Like breathing 

click to enlarge Chi TheRealist. - RAFAEL RODRIGUEZ.
  • RAFAEL RODRIGUEZ.
  • Chi TheRealist.
A silhouetted portrait, five tracks, and a litany of emotions make up Chi TheRealist’s newest EP, “Shadow Work.” After the unexpected passing of his ‘mom’ (grandmother), the hip-hop soul rapper known for his lyricism and vulnerability is working through his self-described ‘cocoon phase’ — but to an outsider, the music he’s producing is as real as it gets.

“She raised me, and I owe a lot of my life to her,” said Chi TheRealist, whose real name is James Boykins. “The EP was a very self-reflective, introspective, painful growing experience. I needed to say these things to her. It’s not a project, it's a work in progress of myself.”

Using emotions to fuel the fire behind his lyrics is innate to Boykins — rapping has always been an outlet. At first, it paved a path to acceptance from his peers, from winning rap battles amid cluttered lockers and classroom doors to crafting every verse better than the one prior.

“I’m no longer just ‘fat James’ who everybody is picking on, now I’m becoming a topic, I’m becoming a ‘something,’” Boykins said.

Finding his identity while racking up punch lines, studying Little Wayne, Drake, Jay Z, and Eminem, that channel started to teeter between validity and transparency. Boykins wrote his first song, “The Life of a Teenager,” when he was 14.

“I never knew my mother, I never met her, and I didn’t have an answer for why,” he said. “I was bullied hard for it, so when kids would pick on me, I’d tell them she was dead.”

That first song admitted his mother was alive and was about wanting her love, and “I started to find that vulnerability was my ticket,” Boykins said.


Boykins went from performances and church to high school talent shows to the Cypher Arts Program, where local music director Joe Mangano took him under his wing. He learned recording, articulation, and song structure and started putting on monthly shows with Cypher, always bringing something new.

Because he was too young to perform at some venues, Boykins got involved in poetry. He attended open mic nights every week (so much so that they stopped charging him to attend) and soon joined Roc Bottom Slam Team, founded by a Program Manager at The Center for Youth, Lu Highsmith. Through the slam team, Boykins met Shaq Payne, a teaching artist for Young Audiences New York, who transitioned him from a rapper to a competing slam poet.
click to enlarge Danielle Ponder performed two shows during opening weekend of Essex in October. - FRED MCCOY.
  • FRED MCCOY.
  • Danielle Ponder performed two shows during opening weekend of Essex in October.

Those open mic nights soon connected Boykins with Rochester powerhouse Danielle Ponder, who would perform after poetry competitions. Five years later, she asked him to join her onstage at the Lilac Festival. That performance led to another, and then another, and eventually, Ponder would just call Boykins up on stage if she saw him in the crowd.

“It was two things—talent and ambition,” Ponder said. “When I see that, I just want to help in any way I can. I'm also just a fan of his as well. I want him as an opener because I selfishly want to watch the show. I want him on a song because I want him to enhance the song. He's that good.”

She was a role model to him from the start, and Boykins credits Ponder with much of his technique.

click to enlarge Chi The Realist performed during opening weekend at Essex in October. - FRED MCCOY.
  • FRED MCCOY.
  • Chi The Realist performed during opening weekend at Essex in October.

“She’s always been the angel guiding me, filling me with so much inspiration. How to be resilient, how to perform, how to really command a stage and take a show to another level — I learned how to do that from her,” Boykins said.

Speaking with his body and making an audience feel tension, joy, and relief without using words is the root of Boykins’s energy, and Ponder has always been in awe of that.

“He’s one of the top performers that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of people,” she said. “It's not only his words, but his ability to connect with the audience and get everyone feeling alive. You can’t help but get out of your head, get out of whatever your problems are, and be fully present when you’re at one of his shows.”

Whether it’s the words he presses on paper or the zeal he brings onstage, Boykins has never broken things down to a science. They’ve never been forced or queued. His emotions pilot his art and his vulnerability.

“I just kind of do it,” he said, “like breathing.”

“Shadow Work” is available on all streaming services, and updates from Chi TheRealist can be found on his social media.

Sarah Killip is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback about this article can be sent [email protected].
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