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The proud dreams of Chiedu Oraka

16 April 2024, 11:00
Words by Jay Mitra

Photography by Luke Hallett

A formidable force in the North’s rap scene over the past decade, Chiedu Oraka has been a champion for neglected towns that sit in the shadows of success. As the Hull-born artist releases his most revealing body of work, he tells Jay Mitra how vulnerability and honesty have been vital to his artistic growth.

Picture this: it’s late March and rapper Chiedu Oraka is running through his North Hull estate.

Running from what exactly? That sinking feeling in his stomach since returning to reality? The discomfort of a dream shifting? The mental whiplash of queuing up again for the number 15 bus in Hull Interchange after supporting Skepta on a different continent?

Since coming back from his first international shows in Austin, Texas – including the closing slot at Best Fit's SXSW showcase – Oraka has spent the last few days depressed in his room. But today he has dragged himself outside. He has put his trainers on and is legging it through the familiar grey of the estate. Sweat is starting to drip when he hears it: the voices of a couple of young lads.

“Hey! Are you Chiedu Oraka?”

The boys are on bikes, matching the 6’7” rapper’s pace. “How was Texas?”

Oraka is smiling slightly as he tells me this—how these young lads pedalled tentatively beside him all the way back to his house as he shared his transatlantic experiences. “They were so intrigued. I’m lucky man, I’m really, really lucky when it comes to people in Hull,” he tells me. “People in my estate really follow me, support me. These are the people I do it for. I feel like Hull is one of those places where we don’t know how special we are—we’re too humble with it. People need to know about this place and it’s my mission to put it on the map.”


A few weeks before the release of his new mixtape Misfit, Oraka joins me in Hull’s very own Planet Coffee, a local favourite. Within five minutes of sitting down, latte to his lips, he is recognised by someone he went to secondary school with. “Don’t steal my bag,” he tells Oraka before heading to the bathroom, possibly poking fun at Oraka’s past.

Growing up a Black kid in a predominantly white town, Oraka felt like an outsider in his own community. He did whatever he could to blend in—even if that meant breaking the law: “First time I got arrested, I was ten. I was shoplifting. My first actual conviction, I was eleven. It was the summer going from primary school to secondary school.” He chuckles as he confesses: “That was at Toys “R” Us. Real gangsta. Stealing Pokémon cards. I was getting involved in petty crime at a very young age.”

But why did he do it?

“I think just to fit in,” he says. “I’m not gonna blame anyone though; it was all because of me, no one held a gun to my head and said you must steal. You must commit crime. I just thought it was the cool thing to do. I was always a bit of a bad lad, a bit misunderstood. I just wanted to be accepted so much. I wanted to be like all the big boys and all the big boys got into trouble. I was doing community service in secondary school. When I went to jail, I was in college.”

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Trouble followed Oraka into early adulthood. He went to prison in 2007 for his involvement in a fight that, despite beginning as self-defence, he had, in his own words, taken “too far.” In the end, he fought the alienation he felt in Hull through friendship. He formed his own ‘misfit gang’ composed of other ethnic minorities living in the area.

“Two of my good friends were two boys from Syria. I’ve got some friends from the Bangladesh and Pakistan community; one of my friends is mixed race…it was a camaraderie that is still very prominent now. At the time that gave us all real confidence,” he tells me. He contextualises his hit song ‘Trials and Tribulations of a C.E.O’ with a memory of his misfit gang in action: “I got attacked in a nightclub, was literally getting beaten to a pulp. And two of my friends were like guardian angels, like something out of a film; they burst through the toilets and started kicking arse. There are so many moments like that; we’ve been through moments like that. One of my mates was stabbed in Hull.”


Despite being kicked out of secondary school and laughed at by his own teachers when he showed up for A-Level enrolment, it was going to university that provided Oraka an escape from a life peppered with violence. “Education saved me,” he says. “It took me out of Hull. Even though I only went to Lincoln—an hour down the road—it introduced me to so many different types of people and I ended up having a new family. In the end, there was a version of Chiedu before uni and a different version after uni. I changed so much.”

Oraka not only managed to get through further education but also became an educator himself. He spent four years working in a Pupil Referral Unit as a sports tutor, and later became part of the pastoral team in an East Hull secondary school.

“I even got a message the other day saying, ‘you was the best teacher’. I went right from the other end, from being a little shit, to making sure these kids don’t go down the wrong path. I wouldn’t change anything: God made things like this for a reason.”

How does faith intersect with his work? “In Igbo language, Chiedu means ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, I feel like I was destined to do something amazing with a name like that,” he tells me. “I grew up in a Christian household, with church every Sunday. I’d say I’m a God-fearing man. I normally pray in the morning just to thank God for waking up. I was real conscious when I was in America to be thanking God. It was such a big deal for me. I felt so grateful for being there.”

Oraka’s time in America changed his mentality entirely; he realised he wasn’t dreaming big enough. “I was ignorant with it,” he says. “I only thought about conquering the UK. I didn’t think about going international. And it wasn’t until I went to Texas that I realised that. It’s opened my eyes massively—I even think the UK is a bit small now.”

‘‘Don’t get me wrong man, I love my city. I’m an advocate for Hull and I will always represent Hull, but yeah, I was just sad coming back. I had a really good conversation with one of my friends. He said what you’re experiencing isn’t actually holiday blues—what you’re experiencing is that your dreams are starting to come true. And it’s a whole different ballgame now.”

Misfit will undoubtedly get that ball rolling. Due for release next week, the mixtape – according to Oraka himself, and as evidenced by the lyricism – is his most vulnerable work yet. On standout track "If I Had A Fire In The Booth", he raps about the demoralisation of being on Universal Credit, the struggle of balancing artistry with the pressures of possible fatherhood, and being told the news of his father’s death during lockdown: ‘Lost my dad last year and was told over Facetime / got his last name but nothing else I can say is mine.’

