How Chika Refused to Play 'Industry Games' & Charted a Self-Made Path to Success

The 23-year-old rapper plots out her career, from releasing covers to becoming one of the prominent rising stars in the rap game, all while making sure "everything I have built was built was with intention." 

Each month, Billboard Pride celebrates an LGBTQ act as its Artist of the Month. Our March selection: Chika.

On the opening song of her new EP, "Intro," Chika makes her intentions clear: "Call it intuition, but I’m about to change the world, it’s been my only mission."

With an unprecedented lyrical agility, the rapper outlines her struggle toward triumph throughout the one-minute track, before letting those listening know that even if, somehow, she doesn't manage to change the world, she hopes that her music still serves its purpose. "If I don’t accomplish nothing, I hope this music make you think."

It may be hard for some to understand how the poetic musings of a 23-year-old, Alabama-born up-and-coming rapper could have the potential to change the world. But those people have likely never listened to Chika's songs, where the rapper blends technical skill and purposeful songwriting in a way that transcends any perceptions of "experience."

Or, as she likes to put it, "everything I have built was built was with intention." 

On her major label debut Industry Games (out now via Warner Records), Chika (born Jane Chika Oranika) cements her spot as the name to know in hip-hop. After years of gaining viral fame on social media for her jaw-dropping skills, her new record sees the star in full control of her visionary sound on an EP that feels unfair to call a "debut."

The project's titular track, for example, sees Chika taking the music industry to task for promoting music with no purpose, while also shutting down any critics who may try to take away from her success with rapid-fire bars and crystal-clean lyrics. "I will not let anyone invalidate what I do," she tells Billboard. "The song is about everything that I had feared, like, if I would have to change or compromise for success. So I actually did end up attacking it in a way that felt right to me."

The rest of Industry Games plays just like that, with the rapper listing out the various ways in which she has already proven herself as "the best of the new school." And that's exactly as Chika intended it, as she says she wanted to show her fans and the industry at large that she has more to offer than they've seen from her in the past.

"I didn't want anyone to ever think that what they see on my Instagram is all there is, because there's so much more to me," she says. "This EP is me expressing myself with everything that I'm capable of. So, you know, it's something I'm extremely proud to even begin to put together."

The beginning of Chika's journey to the top began seven years ago, when, on a whim, she began occasionally uploading covers to YouTube and SoundCloud of popular songs, like Ed Sheeran's "The A Team," or The Neighborhood's "Sweater Weather." Starting as a hobby, Chika's uploads slowly began to morph from covers to original pieces, including poetry, raps and songs, all written, produced and recorded herself.

That switch wasn't foreign to Chika, though. The star had been singing since she was little, wrote her first song when she was 9 years old, and began taking rap seriously as early as age 12. "It was one of those things where, eventually, there was just a natural transition," she says. 

She kept uploading throughout high school, and in her first year attending the University of South Alabama. But in 2017, one year into her education, Chika knew that she wasn't in the right place -- she felt like her time was being wasted when she could be pursuing her dream career.

So, at 20 years old, she sat her parents down, and explained to them that she was interested in dropping out to apply her time to breaking into the music industry. They said they would give her one year out of school to work on her career, and if she didn't make it, she would re-enroll. "My parents were like 'Girl, you ain't playing? You know what you're doing?'" she recalls, chuckling. "They looked at me like, 'I ... guess? Like, we hope things are going to work out to you.' After that, I got to watch how quickly their faces changed."

Leeor Wild

Out of school and searching for studio time, Chika continued uploading her raps to Instagram and Twitter, now usually layered over existing songs, in order to keep her creative juices flowing. But within three months of taking on music full time, the rapper suddenly saw that her clips were starting to go viral, getting her the attention she needed to propel her forward.

One of the early examples of that success came with "Proud," her remake of Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You," where Chika used the repeating strains of Sheeran's hit song to send out a battle cry to the LGBTQ community during Pride Month 2017. "No, you will not tear me down/ No, my heart will not be bound/ Singing loud, say it loud, I’m Proud," she sang on the song's chorus.

The moment was significant for Chika — the star had never hidden her queer identity from friends, family or fans. She never felt a need to "come out" to those around her, but regularly rapped about the women she used to date. Even still, she says that "Proud" felt like an important moment for her to make a statement.

"I wasn't not proud, but it was just one of those things where I didn't think it was a big deal. But I knew how dangerous it was for so many, and I was like, 'I don't necessarily understand what that's like, but I'm gonna try my best to be a voice now,'" she says. "I don't want to have a position of privilege and a platform, and not use it in a way that uplifts people. And that's part of my music."

Today, though, the rapper still struggles with those who are quick to label her as a queer rapper. "When straight people put out music and love songs, then they are just love songs. If I put out a love song, it's like, 'A queer love song! Oh my god!'" she says. "You don't have to ignore someone's sexuality or someone's nature, it's just a thing that is. I don't dislike it because of the label itself, I dislike it because it makes no difference."

Less than a year after seeing "Proud" go viral, the star released what was then her most successful verse yet — in April of 2018, Chika posted a video on her social media captioned "A letter to Kanye Omari West. Over his own beat." In the video, as the instrumental to "Jesus Walks" played, Chika went after West's continued support of Donald Trump, spitting "Your music has been wack, and your views are moving back, to a day that trigger n---as because we still hear that whip crack."

Looking back, Chika says the moment was a little ironic, as just a few days earlier she had begun garnering viral attention for her response to J. Cole's track "1985," thanking the rapper for promoting the importance of rapping about issues that matter. "Going from J. Cole liking your tweet two days ago, to every Kanye West stan in the world screaming 'F--k you, we love Kanye' was a pretty weird time in life," she says with a laugh.

With serious momentum, a pattern of viral songs, and an unending desire to put purpose and meaning behind her lyrics, in June 2019, Chika suddenly found herself signing a deal with Warner Records, something that she had once thought she didn't want to do. "I never really wanted a deal," she admits. "My manager and I had just been working on doing the whole independent route. But at a certain point, I looked at him, and I was like, 'Boy, why aren't we doing meetings?'"

Part of her trepidation over signing to any label was rooted in a fear of being rejected by the industry. But with her success online, and a team that was ready to work with her to make her dreams a reality, she knew it was the right move: "It was a really cool thing, going from doing everything yourself on the internet, to saying 'Alright, I'm ready to have a community.'"

It's fitting that Industry Games' closing track, "Crown," is a song that Chika didn't originally wrote for her label debut. In fact, "Crown" was written when Chika was 19 years old and still considering dropping out of college -- even when she was still figuring out her future, she had the foresight to write lyrics like "I'm on an elevator/ I'm on to something greater/ Ain't nobody gonna take my crown."

The journey still boggles even Chika's mind. "Being able to have written that song when I had nothing, and now I'm doing press for my first project... it's very crazy."