CHIKA Is Listening to J. Cole, Avril Lavigne, and Lots of Hamilton

Published March 17, 2020

Photo by Leeor Wild.

This is “Add to Queue,” our attempt to sort through the cacophony of music floating in the algorithmic atmosphere by consulting the experts themselves. Our favorite musicians tell us about their favorite music—the sad, the happy, the dinner party-y, the songs they want played at their funeral. In this edition, the self-described hip-hop-soul artist CHIKA crafts a playlist of everything J. Cole, Ed Sheeran deep cuts, (plus City Girls, Avril Lavigne, and The Ready Set for good measure), and explains how her theater-kid background helped shape her year-in-the-making, debut EP, Industry Games.

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MARK BURGER: Tell me about Industry Games.

CHIKA: It’s funny—the last song on the EP traces all the way back to when I was 19. It’s the first rap song I ever wrote, and it’s the last song on my first project. It’s like a victory lap. I’ve been working on the project specifically since last January, so it’s a snapshot of my life last year. It feels very cathartic to put it out.

BURGER: When you were making the EP, did you have any specific influences or sounds you were listening to?

CHIKA: Not really. I have personal favorites, like J. Cole, H.E.R., Chance the Rapper, Noname. But in terms of making the project, I’ve always been so autonomous with my sound and how I approach my art because we all have our own signature. And when I first started taking myself seriously as an artist, I was scared I’d never have a sonic signature because I couldn’t hear it myself. But I think on the project you really do get to hear it, because of the range on it—there’s singing, there’s rapping, I’m harmonizing on trap beats, which is not a thing.

BURGER: So what was the last song you listened to?

CHIKA: Actually, it should still be playing, let’s see. I was literally listening to it. It was “Apparently” by J. Cole, and before that, “Apeshit” by The Carters.

BURGER: What are your earliest musical memories?

CHIKA: Well, when I was super young, I remember Rudy on The Cosby Show singing songs, and I got a lot of comparisons to Rudy when I was younger since I was, like, a little chocolate child. So I was like, “I want to do that.’ And I started singing. The first song that I ever learned was “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” My dad had a guitar and I knew he played instruments, and when I was eight he got me my first guitar and I started teaching myself.

BURGER: Wow, at eight?

CHIKA: I really wanted his guitar and he was like, “No.” [Laughs.] Finally he got me like a shitty, Walmart guitar, and was like, “Here you go, you finally have a guitar. You’re not going to get mine because mine is expensive.” There was a book that came with it and I would teach myself things.

BURGER: Are there any other instruments you want to learn to play?

CHIKA: I play piano and the ukulele, but not fluently. I took piano lessons for seven years. I can read music, but I’m not Alicia Keys. I wish I was Alicia Keys, but I’m getting there.

BURGER: Aspirationally Alicia Keys.

CHIKA: You feel me.

BURGER: Who were the earliest musicians to influence you?

CHIKA: My parents are both from Nigeria, so I grew up listening to a lot of Nigerian music. I can’t really name specific artists, but I know P-Square and Aramide. CeCe Winans too—it was just all gospel and Nigerian music. I didn’t listen to hip-hop growing up at all. I wasn’t really exposed to it besides maybe OutKast, because I’m from the South.

BURGER: Do you remember the first time you heard or sought out hip-hop music?

CHIKA: No, because for decades, rap has been just integrated into pop culture. So you just heard it around. If I went to a skating rink, you’d hear rap music, so I knew it existed. But I didn’t get heavily into it until I fell in love with Wale as an artist.

BURGER: When was that?

CHIKA: I was maybe seventh grade. And I just was like, “Oh, a Nigerian man who raps and he’s really good at it and makes good songs?” It was all the rage to know an artist and stan that artist, so I was like, “Wale’s my artist.” I fell in love with him as a person and an artist and I realized he’s a poet. I wanted to be an actor too when I was little, so narrative was my thing. Now he’s literally like my big brother—which is just hysterically full-circle. But I didn’t really have a moment of like, “Rap is it.” I wish I did. Everyone else has those stories, but I kind of stumbled across it and I was writing poetry. I started putting poetry into the songs I was writing because I played guitar. I was kind of good, so I kept going at it.

