Cover Feature Rachel Chinouriri: She’s All That

From singles destined to become radio staples, to deep explorations of subject matter unmined by any of her indie-pop contemporaries, ‘What A Devastating Turn Of Events’ sees Rachel Chinouriri step into her potential, and step up to music’s big leagues.

Content warning: this interview contains reference to suicide and disordered eating.

Generally speaking, the St. George’s flag doesn’t have hugely positive connotations these days. Save for its pub garden resurrection around international football tournaments, the English standard has been largely tarnished by associations with far right groups and vitriolic ‘Brexit means Brexit’ gammons. Rachel Chinouriri is out to change this. A young Black woman, born in Britain to Zimbabwean immigrant parents, she’s almost the polar opposite of what the flag has come to represent in the public consciousness - which, she tells DIY over a bacon sarnie, is precisely why it’s a key motif throughout the visuals for her debut album, ‘What A Devastating Turn Of Events’.

“I know when people see a Black girl with an England flag it will instantly spark something,” she nods with a wry smile. “And that’s a conversation that needs to be had - why do they have that reaction?” Having abandoned our plans to meet in Rachel’s much-hyped favourite chippy (it was closed - a travesty), we’re instead chatting across the road in Fat Boyz Cafe: a warm and unpretentious local in the heart of her childhood neighbourhood of Forestdale, Croydon.

“When I was younger, I’d see [St. George’s flags] in the windows of houses all the time and it did not faze me,” she shrugs later, taking us on a guided tour past her primary school, paper round route, and family home. “I felt super English growing up; I think Forestdale was such a bubble that I just didn’t think anything of [the flags]. I’m sure there have been incidents, but I never experienced outward racism here. I was always around white people, and it was always very wholesome. I’d go and knock on people’s doors to ask, ‘Do you have any kids I can hang out with?’, and the dads would come out and ride bikes with us.”

Her ‘00s-coded album cover and recent press shots (many of which were taken in the pub a stone’s throw from where we sit today) are therefore a kind of homage to these memories - a testament to the affection she still holds for “a place where [she] felt happy and safe”, largely unaware of the wider world’s enduring prejudices. “I need to remember that [period of time] and those kinds of English people as my core,” Rachel affirms. “Because I’m English as fuck as well as Zimbabwean, and I’m gonna be proud and take on the positives [of that identity] as well as bringing to light the negative things that impacted me simply because I’m Black.”

And - spoiler alert - that list of negative experiences isn’t exactly a short one. “I grew up on a street where no one ever made me feel different. Then on the first day of secondary school I got called the ‘n’ word,” says Rachel. Similar such instances came thick and fast: her white peers would nick things from the corner shop, yet it was Rachel and her two Black friends who were accused of stealing. Her sister got excluded for choosing not to wear a certain school skirt, but nothing happened when a Black pupil was spat on. Rachel posted screenshots of racist messages she’d received to Facebook, then went to school the next day to find the police waiting - for her.

“After that, I applied to move school,” she states simply. “My skirt was down to my fucking ankles and I was SUCH a nerd, but I realised: ‘No matter how well behaved I am, I will be perceived as some thug here’.”

Rachel Chinouriri on grief, being a Black indie artist, and her debut album 'What A Devastating Turn Of Events' for DIY's May 2024 cover feature Rachel Chinouriri on grief, being a Black indie artist, and her debut album 'What A Devastating Turn Of Events' for DIY's May 2024 cover feature Rachel Chinouriri on grief, being a Black indie artist, and her debut album 'What A Devastating Turn Of Events' for DIY's May 2024 cover feature
“I’m English as fuck as well as Zimbabwean, and I’m gonna take on the positives as well as bringing to light the negatives.”

Given the racism she was subject to, there’s a certain satisfying irony to the fact that it was at Croydon’s renowned BRIT School where Rachel eventually flourished, later transferring there to study musical theatre - despite never having actually watched a musical. She laughs: “I think my attitude towards it was really calm. I just thought, ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’m trying to improve, which is the whole point’. For me, what I saw with BRIT was a community of people pushing each other to do really well, which I really loved.”

These days, her relationship to national identity is, unsurprisingly, characterised by considered nuance. “I think every Black person in the UK goes through a point of being super pro-Black,” says Rachel. “My mother took me to Zimbabwe when I was 13, around when I was getting bullied. That was the first time I thought: ‘This is what it feels like to be a chameleon’. In the UK, Black people are so used to getting glances everywhere - even for a split second. There, I feel not seen, which is great. And so I kind of went through this phase of thinking: ‘I’m Zimbabwean and Black, and these guys are English’,” she gestures, drawing an imaginary line down the table to delineate the groups’ separation.

