Out of Africa: Singer Lorine Chia Portends to be Cleveland's Next Big Thing

Earlier this year, fake track lists for the anticipated release of Kanye West's new album Yeezus circulated freely. One of them listed relatively unknown Cleveland singer and rapper Lorine Chia, whose name was included in the credits for the tune "Blood on the Leaves." Even Chia was surprised when she heard the rumors that West might have sampled her voice.

"I thought, 'Dude, did Kanye sample my voice? What just happened? Who would even know me to put my name on this fake track list?' she recalls.

Then, West had a listening party for the official album and someone tweeted that he heard Chia sing backing vocals on the tune. When Chia heard the song, she realized it was jazz vocalist Nina Simone's voice that West had sampled.

"I guess we sound exactly alike," she says. "Somebody must have heard the song and thought it was me. It was good publicity. People gravitated toward my music because they thought I was on the Yeezus album, and I gained some fans from that."

To capitalize on the publicity, Chia even recorded a cover of "Strange Fruit," the Billie Holiday/Nina Simone song that West had sampled.

"I did 'Strange Fruit' just to see if Kanye might pick it up," Chia says. "But I didn't just do it to get Kanye's attention. The lyrics to that song are so harsh. It's like, 'Damn.' Slavery happened and it's still going on mentally. It was important for me to put it out there. I started listening to her a lot after that. I originally just thought, 'She's from the '60s. Whatever.' But once I started listening to her, I realized we are almost like the same person."

Simone is one of the most distinctive pop vocalists of all time, and Chia certainly has a similar vocal quality. Her distinctive vocals compare favorably to both old school souls like Simone and new school torch singers like the late Amy Winehouse. And she can rap too.

Born in Cameroon but raised in Cleveland, she learned discipline and self reliance from an early age.

"Coming from Africa, this is a whole new experience," she says. "You see cold weather for the first time. When I was 6, I was very mature for my age. From where I come from, everyone is taught discipline and survival skills at a very young age. By the time I was 6 years old, I was able to wash dishes and do my own laundry, all that stuff. Here, kids are just kids. This is not what I'm used to. My parents kept it very African at home so discipline and survival and the need to succeed was always there."

Since her father was a musician, Chia gravitated toward music at a young age.

"He plays guitar and sings African gospel music," she says. "I grew up with him playing guitar. They knew I could sing, and they would always try to get me to sing for church and in choir. Over the years, you can say that music got me. I didn't have any other options or anything else that I wanted to do."

Chia certainly tried other options and enrolled at the University of Toledo after graduating from high school. She gave up on college after one semester as she realized her low grade point average wasn't going to get her into medical school. So that gave her more time to devote to making music. Last year, she released her first mixtape and hasn't looked back. That album featured "Living in Vain," a collaboration with up-and-coming Chance the Rapper.

"We were in Chicago and my manager at the time played music for him and he said he liked the music and wanted to meet me," she says of the collaboration with Chance the Rapper. "We connected from there. I played him some songs and he really liked 'Living in Vain.' He sent me an email with a verse on it. I thought it was amazing."

After the album's release, she signed a deal with Make Millions Music, and her followup, The Naked Truth, arrived to wide acclaim earlier this year. "House on the Hill," the lead single, premiered on the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy arts and entertainment blog and she played a release party at SOB's, a popular New York club.

On the album, she channels the late Amy Winehouse on the woozy opening track "Fly High" and puts on gangsta airs for the rousing "Bout It." The eclectic disc features a little bit of everything, including reggae ("Da Fire") and trip-hop ("Lost in My Mind" and "Feel the Music").

"I've grown over the year," she says. "My voice has matured. My writing skills are better. This sophomore project was surprising to everything. Nobody saw it coming."

On the album, she artfully mixes alternative, acid jazz and futuristic R&B/soul.

"I love music," she says. "Music to me is sacred. I listen to everything. I listen to Drake, Coldplay and Bon Iver. I listen to everything in every genre and then find something I like and it becomes a part of me. Everyone can understand my music. It's kind of hip-hopish and jazzy and this and that. I love it. It was a good way for me to communicate with everyone who likes different genres. You have to speak people's language and have them come to you."

She shows off her hip-hop chops on a soulful remake of the Drake/DJ Khalid hit "No New Friends."

"I love, love, love Drake," she says. "When he made it, it was at the time when I didn't want new people around me. I was feeling that song. I was in the studio in L.A. and was screaming 'no new friends.' At first, I didn't think it was that great. I thought we'd come back to it. I played it in the car and realized it was perfect."

Chia has had a terrific year of touring and recording and says more good stuff is in store for 2014.

"Touring is the best thing I could have done this year," she says. "When I was on Fox 8, I had a band but most of the time, I just travel with a DJ because it's easier. When budgets start getting better, I'll have my band. They're ready to go."

As is often the case for many local musicians, she's become better known outside of Cleveland.

"That's how it was for Kid Cudi and MGK and everybody really," she says when asked about why she doesn't have more hometown support. "I don't know what is up but I wish people would support the music that's here. I think Cleveland needs a wake-up call."

Chia is just the one to deliver that wake-up call.

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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