BURGER: And now here we are.

CHIKA: Here we are.

BURGER: Who was your first concert?

CHIKA: Probably Wale, because I went to church concerts, but a concert concert—something I paid my own money and traveled on my own to see—was Wale.

BURGER: Do you remember the first album that you bought?

CHIKA: With my own money? Avril Lavigne’s The Best Damn Thing. That was my shit.

BURGHER: Do you have a favorite band or singer at the moment?

CHIKA: I have a favorite, but I’m an artist now, so I listen a lot to my stuff and I’m trying to get better at my own thing. And the easiest way to not copy anyone is to not listen to anyone else.

BURGER: Right.

CHIKA: But when I find new people I lay with them for a long time. And so my new fave artist is Raveena. I stumbled across her Tiny Desk and she’s dope, dope as hell. We just followed each other on Twitter, too, shout out to her.

BURGER: What is a song or band or an artist that you think is highly underrated?

CHIKA: Tobi Lou’s really good. You know what, I’ll venture out and say this: Although we all know Pentatonix and Super Fruit and all that, Mitch Grassi’s voice is the purest thing to ever enter this fucking world’s atmosphere. I need everyone to peep and pay homage, because are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? That man is talented. That’s my dad, he raised me. I don’t care what anyone says.

BURGER: What’s your favorite kind of music, if you had to choose one?

CHIKA: It’s so hard. It’s a tie between like soul and hip-hop. And I think sometimes those intertwine. My music is a mixture of both, and it wouldn’t fall into one of either categories. I like stories, I like feelings. I’m a Pisces, I feel a lot.

BURGER: Oh my gosh, it’s your season.

CHIKA: It is. I really really really like feelings. And I think with the right artist in hip-hop and with soul, you get that for sure.

BURGER: Do you have a favorite soundtrack?

CHIKA: That’s a great question, first of all. I’m a musical theater kid, so can I name a musical?

BURGER: Of course.

CHIKA: Hamilton. I know every word.

BURGER: Really?

CHIKA: Don’t quote me, but I do. Lin-Manuel so graciously gave me and my girlfriend tickets to see it last time I was in New York.

BURGER: I remember that fever pitch, when Hamilton was like the only thing anyone cared about.

CHIKA: And you couldn’t get tickets for it! That’s why it took me so long. I just saw it last year. I’m the type of person who does not listen to a soundtrack until the show. I haven’t seen Wicked ever, and I know a couple songs from musical theater, but I will not listen to the soundtrack, because I need this in context with the story. But I finally saw Hamilton, and since then I literally will listen to the soundtrack front to back, repeated, for days.

BURGER: Days?

CHIKA: I don’t know why, but my brain gets into this zone, like “Okay, focus, we’re listening to Hamilton, that is it.” The words on it are amazing.

BURGER: Did you do theater in high school?

CHIKA: Yes. Children of Eden was the first show I was ever in, and I loved that soundtrack as well. We did Hairspray. We did so many. I’m missing some things. That’s where I got my love of scoring. On the EP, it starts with piano, and that’s because I’m a theater kid. I love when the music itself with no words tells a story. Rodgers and Hammerstein—whole ass composers, I love them. I’m that person.

BURGER: Who is a dream collaborator of yours?

CHIKA: André 3000.

BURGER: Period?

CHIKA: Period.

BURGER: I was going to say of all time and also working today, but he’s both?

CHIKA: Yeah. He’s not with us, but Mac Miller too. I recently did a tribute to him on Instagram and his mom was like, “I’m so moved, he would have loved this.” 

BURGER: What’s a song that always puts you in a good mood?

CHIKA: “Good Ass Intro” by Chance the Rapper.

BURGER: What are some songs or artists that you would put on a playlist for a road trip?

CHIKA: H.E.R., J. Cole, Chance, Sir, Erykah Badu. Raveena, now. Throw some Avril on there. My playlists on my phone—you’d be so confused, because I listen to everything. Ed Sheeran, I love him. I’ve been his fan since back in the day. Old Ed is my jam. Nobody can tell me shit about Ed.

BURGER: What about for a classy dinner party moment?

