal pain. Did you have a particular vision in mind before making the record?

“When I was making ‘Go Bravely’, I was really working on my personal confidence and I wanted to reject any self-flagellation in my music. Whenever you hear me being confident on record, that’s me manifesting something that doesn’t always exist. ‘Go Bravely’ was my affirmation: irrespective of your history or your trauma, or the fears you have about the future, or what sort of musician you think you should be, just be brave and meet the moment.”

You recently dropped the video for the ‘Anseo’ remix with Jafaris – what were you trying to say through the symbolism of that song?

“The whole medieval fantasy genre is one of the last frontiers which black people are still barred from. Constructions of the words black in a high fantasy context – dark magic, black orcs etc. – are always bad, and every white supremacist views medieval times as this ideal space when black people supposedly didn’t exist. So when you see a black woman wearing a corset in a Victorian castle with a sword, you want to see a blonde haired King Arthur and that’s not what I’m going to give you. ‘Anseo’ is all about making space for other people. Why should I be the princess? Sometimes I want to be the dragon or be your black James Bond – I don’t have to inhabit a female space, I want to be free.”

Denise Chaila
Credit: Róisín Murphy O’Sullivan

I take issue with being called a ‘female MC’. I did not make sacrifices so that you can relegate me as a ‘cute girl’ doing a ‘cute thing’

In your song ‘Copper Bullets’, you tackle misogyny in hip hop – do you think that’s a topic that needs to be addressed more in rap music today?

“Definitely. Personally, I take issue with being called a ‘female MC’. I did not make sacrifices to become a rapper so that you can relegate me as a cute girl doing a cute thing. I’ve worked so hard and crafted my music – if you haven’t put in the 10,000 practice hours, you cannot dismiss me, because I’m a better MC than you. I’m a woman who raps – you don’t have to call yourself a “male rapper”. It’s an unconscious bias that really excludes people from fulfilling their destiny, purpose and having the impact that they should have.”

What does the future hold for you?

“I want to go as far as I possibly can. Music for me isn’t about the streams or popularity; it’s about sparking joy in others. One day, I want to be able to write for Beyoncé, and tell Nicki Minaj what she did for my confidence, and play Coachella to a sea of faces.

I’ve been working on new material in lockdown and can’t wait to get back into the studio – I cherish the sense of relief and gratitude that comes up whenever I work with other musicians in Ireland. Hip hop as a culture is about truth, it’s about being different, owning that and holding yourself in it. So my new music is going to focus a lot on the extreme stuff that the past year has brought up for me.

Going forward, I would also love to do a full grime set. There are so many people I’d like to hit up in the UK: JME, Kano, Wretch 32, Lioness…They’re artists with real integrity – if I could have a conversation with them, and let that empower my music, it would be a dream come true.”