“But when I got older and started travelling more into London and meeting different communities - experiencing different cultures, different foods, different ideas - I thought, ‘Actually, this IS England’. That’s when my ideas of what makes a country or what makes someone’s identity really changed; as much as my childhood was quite culturally rich in the sense of my Zimbabwean upbringing in the house, there’s also so much English culture I ended up loving.” She smiles, reeling off all the key touchstones of a late ‘90s baby: “The girl bands, Kate Nash and Lily Allen, the nature of going to the pub…”

And it’s this slightly nostalgic, rose-tinted version of this country which imbues ‘What A Devastating Turn Of Events’, in sound as well as in look. From the group chat-style voice notes and the conversational, Allen-esque vocal delivery of ‘It Is What It Is’, to the faux radio link that closes ‘Dumb Bitch Juice’ (courtesy of the mighty Clara Amfo, whose visibility as “a Black woman with an English accent on the radio” was “such a big thing” for Rachel growing up), the album acts as a microcosm of the past two decades’ pop culture; a soundscape of Rachel’s personal England.

Rachel Chinouriri on grief, being a Black indie artist, and her debut album 'What A Devastating Turn Of Events' for DIY's May 2024 cover feature Rachel Chinouriri on grief, being a Black indie artist, and her debut album 'What A Devastating Turn Of Events' for DIY's May 2024 cover feature Rachel Chinouriri on grief, being a Black indie artist, and her debut album 'What A Devastating Turn Of Events' for DIY's May 2024 cover feature Rachel Chinouriri on grief, being a Black indie artist, and her debut album 'What A Devastating Turn Of Events' for DIY's May 2024 cover feature
“Sometimes it’s really fucking hard to write very simple lyrics which sound impactful, not boring, but it can be really important.”

The record’s anthemic lead single ‘The Hills’ arrives as a prime example, itself the product of a largely fruitless writing trip to LA. In a perhaps unlikely case of absence making the heart grow fonder, Rachel was working in the Hollywood Hills at the home of producer Aaron Shadrow, and yet found herself yearning for London. “I remember him saying, ‘I grew up here, I’m so lucky to live here’,” she recalls. “And all I could think was, ‘I’m so glad I’m flying home tomorrow.’”

“Everybody’s been there / So you try your best to leave / I was told the grass is greener / But it’s just a fantasy it seems,” she sings on the track, musing on belonging (or the lack of it), the concept of home, and the strange, deep-rooted pull we feel back to the places that shaped us. Bolstered by its accompanying video, which depicts a series of vignettes conceptualising what it means to be English, ‘The Hills’ is Rachel’s claim-staking love letter to a city that, though undeniably flawed, is irrefutably hers.

Musically, too, it’s something of a flag planted in the ground, with grungy guitars and crashing drums united in an assured sonic rebuttal against the racial profiling her music faced at the start of her career. “My music is not RnB. My music is not Soul. My music is not alternative RnB. My music is not Neo Soul. My music is not Jazz. Black artists doing indie is not confusing. You see my colour before you hear my music,” Rachel stated on Instagram in 2022.

“I never thought it would be a thing,” she says now, “but I remember speaking to Shingai [Shoniwa] from Noisettes and I know that she went through the same battles as well, even though she was in a massive indie group. [Back then] they didn’t have social media to speak up about it; they’d just have to hope that the press would give them grace. So when I realised I could use my own platform to get over it, it helped quite a lot.”

Using her exponentially-growing platform (she can count the likes of Adele and Florence Pugh as fans) to raise subjects that aren’t normally discussed in radio-friendly indie-pop is something that Rachel does remarkably well. Split into two distinct halves with the eponymous track as its lynchpin, ‘What A Devastating Turn Of Events’ progresses from “the singles” - the peppy, poppy earworm cuts (‘The Hills’; ‘Never Need Me’) - to a run of tracks that variously explore suicide, grief, and disordered eating. She explains that this emotional juxtaposition was entirely intentional, the tracklist arranged so as to emulate how life-changing events can come from seemingly nowhere to floor you, flipping your whole world as easily as flipping over a record.

Nowhere is this concept better captured than the title number, in which Rachel narrates the story of a Zimbabwean relative who took her own life after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Though they didn’t have the chance to meet, Rachel nevertheless feels a certain affinity with what her cousin went through. “I remember I wrote a suicide note once, when I was with my ex,” she shares. “I left it on the doorstep and I was convinced I was going to try and kill myself in the local park. I was outrageously in love with him, but everything felt like it was going to shit.”

Despite some parallels between the experiences, she goes on to point out that in Britain, sex and relationships - two themes she focuses on in the album’s first half - are (relatively speaking) pretty innocuous, lower-stakes topics. “I think it’s a privilege that we can find these things lighthearted; your friends can help you through it, or you can go to therapy. Because for some people - especially if there’s a stigma [around sex] in their country or community - it’s life and death. [‘What A Devastating Turn Of Events’] is highlighting the privilege that we have in the UK. I’ve never had an abortion, but I’ve never had a pregnancy scare simply because I can get birth control for free. That’s something which most countries don’t have.” Ultimately, she muses, her cousin’s tragic story could have easily been hers. “Considering she’s in my family, the only difference between us is that her dad didn’t choose to come to this country, and my mum did.”

