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Northern Grime Pioneer Chiedu Oraka Shines on ‘Ave Life’

For several years now, northern grime pioneer Chiedu Oraka has been falling under the radar – about to break and take his version of northern grime up with him.

The recently released seven-track EP Ave Life not only establishes him as an artist but introduces his sound to a broader audience and symbolizes the uphill battle of struggling to be heard – sound and message wise.

Called “The Black Yorkshire Man,” Oraka is located in Hull, and brought with him to the area a new working-class Northern England sound. Listeners have heard his regional slang on his already-extensive output, and Ave Life’s carefully selected tracks are no different.

Representing what Oraka describes as “council estate confidence,” Ave Life comes after years of gradual recognition. Going back to 2018, singles “Darcy,” “Men Behaving Badly,” “Serve You a Taster,” and the “Helly Hansen” series received attention from BBC Radio One, 1Xtra, 6 Music, and Kiss FM.

To date, “Darcy” has amassed over three million streams and sat at the top of Grime Shutdown for over 300 days. Building off this, he performed at BBC Big Weekender in 2017, the Humberside Street Sesh in 2019, and has supported Stormzy, Jaykae, Akala, Novelist, and Krs One, among other artists.

Earlier in 2021, Oraka was announced as one of the artists supported by the MOBO Help Musicians Fund.

With Ave Life spanning a range of sounds and capturing the essence of northern grime, we had a chance to speak with Oraka about his release and career to date.

Your Ave Life EP consists of seven tracks. What made you select these tracks for the EP?

I wanted to make a body of work that would help propel my career. I wanted to produce an EP which would let my fans know that Chiedu isn’t playing this year. I’m coming back for revenge and these tracks suited that energy.

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You’ve described Ave Life as illustrating the Northern Black experience and “council estate confidence.” How do these points come through your lyrics?

These points are demonstrated all the way through the project. This is real heart on your sleeve stuff. For example, “Trials and Tribulations of CEO” is a reflective and honest piece of art about my whole life. I can talk about racism and what’s it’s like to grow up in a multicultural gang in a city which is full of white people.

Every track on the EP shows elements of me being proud of where I come from and how my struggles have made me the man I am today.

The bottom line is when you’re from a place like North Hull Estate, you’re often looked down on, which has a damaging effect because you start to believe that you’re not worthy. This EP is my way of saying just because you come from a council estate doesn’t mean you can’t be sick at anything you put your mind to.

We’re all winners, because we have been able to survive our tough surroundings. So go use that fuel and become a great.

This EP also contains “Helly Hansen 4,” part of a long-running series. What’s the significance of your “Helly Hansen” series?

When the jacket comes on, just know I am not holding back. I am ready for war – no one is safe, and anyone can get it. That jacket is like my armor, so stay out of my way when it’s Helly Hansen time.

A lot of the fans love it when I am in this mode, because they know every lyric is unapologetic. That real northern honesty bursting out my veins.

You’re considered a key figure of the Northern Grime/Rap scene. What was the scene like when you started, and how far has it come?

I mean there has always been a strong presence in the north. So nothing has really changed, if I’m honest. All that’s changed is we now have the internet, which means anyone can blow overnight, no matter where you are from. That’s why you are starting to see a few northern artists rise to the top of the scene. It’s great to see – Yorkshire’s time is next.

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In addition to your own music, you started your own label, Room 73. What made you decide to start up your own label?

We’ve had the Room 73 imprint for a while now – ever since I released my 21st Kid EP in 2017. Independence is key, to be honest – we don’t have anyone pushing us around and telling us what type of tunes to make. We just do what we want and make what we want. I am not against being with a label, but if I ever did sign again, everything would have to be on my terms. These guys work for me – not the other way round.

You’ve also been fostering the careers of up-and-coming artists, like Deezkid and Joe The Third. How do you go about finding and promoting the talent of other artists?

If you’re talented, have the drive, and have a good heart, then let’s work. I don’t actively go out and find these people. If your energy is good, we will cross paths, especially in a small place like Hull. I am lucky to have a great team around me who share the same goals.

Outside of music, tell us about your Black Kings documentary series.

My brother Bax and I wanted to create a series on what it’s like to grow up black in a place like Hull. The black experience is often centred around inner city London. We wanted to tell our own stories and shine light on what it’s like to be black in a predominately white city.

It’s all about action and providing content that’s raw and real. We don’t do lip service. It’s going to take more than posting your black square to achieve equality.

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Your career has been steadily rising over the past few years. Where would you like to see your career go, both as an artist and as someone embodying a new working-class Northern England sound?

There is no limits to where this could go. There is no one out there like me. All I want to do is make my family proud and become financially free. I want to be able to provide a blueprint for kids who grew up in similar circumstances to me, so they don’t have to get lost in the cycle of council estate life. All I know is I’m going to the top and hopefully they will be a lot more after me from places like Hull.

Following up this EP, what are your plans for the rest of 2021, be it new music or live performances?

The work don’t stop! I have a new single dropping on the 13th of August with Zefer called “Stay the Same.” This one’s for the skankers, trust me. I also have live performances in Bradford, Hull, and London. I also want to release another EP by the end of the year, too.

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Ivan Yaskey is a Philly-born EDM and synthpop enthusiast and interviewer who recently relocated to beautiful Boston, MA.