Kneecap: ‘It’s easy for middle class people to tell us to boycott festivals’ - Belfast Irish language hip-hop trio on balancing principles with profits as they prepare to release debut album Fine Art

This week, Noise Annoys presents the first instalment of a special two-part interview with the most famous and controversial band in Belfast, Kneecap, the Irish language hip-hop trio whose debut album, Fine Art, comes out next month in advance of appearances at Glastonbury and Electric Picnic and the release of their eponymous award-winning biopic starring Michael Fassbender...

A photo of Kneecap doing their messages, which include Tunnock's Tea Cakes and Windowlene
Kneecap doing their messages. PICTURE: Sarah Ellis

THIS summer belongs to Kneecap: the Belfast-based Irish-language hip hop trio – MCs Móglaí Bap and Mo Chara, and the balaclava-clad DJ Próvaí – will release their hugely anticipated debut album, Fine Art, at the start of June, followed by a pair of high-profile performances at the Glastonbury Festival.

July and August will see them playing more major music festivals like Reading, Leeds and Electric Picnic, plus the release of their eponymous fictionalised biopic featuring Michael Fassbender, which secured worldwide distribution deals with the likes of Sony Pictures Classics when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the NEXT Audience Award.

Kneecap at Sundance
Kneecap brought a taste of the north to the Sundance Film Festival in January

The film will have its Irish premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh on July 9 before going on general release in August, but has already attracted controversy well out of proportion with the number of people who have actually seen it.

Since forming in 2017, Kneecap themselves have made almost as many local news headlines as live headline appearances, thanks to their bi-lingual lyrics about drink and drugs-fuelled debauchery and a knack/penchant for sending the DUP and other PUL mouthpieces into hysterics with virtually everything they do – but especially their deliberately provocative gig posters and ‘inflammatory’ murals on the walls of west Belfast.

West Belfast rap band Kneecap. Picture by Mal McCann
West Belfast rap band Kneecap. Picture by Mal McCann
Hip-hop band Kneecap with their controversial mural. Picture from Kneecap Twitter.
Kneecap with their controversial mural. Picture from Kneecap Twitter.

The trio achieved next-level notoriety earlier this year when the British government essentially labelled Kneecap as enemies of the state by denying them access to the Music Export Growth Scheme for touring UK-based artists on the basis of their political stance (legal proceedings are currently ongoing).

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Now comes Fine Art, the Toddla T-produced first fruit of their deal with Heavenly Recordings: this debut album has a lot to live up to, but actually exceeds expectation by broadening the band’s musical horizons – they sample both Celtic-fusion fiddler Joe O’Donnell and proto-rave outfit 808 State – and stepping up trio’s Irish language-based lyrics detailing grimy substance abuse-fuelled urban fantasies laced with the unmistakable tang of true lived experience.

The cover of Kneecap's Fine Art
Fine Art will be released next month

It’s a concept album which transports listeners to a fictional character/characters-packed Belfast pub called The Rutz, where the session never ends and all manner of craic, s***e-talking and bad behaviour is happening from doors open to last orders.

“T said to us, ‘I don’t mind if you just want to do 12 tunes or whatever, but I’d much prefer to do a cohesive concept album’,” explains Móglaí Bap of the album designed to introduce a new global audience to the Kneecap idiom.

“So, we basically scrapped two years of tunes and started fresh. We banged 70 per cent of the album out in three weeks, because T is ADHD as f*** and has a really infectious energy.”

Fine Art ducks in and out of The Rutz via dialogue-based interludes interspersed with tunes which detail Kneecap’s story thus far: they address the perils and perks of growing fame, popularity and success on key numbers like the pumping title tune and similarly manic Sick in The Head, and detail the cross-community joys of getting out of your head on the chiptune-tinged Parful, which samples music and dialogue from classic ‘lost’ 1990s NI rave documentary Dancing on Narrow Ground.

The trio indulge in controversy-baiting, fantasy-based excursions into drug debt enforcement with the banging, 808 State-sampling Ibh Fiacha Linne, subvert the trad/Irish language scenes on the flute-laced Drug Dealin’ Pagans and share incriminating details of robbing industrial quantities of horse tranquillizer from the local vets (and the messy aftermath of its ingestion) on Rhino Ket, while I’m Flush extols the dubious delights of dealing/doing copious amounts of cocaine.

There’s even a wee love song – albeit done in a typically raw and ribald Kneecap style – in current single, Love Making, plus their recent genre-blurring collaboration with Fontaines DC which explores the darker side of hedonism – a subject also explored on the climactic and cautionary album closer Way Too Much.

The band will soon be taking The Rutz experience on tour to mark the launch of their debut album.

“They’re calling them ‘pub activations’,” says Mo Chara of the upcoming events which will see Kneecap occupying various hostelries in the name of Fine Art.

“We’ll be having some Kneecap drinks and selling vinyl. We’ll have the album playing and all the graphics and the videos will be on the TVs. We’ll be doing that in London, Belfast and Dublin – and maybe New York as well.”

Kneecap in action in Boston
Kneecap in action in Boston

The band have already made several successful incursions into the USA and will be back over there this September.

However, they were among the group of Irish acts who pulled out of the 2024 South By South-West (SXSW) music festival in Texas over its sponsorship by the US Army and other defence contractors with links to Israel.

Kneecap have consistently been outspoken about Gaza, but the pro-Palestinian act admit that there are myriad links between the music world and Israel to be wary of.

“It’s a big conversation we’ve been having,” says Mo Chara.

“Live Nation who run most festivals are related to [Irish promoters] MCD, and they’re all in conjunction with Barclays [which deals with major weapons manufacturers] and Coca-Cola [criticised for its factory in the occupied West Bank].

“Obviously, we can’t de-platform ourselves by boycotting everything, and the summer festivals are our main income.

“So it is very tricky. We definitely have to pick which products and which companies we’re going to boycott, with advice from BDS [the Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement].”

“It’s easy for middle class people with a steady nine-to-five income to write online that we should be boycotting stuff,” comments Móglaí Bap, who along with his bandmates, is due to perform at the Live Nation-backed Great Escape Festival in Brighton tonight.

“But this is our work. Obviously, we pulled out of SXSW because it was literally sponsored by the American army, but we’re not f***in’ ridiculous either.

“I’m not going to pull out of a festival because they’re selling Coca-Cola at it.”

“A lot of unfair pressure is being put on artists instead of focusing on getting the festivals to divest from these banks,” argues Mo Chara.

“We’re not the ones investing in Barclays.”

DJ Próvaí suggests that it’s actually better for Kneecap to use high profile public appearances to spread awareness of the situation in Gaza – as they did during their recent turn on RTÉ's Late Late Show.

“We’re able to use these gigs to highlight what’s happening over there and direct people to our social media platforms, where they can see what we and other people are doing with the BDS Movement,” says the Derry man.

He has a point, especially given the lack of outcry from our political class, the same folks so quick to condemn Kneecap.

“The silence from politicians here over Gaza is embarrassing,” says Móglaí Bap.

“You don’t want to be on the wrong side of history when your kids or grandkids are asking you about the genocide that was happening, and why the f*** no-one did anything.”

PART TWO: Read about why Kneecap reject accusations of sectarianism, how they’re happy to let the DUP provide them with regular publicity boosts and why they are taking the British government to court in part two of this interview by clicking here.
Fine Art will be released on June 14 via Heavenly Recordings, pre-order at Kneecap.ie. The band play Galway Arts Festival on July 18, Summer Sessions in Letterkenny on August 15, Electric Picnic on August 17 and Vicar Street in Dublin on October 29, 30 and 31.