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"Counselling", a track released before the mixtape, reveals Oraka’s own unpicking of the past through counselling sessions and the empowerment and peace he found through the process of understanding his “inner child”. Oraka paraphrases his counsellor’s words: “it’s the little Chiedu basically. It’s the little version of you when you were younger when you felt rejected or upset, that seems to be the catalyst for a lot of your behaviours right now.” Through vulnerability, honesty, and an openness to change, the rapper realised that even now, he is trying to prove a point to his inner child.

“When I was younger there was quite a lot of rejection from the outside world. I didn’t feel like I was good enough. That was a bit of my motivation. That was what flared me up,” he says. Through music, Oraka has not only managed to help himself, but inspired others to make that difficult first step and seek support for themselves.

“I wanted to make songs that would help people,” he tells me. “With me being who I am, having a bit of reputation and being a bit of a hard man, a man’s man and people knowing that, [they think] oh what Chiedu Oraka went to counselling that’s mad—and now I feel like I can go now. And that’s the reason why I made that tune. That means more to me. When I get messages that my song made them want to go to counselling, that means more than getting a million views.”

Misfit’s opening track "Misfit Gang" begins with a snippet of a speech from Hull MP Diana Johnson in which she highlights the problem of antisocial behaviour in Hull. Oraka explains his reasoning behind starting the mixtape on a political note:

“For me, the people in Hull, we just get forgotten about,” he says. “Why aren’t the government investing in areas like Hull, like Orchard Park? They just leave us to rot. What are these kids gonna do? They’re gonna commit crime. These kids are frustrated and angry because people have given up on them. I fight to shed light for the government to start changing their ways.”

“With the cost-of-living crisis going up and the cost of gas and electric, North Hull’s Orchard Park was the most affected area by that in the whole of the UK. It was known as the coldest place in Britain. I’ve got a position of power; how can I not raise awareness?”

"I want my inner child to be proud of the person that he is now."


Despite years of experiencing ostracisation and racial violence in Hull, Oraka is indisputably loyal to his city. Throughout our conversation, the one word that keeps cropping up is ‘rejection’. The biggest driver in his success, rejection has spurred Oraka to unprecedented heights.

“I even had it with the indie scene,” he reveals. “When I was coming up, I had to perform sandwiched in between indie bands and acoustic singers. No one really wanted to book a Hull rapper but then I ended up becoming the biggest artist in the city.”

Oraka didn’t take the influence from Hull’s big names — Mick Ronson, The Beautiful South or Roland Gift — he carved his own path in the local music scene.

“There’s been no blueprint. I’m the first of my kind,” he says. “I’m the first rapper to take the music as far as anyone. I’m not making out I was the first Hull rapper but the rappers before me were putting on baggy jeans and rapping in an American accent. I’m the first real rapper to rap in a Hull accent, talk about what Hull people do, our slang, our bus routes, the food we eat.”

While Oraka is known for grime beats and rap, he is adamant that he will not let his art be pigeonholed. He mentions Spanish instrumentals and Bhangra as potential avenues for his bars and is excited about exploring Afrobeats in the future.

“Collaborations are important to me moving forwards,” he states. “I need to start delving into other worlds, collabing with artists that you wouldn’t expect.”

I stifle my surprise when he starts dropping names for dream collaborations. “If someone said to me who would be your dream producer, it would probably be James Blake,” he says somewhat shyly. “I feel like me and him would create something crazy. Adele would also be sick, even someone like Taylor Swift.”

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Not many people know this about the Hull rapper, but he’s also a big fan of '80s pop, citing Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Fleetwood Mac and Blondie as some of his favourite artists. Oraka recently supported BRIT Award-winner CASISDEAD and his experience of a CASISDEAD concert gave him an epiphany of sorts. Now, more than ever, Oraka is itching for an audience that loves him for more than a viral moment.

“Supporting CASISDEAD changed my whole perspective, because that made me know that I need to build a community. He won a BRIT Award and was up against Central Cee, Dave, Headie One, Little Simz, and they’ve all got bigger fanbases than him, but the difference is that his fanbases have actually voted. It’s made me think: are their fans really real? He is the first act I’ve supported that the venues are rammed before he’s even come on stage. I’ve supported a lot of artists and it’s normally dead; the audience are only there to see the main act. But I’ve come there and there’s people there from the beginning and you know why? It’s because he’s built his community. It’s inspirational. I say that and he’s done an album that is very '80s pop influenced.”

Oraka hopes that the mixtape will not only build his following but also generate demand for his first album. “You know the sort of era we’re living in now; it’s a fast-food era,” he tells me. “People release bodies of work and in a week it’s forgotten about. I want my body of work to live with people. [This mixtape] is for anybody who has ever felt like they don’t fit in, that don’t toe the line or that feel like their purpose isn’t aligned with the constraints of society. This mixtape represents you—no matter what community you come from. I want everybody that feels like they’re an outsider to use this body of work as their mantra, their Bible, because I feel like there’s something on there that you can relate to.”

Now over ten years deep into his career, Oraka’s integrity hasn’t wavered. I am struck by something he says about his experience of counselling: “I want my inner child to be proud of the person that he is now.” After our chat, Oraka heads off to the gym and I am reminded of the image of him running through his North Hull estate, the young boys on the bikes pedalling beside him as they hang onto his every word. As I watch him walk away, his head held high, I am confident in the knowledge that his inner child is not the only child that is proud of him.

Misfit is released on 26 April via Launchpad+/EMI North

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