An evening with Kneecap, the political rebels of Irish hip-hop

It’s not even 8:30 p.m. on a Monday night, and already a good quarter of the audience of around 200 people crammed into the converted courtyard that is Bardot’s stage for the weekly School Night concert series are bouncing around, drenched in sweat as if c It was an all-night warehouse rave.

“CEARTA,” they all shout in unison, spelling out the Irish word for “rights” and joining in the backing vocals to Irish rap trio Kneecap’s 2017 hit of the same name. But while their energy remains, the rest of the chorus is a little harder to sing for some. “Duidín lásta, tá mise ró-ghasta / Ní fheicfidh tú mise i mo sheasamh ró-fhada” does not come out of the language so easily.

Although the band speak fluent English, around 90% of their lyrics are in their native Irish, a language that was on the verge of obscurity before policy changes in the 2000s that led to Irish language schools. in pockets of the region and it officially recognized as a minority language. On Wednesday, Irish received its latest boost in the political world when the UK launched a bill to officially make it an official language in Northern Ireland – a move its supporters say has been long overdue. long time.

Móglaí Bap and Mo Chara know their lyrics could reach a wider audience outside their Belfast home if they switch to English, but that doesn’t mean they plan to change their ways anytime soon.

Mo Chara, left to right, DJ Próvaí and Móglaí Bap. The band made their first trip to Los Angeles and didn’t waste a second on stage at School Night.

(Annie Noelker / For the Time)

Three band members cross a Hollywood street.

Kneecap ate at Shake Shack before performing at Bardot.

(Annie Noelker / For the Time)

“We all speak together every day Irish, not English,” says Mo Chara upon discovering Shake Shack for the first time on Hollywood Boulevard. “It’s natural for us to rap in Irish, but we mix languages ​​because we live in a place where both languages ​​are used together. It’s like Spanish and English here. We always say that just means we have twice as many rhymes as anyone rapping in one language.

“And we have twice as many ways to insult people,” adds Móglaí Bap.

While artists like BTS from South Korea and Anitta from Brazil have paved the way for mainstream musical success outside of English and Spanish, the two young rappers and DJ Próvaí in balaclavas (all members use pseudonyms to remain anonymous) aren’t exactly looking for a musical superstar. Rather than selling out stadiums and tearing up the main Coachella stage, Kneecap is focusing on the message of their movement: a unified Ireland without British involvement.

Without diving too far down the rabbit hole of Irish politics, Kneecap’s desires are relatively in line with Irish republicanism (not to be confused with American republicans). Overall, their attitude and messages are much closer to the generation of Irish children who can find humor and cultural significance in the region’s violent history, as opposed to their parents and grandparents. who lived through the turbulence.

“We come from a place with a lot of serious stories, trauma and PTSD over the last 30 to 40 years,” says Móglaí Bap. “So we are political, but it is very ironic. We wanted to take the seriousness and the sting out of it and incorporate elements of life that we enjoy as young people – like partying and taking class A drugs. We’re political, but it’s not like a political party . We are political with small p.

Three men pose in the streets of LA

Without diving too far down the rabbit hole of Irish politics, Kneecap’s desires are relatively in line with Irish republicanism (not to be confused with American republicans).

(Annie Noelker / For the Time)

A room with a black and white marquee.

Sound check at Bardot.

(Annie Noelker / For the Time)

“When we were growing up, there was still a lot of bigotry,” adds DJ Próvaí. “When people look at history, it was the British state that started all the bigotry, and it really wasn’t like that before 1969. People all lived on the same streets, and they got along with each other – and then the Brits decided to come in and start shooting people and blaming each other and creating this sectarian divide, so we’re doing what we can to bridge that gap between the communities because we have more in common with working-class people from all walks of life than with someone sitting there in a big, fancy house.

Between bites of their Shake Shack burgers and explaining Irish politics two hours before their set at Hollywood’s Bardot, the trio is full of jokes far too inappropriate to print and questions about California, especially In- N-Out. It’s their first time in the state, and after a disappointing Sunday night at an Irish pub that didn’t live up to their expectations and a cloudy Monday morning spent by the pool at their hotel in Culver City, they want to see everything Los Angeles has to offer.

After all, they are only in town for a few days on their trip to the United States, which has been organized as part of a showcase by the Irish government to spread Irish music beyond its regional borders. But as their millions of YouTube views and tens of thousands of social media followers show, Kneecap’s music is already reaching disaffected young people well outside Ireland.

Perusing Amoeba Music after dinner, they immediately gravitate towards the rap section, spotting Jay-Z albums from an aisle further. Musically, comparisons to the Beastie Boys are understandable, as Kneecap incorporates a rebellious energy that channels Belfast’s 40-year punk rock history more than any modern hip-hop. When Kneecap falls into the sinister breakdown of “HOOD” — which features a strong punk vibe and more English lyrics than many of their tracks — and repeats, “It’s gonna be a bloodbath,” it sounds just as menacing to parents. overprotective that rappers always have. Their balance of anti-establishment lyrics, explosive delivery, graphic humor and relentless charm recalls Eminem’s early days.

Three men are sitting in front of a black wall with a diamond pattern.

(Annie Noelker / For the Time)

Three men sift through the files.

Musically, comparisons to the Beastie Boys are understandable, as Kneecap incorporates a rebellious energy that channels Belfast’s 40-year punk rock history more than any modern hip-hop.

(Annie Noelker / For the Time)

And just like Marshall Mathers, Kneecap found objections from nearly every political party in their region – the Democratic Unionist Party came out against them after they launched chants of “Get the Brits out now” at a a show the day after Prince William and Kate Middleton stopped at the same pub; RTÉ (the national television and radio company of Ireland) has banned the broadcast of “CEARTA” on its Irish-language channel; and many politicians initially shared and supported the 2017 single for bringing the language to a new generation and a new genre of music before backtracking upon learning that the song contained drug-filled anti-cop lyrics .

“When we released our first song, everyone thought it was some kind of cool hip-hop that had all the right things, and we sat around the fireplace, dancing and doing jigs,” Móglaí Bap says. . “It kind of worked in our favor when people shared it without listening to it. Nobody did what we did before us, so people listened to what we were saying, and they didn’t like it. Not only people outside of our community, but people within our community disagree with us in some ways. But for us, it was just a bonus that those people didn’t like us. .

“We ruffled some feathers, but I think in our three books, we didn’t ruffle enough feathers,” adds Mo Chara. “The higher the person who speaks out against you, the better the PR for you. So whenever one of the political parties or whatever was to condemn us or when we were banned from somewhere, it was like a golden PR coin. If you’re a band and you don’t ruffle the feathers, you’re doing something wrong.

During their half-hour set Monday night, Kneecap won over fans young and old. Those who stood up and nodded when they played “CEARTA” at the start were the same ones who waved their fists and chanted “Your sniffer dogs are shit” for the titular chorus of another fan-favorite song. While it might not be the same four-figure crowds and festival stages they play across the Atlantic, their first performance in Los Angeles made it clear that at least parts of the message and of Kneecap’s energy are universal.

“Dogs shouldn’t have jobs,” Mo Chara said from the stage. “No dog wants to be a cop.”

A man wearing a knitted cap poses and a shirtless man performs in side-by-side photographs.

DJ Próvaí, left, and Móglaí Bap in a double exposure photo.

(Annie Noelker / For the Time)

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