Denise Chaila is a Limerick-based Zambian-Irish rapper, musician, and hip hop artist. In 2019 and 2020, she took centre stage, enthralling the country with her upbeat songs, sharp lyrics, and bold attitude. Chaila reflects a new era of Irish rap, with her bouncy rhythms and distinct backing vocals in addition to her Zambian musical form. Chaila’s music is akin to the multiculturalism of contemporary Irish musicians such as Jafaris, Tebi Rex, and, to a slightly lesser degree, Kojaque and Knee Cap.
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Denise Chaila was the highest-charting Irish female soloist on Irish shores in 2020. In just two concise songs on her 2019 EP Duel Citizenship, she confronted the often-bigoted guardians of “Irish” culture and savaged misogynists of the hip-hop scene.
She further delves into these subjects with her debut studio album Go Bravely. “Chaila”, the album’s first song, is a clipped Eastern-influenced track full of swagger and pride, with lines like “Don’t need your concern if you look at me and see a Trócaire kid.” Chaila is confrontational as a lyricist, but not aggressively so. The album reached number eight on the Irish Billboard Hot 100 in the months after its release.
The song Chaila is also a tribute to her Zambian ancestors, as it was a surname instated by her grandfather. He had taken his middle name as his last name after he left his hometown in pursuit of the woman he loved, who later became his wife and the mother of his children. The song also proudly presents itself as a parody of her surname’s frequent mispronunciation, rolling its eyes at older generations, who won’t learn how to pronounce her name. Go Bravely, her sublime debut album was bolstered by incredible television appearances and collaborations with some of Ireland’s most promising artists.
Denise Chaila describes Go Bravely saying:
“This mixtape is a series of sonic polaroid’s; a patchwork collection of snapshots and messages that came to me in the midst of overwhelming messiness. These songs are affirmations and declarations from every part of me that refused to lie down and give up when everything in me told me I should. “Go Bravely” is the purest expression of my faith I’ve ever articulated. It means: Come as you are. One foot in front of the other. Leave nothing of yourself behind. Stop waiting to be ready. Choose yourself. Just start. Go Bravely.”
Originally, Chaila had no intention of pursuing music as a profession. When she was three years old, she moved from Zambia with her parents, Lydia and Elijah, and two younger brothers to Ireland. Chaila’s family lived in Clondalkin and Lucan, until finally relocating to Limerick when she was 18, shortly after completing her Leaving Cert, when her father was head-hunted for a job at the University Hospital Limerick.
She started her studies at the University of Limerick, first in politics and international relations, then in sociology. Chaila says she met a group of like-minded musicians and friends here who helped her embrace the identity and culture she felt she had to hide in order to blend in. Chaila now runs the Limerick-based record label Narolane Records with two close friends, MuRli and GodKnows. It was thanks to their help that she was ready to enter the studio. But first, she had to abandon her academic path and allow herself to become totally lost in music, to strike out in this new direction in her life.
Denise Chaila believes Ireland ought to do a better job at coping with bigotry. She told Ryan Tubridy on her Late Late Show appearance last September that she was afraid to leave her house for a month after receiving online harassment following a recent Other Voices performance, and how it shifted her outlook on how she used her voice, not only as a means of communication, but also as a tool of expression and change.
She went on to say that the Irish people’s experience demonstrates that we should be more generous to vulnerable people choosing to live in this country:
“Irish people know what freedom is; we have more in common with each other than we don’t. Black people and Irish people have a history of shared colonisation, and a shared history of travel, travel unwillingly in the face of and in response to trauma”.
She feels that as we speak up like this, the dialogue about Irishness, about who we are, our nationality and what that entails, becomes so much richer and more layered as a result.
Denise has faced heart-breaking online bullying because of her ethnicity, despite her undeniable achievements. The Irish rapper does her best to avoid the bullies and concentrate on her music, which she uses to counter this racism, using it as a tool to address the prejudice head-on. Denise Chaila shows no signs of slowing down, and she’s already revealed big plans for the future, including festival appearances (once it’s safe to do so) and hopes for some more star-studded partnerships and collaborations. Denise Chaila is already a name to remember, and we look forward to seeing a lot more of her this year.