Rachel Chinouriri on grief, being a Black indie artist, and her debut album 'What A Devastating Turn Of Events' for DIY's May 2024 cover feature Rachel Chinouriri on grief, being a Black indie artist, and her debut album 'What A Devastating Turn Of Events' for DIY's May 2024 cover feature Rachel Chinouriri on grief, being a Black indie artist, and her debut album 'What A Devastating Turn Of Events' for DIY's May 2024 cover feature
“In the UK, Black people are so used to getting glances everywhere - even for a split second.”

Having these direct points of comparison - cultural, circumstantial, and generational - has given Rachel a humblingly comprehensive sense of perspective when it comes to her own life. “My parents were child soldiers, and saw so much death before they were even 18,” she explains. “Now that I’m older, I understand that they’ve dealt with sad things almost as a norm; to them, it almost feels lucky when people are able to live long, or pursue their dreams.”

It’s hardly surprising, then, that this ‘nothing is guaranteed’ philosophy imbues much of Rachel’s work, and the haunting album highlight ‘Robbed’ renders it with particular aching beauty. “Blank silhouettes of you / In memories that don’t exist / Words of a story shouldn’t hurt like this,” she sings, attempting to navigate the agonising injustice of losing a young family member at only six days old. “That was incredibly tough,” she says quietly. “Obviously no one wants to die, but [before] I was just kind of going through life - I just expected to grow old. Now I’m like, ‘Half of us might not be here by 50’.”

In the wake of these family members’ passings, Rachel found herself writing in her bedroom, aiming to convey these very specific emotions and experiences as unambiguously as possible. “When something tragic like that happens, I want to be able to listen to something that really GETS it,” she explains. “And I want to have those songs for different subjects.” As such, she’s always strived to be lyrically direct. “That’s why I loved Coldplay growing up - the lyrics were so simple. I remember being bullied and hearing ‘Fix You’ for the first time…” she pauses before gently singing the track’s opening couplet. “Just those lines alone - I’m in tears. Sometimes it’s really fucking hard to write very simple lyrics which sound impactful, not boring, but it can be really important. In ‘I Hate Myself’, for example, I wanted to put it in a way which was digestible for teenage girls.”

A movingly candid track detailing Rachel’s experiences of disordered eating and body dysmorphia, ‘I Hate Myself’ was born of the damaging diet culture of the ‘00s - a time when society’s heralding of Kate Moss-type skinniness (and, by proxy, whiteness) as the pinnacle of beauty and desirability was arguably at its peak. “The way it was back then… it’s only in retrospect that I realise how toxic it was,” says Rachel, recalling her formative tween and teen years. “In my school, everyone was super skinny and petite. This was Tumblr time - eating disorder central. But especially as a Black person, you tend to sometimes be more curvy; I had really big lips, I had a big arse, bigger thighs. And the news would be like ‘Pippa Middleton has the best arse ever’.” She rolls her eyes. “Pippa Middelton has a great fucking body by the way,” she qualifies after a second, “but when you don’t look like that, it is fucking difficult. It made me feel horrible. And then I got a boyfriend who once saw me take off my top and said, ‘When was the last time you went to the gym?’ I was a size eight at the time.”

She ponders the whiplash-inducing 180° that beauty standards have undergone since then - from the era of the hideously-coined ‘heroic chic’ to equally unattainable Kardashian curves. “In the next ten years it could all flip again, and that’s terrifying,” she muses. “I don’t think [people] realise how much impact that sort of subliminal messaging has.” How, then, was she able to cut through the bullshit and embrace her natural body shape? (“Too big, too small, I’ll never win / I love myself and I love my skin,” concludes ‘I Hate Myself’).

The key, Rachel reckons, is all about perspective; about recognising that the ‘aspirational’ bodies peddled by both social and external media are actually nothing more than Oz-like illusions. Pull back the curtain, and you’ll find that it’s the patriarchy pulling the strings. “I think the awareness definitely helped. Things come in and out of trend, so being able to see that has helped me understand it better,” she smiles. “When I went to Zimbabwe, everyone had bigger arses and bigger legs! So I kind of learned to love myself in that way.”

Fuelled by hard-won self-belief, backed by the fervent support of her fans (nicknamed the ‘Darlings’), and armed with a record that’s accessible yet insightful, authentic and important, Rachel Chinouriri is on the precipice of becoming our next mainstream crossover star. What’s more, she’s enacting something of a cultural reclamation in the process. For anyone who was ever in any doubt: THIS is what British indie looks like.

‘What A Devastating Turn of Events’ is out now via Parlophone.

As featured in the May 2024 issue of DIY, out now.

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