CHIKA: I like instrumentals. For example, “A Hard Place” by H.E.R.–I like that song in general, but the guitar in the background is sick to me. If I could find an instrumental to that I would definitely play it to set the ambiance. “Hello” by Erykah Badu is always my classic dinner party theme song because it’s such a vibe.

BURGER: What about for a house party playlist?

CHIKA: We’re being ratchet. We’re playing K CAMP, we’re playing all the Alabama shit, like all of it. You might hear some City Girls on there. We’re going to play Cardi [B], because we stan Cardi in this household. Big Freedia. Who else? The Ready Set, you might as well throw them on there.

BURGER: Wow.

CHIKA: “Love Like Whoa,” hello, we’re putting that on there. You might hear some Lumineers, too.

BURGER: Keep the people guessing.

CHIKA: For a party, I want when a song comes on to be so good in a jarring way that everyone’s like, “Oh, shut up, this is my song!” That’s what we’re doing. We’re not here just to mingle. I would also play my EP.

BURGER: What about a playlist for crying in your bedroom?

CHIKA: “Easily” by Bruno Major. I’ll go to specific artists, and I know I’ve said J. Cole eight billion times, but I have certain artists that are just overall artists for me, and I’ll just go to certain songs or projects. 4 Your Eyez Only, by J Cole, I’m putting it on if I need to cry. I’m putting on some Lauryn Hill. Yeah, I’m weeping in my bedroom.

BURGER: What about for a breakup playlist?

CHIKA: Oh, you have to feel like a bad bitch. That’s when you start playing, like, the Megan [the Stallion]’s and the Cardi’s. We’re not going to sulk at all. We’re playing anything completely empowering, like Olympics and Jon Bellion. We’re not crying over here. I cry enough on a regular basis as the person I am. If I’m breaking up with somebody, play all the trap shit.

BURGER: How about a playlist to get high to?

CHIKA: That’s all Chance, Smino, and Saba. JID, that’s that vibe. You get tucked away and really listen to the words. And of course Erykah—like you got to bring her in, to dab on. Some Billie Eilish too.

BURGER: This is a little morose, but what about music for a funeral playlist?

CHIKA: That’s hysterical. For my funeral, I would want it to be a mess. I lived in chaos and I hope that I die in chaos, like, in a good way. I have one specific song, and the title’s graphic, however it needs to be played: it’s called “Smell Yo Dick” by Riskay.

BURGER: I love it.

CHIKA: It’s an old ass song. Shane Dawson introduced it to me when I was a child. Never should have heard that song, and hello, here we are. I play it to piss my friends off, and I love it, so we’re playing it.

BURGER: I mean, it’s literally your funeral. You can do whatever you want.

CHIKA: Exactly. It’s my dying wish.

BURGER: What is your go-to karaoke song?

CHIKA: “All I Ask” by Adele. That song’s touching my heart a lot. I cry.

BURGER: What’s your guilty pleasure song?

CHIKA: I don’t think I feel guilty about any of my songs. Like, you just heard me say “Smell Yo Dick” and I play that proudly with my chest out and sing along. I know every word.

BURGER: No guilt, all pleasure.

CHIKA: All pleasure.

BURGER: Do you sing in the shower?

CHIKA: Yes. If I’m writing a song, sometimes I write songs in the shower. I’ll hear a melody or a phrase in my head repeated for a couple days, and I’m finally in the shower and I’ll start to build upon it and sing certain words. I’m like, “Oh damn, I have to rush to clean myself so I don’t forget it.” 

BURGER: If you could play a song for the whole world, what would it be?

CHIKA: That’s a good-ass question. It would have to be sometimes very profound, as much as I would like it to be “Smell Yo Dick.” My brain’s immediately jumping to “Won’t Live Here” by Daniel Caesar, because when I heard this song, it changed my life. My favorite lines are “Yes, I know sometimes I hurt you, sometimes you hurt me too. It makes me go mad. Anytime you hear this music, take that pain and use it, use it for you.” And so for me, like, we all hurt each other, it happens. But if we’re turning that into something good and productive and making it so that we’re not just sitting in the hurt and then hurting others, if we can turn our pain into something positive, we should do it.

Listen to CHIKA’s “Add To Queue” playlist below, and follow Interview on Spotify for more.