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Irish hip hop: 'For many years doing what we’re doing was stigmatised and laughed at'

We speak to two artists due to play at Body and Soul this month.

HIP HOP HAS always reflected the society it’s created in. Emerging as an underground genre in black neighbourhoods in New York in the 1970s, it was born at a time when racial unrest was high, and NYC was poor and in debt. It was able to reflect the issues on the minds of those penning the raps, and capture a picture of a part of society that might have been given a voice elsewhere.

Fast forward to today, and the music begun in underprivileged areas of the Bronx is now a multi-billion dollar business. Though it is the type of music that is created by platinum artists like Jay Z or Drake, its appeal hasn’t moved from one class to another – instead, it’s still music made by people who might be in any part of society.

Here in Ireland, our hip hop scene might not always have been big, but it has been strong. Strong in the sense that those who rap and make hip hop and its neighbour RnB have always believed deeply in the music they create. Strong in the sense that what the creators rap and sing about has always had meaning.

In the past few years, Irish hip hop also become the musical genre that perhaps most accurately reflects the changing face of Irish society. For many of those now making such music here are part of a new generation whose parents or grandparents were not born here, but who made Ireland their home. Hip hop in Ireland is a multicultural pursuit.  

As Dean Van Nguyen wrote in his profile for Pitchfork – Meet the Irish immigrants who are legitimising Ireland’s rap scene – in 2016:

A generation of African-born, Ireland-raised rappers are using beats and rhymes to combat their adopted country’s entrenched racism and expand what it means to be Irish. 

‘It’s still growing’

The festival circuit is a good chance to assess the health of Ireland’s hip hop scene, and this summer one opportunity will be the Friday night of Midnight Circus, presented by Hennessy at the Body & Soul festival this month. At the event, curated by Adam Fogarty – aka Mathman from Mango and Mathman – Irish acts rub shoulders with international artists. 

So we’ll see Manchester’s IAMDDB; rapper and BBC Sound 2019 winner Octavian; multi-award winning South London female rapper Miss Banks; and Ireland’s own MangoXMathman alongside West Belfast trio KNEECAP.

“Lot of acts have come through in the last few years,” says Adam Fogarty, who’s been active in Ireland’s hip hop scene for two decades.

“I wanted to put a line up together that would surprise people.”

He says the infrastructure here still needs to strengthen up to bring Irish artists to the next level. “In the next three – five years the urban music will be one of the strongest in the country,” he says. “I know that because I’ve worked in this scene and made music in the scene for so long. Ireland has a really rich history with hip hop and music it hasn’t crossed over into the mainstream, it’s been quite underground and in many cases the fringes.”

He says that in the last two to three years there’s been a new sense of pride among Irish hip hop artists. “There’s more great music being made here than ever before and more artists writing and creating within these genres than ever before.”

“Sure half the people don’t know what we are saying…”

There’s long been a sense of the absurd or satirical in the hip hop world, such as the surreal explorations of Dr Octagon, the stoner stylings of Afroman or the confrontational approach of Odd Future. 

One Irish act that’s mining from this well but doing its own thing is Kneecap, a Northern-Irish based duo who rap in Irish. They’re not a ‘Political’ with a capital P band. But they’re political in the sense that their experiences in the North – from the everyday to the cultural – are reflected in their work.

 The pair’s first single, C.E.A.R.T.A, nodded towards the contentious Irish Language Act, and they’ve already fallen foul of the BBC and the DUP.

Member Moglaí Bap tells TheJournal.ie that they’re simply “a hip hop group from west Belfast”. “Very fluid – I think that’s the way hip hop is at the moment,” he says of their approach. “Sure half the people don’t know what we are saying in one way.”

The pair “just happen to speak Irish together”. It’s his first language (his real name is an Irish name) and when he and bandmate DJ Provaí became friends they naturally started speaking as Gaeilge to each other. 

“We go between languages speaking Irish and English – you are between two cultures,” he says of their situation. “There are hundreds of cultures around Ireland… it’s a lot more fluid and that’s who we look at with our identities. We’re not identified by our language anymore.”

It’s natural for them to rap in Irish, they’re not doing it “to make a point or anything”, he assures. 

“We are made for telling stories in Ireland so we like to keep that tradition and incorporate it,” he says. He played a lot of trad growing up, but only started making hip hop himself in 2017. “It just all started then,” he says. “We thought we’ll keep on going… For the craic.”

The group were slammed by the DUP after they performed on the same stage Prince Charles had been on the night before, and chanted ‘Fuck RTÉ’ and ‘Get the Brits out now’. Móglaí Bap says “that was a proud moment”, but overall they have had a great response to their music.

