At 22, California native Chikezie proved to be one of the most mature contestants in this seventh season. With his faith in check, and a love of the Beatles and bluegrass, this young singer discusses his aspirations that go well beyond his age.
Your parents were always in the audience during your performances. What influence did they have on your appreciation for music?
My parents came from Nigeria as immigrants in 1980. My dad went to school. My mom became a nurse. They came to America to give me, my brother and my sister a better chance than they got.
My parents were never really music lovers. Music wasn’t playing in the house (unless it was) Nigerian cultural or Christian music. I was allowed to listen to secular music growing up, but not knowing much about it, there was no real draw for me. Later in life when I was going through the garage I realized there was this huge stack of vinyl (LPs). It was shocking that they actually listened to American music. They had Earth, Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, Stevie. They had a lot old school R&B.
Right next to the stack of vinyl in the garage was a record player, so I dusted it off and brought it into my room and played records.
When did you realize you could sing?
I was in the church choir and realized this is something I really enjoy doing. In middle school, I entered a talent show. Everyone thought I was lip syncing and that was probably the best compliment you could ever give me. After that I had a desire to get better and learn more.
Up to that point, were you thinking about another career?
I wanted to build computers and still do from time to time. My parents told me that singing should be a hobby: “You can do it, but find a real job.”
When did you start watching “American Idol”?
From the very first season with Kelly Clarkson. I have watched most of the seasons. I missed a few episodes but generally I keep track.
Of the first six years, who was your favorite Idol?
As far as taking this show and making something of it, even when nobody else would believe that you could do it, Jennifer Hudson is an amazing example. As far as singers and enjoying performances, Clay Aiken. He’s an amazing vocalist.
When did you start to think about auditioning?
After the first season. As soon as I saw that, I said, “Where was I during the audition process? I must have been sleeping.” I started auditioning for season two [and then] season four, season five and season six.
You might be the most persistent contestant when it comes to auditioning the most times. What do you remember from those auditions?
Seasons two through five were not the kindest to me because I’d sing and they’d say, “You’re not what we’re looking for. Goodbye.” [After] the second time that I’d gone home, I thought there’s something different that I have to do. I videotaped myself singing and I watched it and it was pretty lame. Vocally, it was great. I had all the bells and whistles but visually it was just really boring. I thought singers were supposed to be serious all the time. I realized when I’m having a good time, that’s when I light up and that’s when I feel the most excited and happiest.
It was a self realization, but as soon as I corrected it, everyone said, “Oh, finally you get it.” Nobody told me and I had to figure it out.
Why didn’t you give up after being turned down at those auditions?
I’m really stubborn and hard-headed. You can ask my mom. That’s just who I am. When I have my mind set on something, I don’t give up. I can’t. It’s just not in me. As long as there’s life in me, I’m going to go for my dreams.
Did you do anything special to prepare for the seventh season audition?
I decided to audition for the seventh season the second I got sent home the sixth season. I studied all the music I could get my hands on. I went for everything from old school soul to the Beatles, even rock and country. I went to Kansas for a year for school and studied bluegrass.
Because I lived in Los Angeles my whole life and I was sure there was something else out there. I could have gone to New York [but] I wanted to go to a small town and experience that life.
We know your seventh season audition was successful. But while you were trying out in San Diego, when did you realize this time was going to be different?
I got through the first day and I came back a couple days later for the second round. I sang and they said, “Finally, you’ve gotten it!” Then I knew I had figured it out. I auditioned for [executive producers] Nigel [Lythgoe] and Ken [Warwick]. I sang “Fools Fall in Love” by [Jerry] Leiber and [Mike] Stoller.
I love that song. How did you know it?
I learned “Fools Fall in Love” performing “Smokey Joe’s Café” at Santa Monica College, Then I went in front of the judges and decided to change my song because I didn’t want to sing something too obscure. I wanted it to be more memorable. So I sang “All the Woman I Need” by Luther Vandross and Paula said yes, Randy said “Uhhh, yes,” and Simon said no, but two was good enough. In my mind, I said to Simon, “You will say yes to me at some point. You’re gonna love me.”
If you hadn’t been chosen for the top 24, would you have auditioned for season eight?
If they said no, I would not have auditioned again. It’s too many years of my life devoted to one road.
Once you were in the top 24, how much did you want to make the top 12?
My whole plan was to get to the top 10 and the tour so getting to the top 12 was like a dream. It was really crazy to say that enough people liked me enough to want me to be there.
The judges are always saying that song selection is everything. What do you think of your song choices?
My desire was to take songs that nobody else would think of and put my own spin on them. The first week I picked “More Today Than Yesterday” and since it was ’60s week, I changed the arrangement and dressed the part to have fun with it. And [the judges] hated almost all of it. I didn’t mind them hating the arrangement which was really old fashioned, but purposely done. Don’t hate on the suit, though! I loved my suit. After that, I learned my lesson about being current and the next week I did one of my personal favorite songs of all time, Donny Hathaway’s [version of] “I Believe to My Soul.” The judges loved it. The audience loved it. So the next week, I thought, let’s show a different side. I picked the song I auditioned with, because I really wanted to do the whole song and do it proper justice. So I sang “All the Woman I Need” and the judges didn’t like that side of me but I still had a good time. After that, we got the test of singing a Beatles song which was really exciting for me but scary because as much as I studied the Beatles, I didn’t get a chance to study their earlier works. I was spending all my time on their later works like the white album and all the songs that came right before the breakup. So I’m looking at the list. I don’t know a single one of them, [except] maybe “Help.” So I picked that one and thought I’d change it to sound like Gavin DeGraw. I changed the chords a little bit, so it didn’t quite sound like “Help.” In fact, I needed “Help.” So I had to pick something else.
When I listen to a song, I’m not listening to what the artist did with it. I’m listening to the chords. I’m listening to the flow. I’m listening to the melody. I ended up [singing] “She’s a Woman” and when I heard it, I thought it was cute and I couldn’t figure out why it sounded so familiar. “She’s A Woman” was the Beatles’ take on Little Richard. I didn’t hear Little Richard in there but I did hear bluegrass. The chorus was like “My Generation” by the Who. I thought we could put a hard-driving rock rhythm to it and I left the breaks there and I think that’s one of the things that really attracted people to the song.
When you sang ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ during the second Beatles week, you really gave it a bluegrass arrangement.
It was more country really, because I didn’t want to be predictable. I was getting tired of seeing [contestants] playing instruments and I wanted to keep surprising and shocking people. So I got a harmonica and practiced for a couple of days. I played it onstage and you either loved or hated it and I love that, as long as it makes you feel.
How did you feel about the judges’ comments?
I loved the judges’ comments as long as they were talking about my singing, which Simon rarely did. Whenever it was about my singing, I could take that sort of criticism because there’s some way to grow.
How do you see your career going from here and what would the first chikezie album sound like?
I want to do everything from music to acting to musical theater. I especially love musical theater.
I have a passion for fusion, for bringing together different genres and different sounds, because there’s no such thing as a bad genre of music. Why not bring out the best of every genre and put it together into something magical, something that works.