The “Realist” artist in the Roc

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When people hear the name Chi TheRealist spoken and not read, they often assume the moniker is “Realest,” as in, “the most real.” But that’s not the intention at all.

James Boykins (Borrowed Time Photography)

“In high school, we learned the term optimist, pessimist, and realist, right? So, I kind of had this moment where I realized, ‘Oh, that’s me!’” says James Boykins, who raps and writes poetry under the name Chi TheRealist.

The other part of the name refers to Boykins’ origins on a literal and figurative level. His childhood friend who first introduced him to rap at age 14 nicknamed him Young Chi.

“Anyone around me, whenever we first meet, I never let anyone forget that I was from Chicago,” Boykins says. “I was raised here, but I was born in Chicago. My dad always said to take pride in Chicago.”

As he evolved as an artist, expanding from freestyling with improvised “cypher” sessions to writing and recording his own music, Boykins went through a number of name changes. Young Chi didn’t stick.

“There are already too many ‘Young’ rappers,” he says, and Prince Chicago, another naming attempt, felt gaudy.

After he realized his own perspective, Chi TheRealist felt perfect.

“When I started off, I was trying to impress people with punchlines and saying stupid stuff like ‘Oh, my gun’s this big,’” says Boykins, who never actually owned a gun.

“It was all the kind of stuff that I thought rappers did that I wanted to do,” he continues. “When I realized my words have importance, that I had the ability to help people, is when I changed my subject matter and really became myself.”

In the time since the name change, Boykins has grown as an artist. Over the past two years, he released a spate of songs including his first album and has performed at festivals alongside Rochester native Danielle Ponder.

Now, Chi TheRealist is headlining his own show at Essex music hall on University Avenue with fellow local musician Shay Shine. “Shadow Work,” his new EP, is just on the horizon, with “Leonnia” released as the first single.

The song is named after Boykin’s grandmother, an important figure in raising him, who recently passed away. Over a relatively simple beat and electronic melody, a distorted R&B vocal sample repeats throughout the song “I never leave you/I’ll always be there.”

Boykins’ verse itself juggles between external expectations and internal uncertainty in someone who is still reeling from loss.

“I’ve got a team and they believe, but am I selfish cuz I don’t?/They encourage me: ‘keep fighting!’ Am I helpless if I won’t?” raps Boykins. “I’ve been trying not to drink, I’ve been trying not to smoke/cuz I’m afraid I’ll be dependent on a vice to help me cope.”

Of the song, Boykins says: “I try to be as transparent as I can while being private about my emotions. So, this project is allowing me to, musically and personally, give this to the people.”

In general, “Leonnia” is a good example of Chi TheRealist’s approach to music. He sees being honest and open with his own struggles as a way to validate challenges or exorcize the demons of others.

Sometimes the demons Boykins tackles are personal. Other times they are broader, expanding to the entirety of Rochester, a city he loves, but also knows is in trouble.

For example, Chi TheRealist’s freestyle over Joyner Lucas’ “Devils Work 2” deals with the deaths caused by a stampede at Main Street Armory when concertgoers mistakenly heard gunshots. Sermonlike, Boykins rattles through topics, including responses to trauma (“Our people only know how to react out of violence/We all got PTSD and don’t do nothing about it”), the evils of social media (“Social media and killing desensitize us/It changed the meaning of trillin and hypnotized us”), and the restrictive effect of poverty (“Many never left the hood cuz ain’t no vision beyond it/The Caged Bird becomes complacent, only changing its octaves”).

Similarly, “Grassroots” simultaneously grapples with the cycle of violence (“They all tryna get even no one knows the score/You’ll never know who beefing with a carnivore”), expresses self-loathing at apathy (“Imagine hearing gunshots and that shit doesn’t phase you/Just annoyed that someone’s death ruined ya conversation”), and irritation with commercializing a struggle for human rights (“Why we saying ‘We Can’t Breathe’ and turning trauma into Merch?”).

The ability to write from a place of emotional honesty comes from the artist J. Cole, who was an inspiration to Boykins at a young age. Similar to Cole, he felt like a “bedroom writer,” someone who had to work through the process of writing lyrics or poetry solely on his own.

Danielle Ponder and James Boykins

Cole’s introspective and thoughtful approach to songwriting made Boykins feel like the rapper was speaking directly to him, almost like a big brother.

“It feels like it’s something that came from outside of me, went through me, and out the other side to help people who are going through something similar,” Boykins says of his own music.

Creatively, he knows a lot is owed not just to Cole, but also the people in his immediate circle who have supported him on this journey. The friends he competed with pushed him to become a better lyricist; the Roc Bottom Slam Team introduced him to the power of poetry; the sentry at his middle school helped him record his first song; and Ponder gave him a place on her stage at multiple events.

“Before I performed with her, when she was Danielle Ponder and the Tomorrow People, I was just a fan. Now, it feels like she’s my auntie. She hates it whenever I call her that,” laughs Boykins.

Ponder first featured Chi TheRealist at a 2019 Lilac Festival concert where he added a verse to their cover of “New York State of Mind.” That trend continued with Ponder inviting Boykins to share the stage at Juneteenth celebration concerts and the Rochester Jazz Festival.

In fact, performing with Ponder at Essex’s debut concert in October 2023 set Chi TheRealist up for his own concert there this weekend. He calls Shay Shine “an R&B soul songstress” and is thrilled to perform with her as another up-and-coming local musician.

“Since I was opening for her, I was the first voice to come up on their speakers, the first performer to step on stage,” Boykins says. “I’m excited to be able to do it again and hopefully it’s the next in a line of many times.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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