- 04 Apr 19
Describing herself as a “pocket-sized dreamer with a planet-sized voice”, Limerick-based artist Denise Chaila blends rap, spoken word, and Irish and Zambian culture to brilliant effect.
Despite consisting of just two songs, Denise Chaila’s debut EP, released at the start of 2019, is one of the most potent, assured statements about identity that we’ve come across in recent years. Named Duel Citizenship, it deals with the nature of living in Ireland with a Zambian background.
“Writing this has been a really long process,” says Chaila, speaking from the University of Limerick, where she studies. “It’s part of an overall body of work that I’ve been creating for the last four years. This EP was about finding new ways to articulate who I am.”
What does the term ‘dual citizenship’ mean to Denise on this EP?
“Essentially it means that I am taking back control when it comes to my definition,” she explains. “People assume that you have to be to either, when you say you’re Irish, or Zambian. And it’s not very encompassing of what it actually means.
“I inhabit something, and someplace, that is very valid and deserves its own articulation. And so Zambian-Irish for me is actually an opportunity to start a conversation with myself and my environment. It says, ‘Hey I exist, and I might not exist the way you think I should, but I do.’”
The song itself is an exuberant ode to Denise’s unique identity. She proudly boasts her knowledge of Irish and Zambian history, culture and mythology. And beyond that, it’s shot through with enough puns and allusions to have you listening back a dozen times. It involves ferociously intelligent wordplay and clearly required a lot of work.
“Well, I’m essentially a nerd who has been immersed in Zambian and Irish culture since birth,” Denise laughs. “Being Zambian-Irish, for me, means that I’ve got so many lenses to see the world. I can actually see points of intersection that other people might not see straight away, because I’m right there in the middle of them.”
Denise started taking her music seriously as far back as 2012, becoming part of the thriving Limerick scene. But while her main influences may have come from her peers and from the legacy of rappers like Lauryn Hill and the futurism of Janelle Monae, she’s also the first to admit that her music is informed by her academic pursuits as well. She’s currently in the middle of her English and Sociology course at the University of Limerick.
“English and Sociology were the tools that gave me a vocabulary to talk about my place in the world,” enthuses Denise. “I could also talk about politics and social structures. That’s what helped me write Duel Citizenship.”
Denise’s voice will also be familiar to those who’ve listened to Rusangano Family’s Choice Prize-winning album Let The Dead Bury The Dead. She’s collaborated frequently with the trio and performed with them several times over the years.
“They were a really integral part in me finding my artistic voice in Limerick,” she nods. “When I moved here in 2012, I started working and recording with them. It speaks to everything that’s great about the music community in Limerick; we had very informative and life-changing conversations. And I find it really amazing to be around men who gave me the space to articulate and talk and grow, and didn’t wish to speak over me. So by the time I started making music, and by the time I started actually articulating my thoughts and feelings on record, I found myself in a very encouraging place. We’ve been watching each other grow ever since.”
Duel Citizenship is out now.