“The reaction has been pretty positive – the best thing about it at the start was people just read the headlines and saw ‘Irish language hip hop’ and all politicians and local artists and community organisations were sharing our stuff because they saw that,” says Bap. But it turns out as not everyone could understand what they were saying, some of their more risqué lyrics slipped through. 

Their music isn’t aimed at gaeilgeoirs, and they don’t mind if people don’t understand it. “Most people at our gigs don’t even speak Irish,” he says. And their aim is not for people to feel guilty about that. 

“I think we have the opportunity to give a voice to a new generation of Irish speakers,” adds Móglaí Bap. ”We don’t really think about it and we just do it and we don’t think too much about the impact it’ll have… if people enjoy and get something out of it, happy days.”

“Most [feedback] is pretty positive even though people don’t get everything that we’re talking about,” he says. “They all trust us.”

We get some bad press. Get people saying we glorify drugs. I think it’s the same as… I’m not gonna start doing heroin after watching Trainspotting.

He enjoys the fact the band “link the north with the south a bit more”, showing people across the country that Dublin isn’t the be-all- and end-all for music.

“I think a lot of bands down south, their popularity or music never goes across the border. A lot of the big bands across Belfast might not be big outside but we transcend that with the language. We’ve got a fanbase in Belfast and Dublin. It’s nice to link those two cities. It’s also mad craic.”

What also helps is the cost of living in Belfast is so low that they don’t have full time jobs outside of music. “Belfast is far cheaper than living in Dublin. If you live in Dublin you have no choice. I would recommend to any artist move to Belfast,” says Móglaí. Their rent is an average of €125 each a month, allowing them to do pretty much everything themselves – from recording to social media. 

?????????????????????????????????? Mathman/Adam Fogarty

‘The young people have something to say’

Curator of the Magical Circus stage Adam Fogarty has long had an eye on the Irish rap scene.

“I’ve been involved in the urban music scene in Ireland a long time now,” says Fogarty. “I’ve watched the scene grow from a place that was on the fringes in terms of people’s acceptance for that type of music being made in Ireland to music that’s being widely celebrated by the public.” 

He says there are “many different factors driving the momentum of the urban music scene in Ireland right now”.

“It’s the young people in Ireland, it’s the fact we all have something to say,” says Fogarty.

I feel Irish people now feel more empowered than ever before, comfortable in themselves and owning Irish identity and being Irish people. The age-old saying of being great storytellers – rap and hip hop is one of the greatest music vehicles for people to tell their stories.

He’s watched – and listened as the sound of Irish hip hop has also evolved. “When I originally started making this music there was only one particular sound that predominated in Irish hip hop – traditional boom bap sounds. Now it’s so exciting. We can walk the spectrum - Afrobeat, drill, trap, grime, crossover or urban.”

“The full gamut of urban music is now being created and performed here in Ireland, so it’s these young people and young artists that are coming through now saying ‘I identify with this music’,” says Fogarty. 

Though the sound has evolved, there’s still need for supports to help musicians evolve and improve. Fogarty says he’d like if the music infrastructure here was a little bit better. In contrast to Belfast, having a full-time music career in Dublin can be very difficult.

“Ireland is a small country and to have a career in music here alone is really hard,” he says. 

“I have two full-time jobs: my day job which I make my bread and butter with, and I have my second full time job. I spend equal time working on both,” he says. “It’s a really tough one because everybody’s circumstances are different and what I need now in my career is really different to what someone starting out needs.”

But all that said, it is cheaper now to start making music. “25 years ago when I was making music I couldn’t even think about the cost of what it was to make beats or music. Now the whole game is flattened with the cost to get started up,” says Fogarty.

“If you have the drive and the ability to do this you can go ahead and do it.”

He says he and Mango are proud of where they’re from, and this is reflected in their sound and lyrics. There are no faux-American accents here. “For many years doing what we’re doing was stigmatised and it was pushed to the edges and it was laughed at. And we went through all of that and how hard it was to get a gig,” says Fogarty.

“If someone asked me what I did and I said rap music in Ireland or Mango said ‘I rap in a Dublin accent’… [there wasn't a good reaction] and now it’s a case where it’s being celebrated.”

“We are now on the opposite side of it where people see what we’re doing and they believe and they want to get behind it. There’s ownership in being who you are.

That’s why people connect with it: because we are just being ourselves.

Hennessy and Body & Soul presents the Midnight Circus stage on the festival’s Friday night which sees Mathman craft a line-up of Irish and international hip hop acts. Ireland’s Jafaris will perform as will IAMDDB, Octavian, Miss Banks, MangoXMathman, and KNEECAP. Body and Soul takes place from 21 – 23 June. Weekend tickets for Body & Soul are on sale via Ticketbooth on www.bodyandsoul.ie.  

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