Kneecap: ‘DUP should thank us for keeping them relevant’ - Belfast Irish language hip-hop trio on courting controversy en route to release of debut album Fine Art

In the second part of his interview with Kneecap, David Roy chats to them about making headlines, blurring the line between fantasy and reality, and why they definitely aren’t sectarian - despite what some politicians might tell you

West Belfast rap trio Kneecap pose with a red 1980 Mazda 626
Kneecap being Kneecap with a classic Mazda 626. Picture: Peadar Gill

FAST-rising Irish language hip hop trio Kneecap’s profile has never been bigger as they prepare to release their debut album, Fine Art – and they have local politicians to thank for helping to keep them in the public consciousness.

The band have received stringent ‘condemnation’ for mischievous stunts like unveiling street murals featuring the slogan ‘England Get Out of Ireland’ and an image of a burning police Land Rover, designing provocative gig posters featuring Arlene Foster and Boris Johnson tied to a rocket for their Farewell To The Union tour, not to mention penning the satirical tune Get Your Brits Out – a drug-fuelled fantasy about a mad night out in the dubious company of high-profile PUL personalities.

The poster for Kneecap's 2019 'Farewell to the Union' Tour.
The poster for Kneecap's 2019 'Farewell to the Union' Tour.

“Everything we do is calculated, even though it looks chaotic to people who don’t know what we’re about,” explains Móglaí Bap.

“We knew we were going to get weeks of publicity out of that mural from the politicians and mainstream media in the north. Literally every political party either defended it or came out against it.

“They basically did their own PR campaign for us.”

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Hip-hop band Kneecap with their controversial mural. Picture from Kneecap Twitter.
Hip-hop band Kneecap with their controversial mural. Picture from Kneecap Twitter.
Kneecap unveiled a new mural in Hawthorn Street in west Belfast ahead of their Feile an Phobail concert earlier this year. Picture Mal McCann
Kneecap with their mural in Hawthorn Street. Picture: Mal McCann

Kneecap have been savvy enough to take full advantage of the fact that some of their most vocal vote-canvassing critics are just as hungry for time in the media spotlight as they are – if not more so.

“The politicians also feed off us too,” he confirms.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship – they get their 10 minutes on the news or get their quotes in the paper. They actually have to thank us for keeping them relevant, I think.”

Mo Chara goes further in pointing out the superficiality of some condemnation that has come their way from the DUP and other political players.

“Politicians just want to be ‘outraged’ constantly and make outlandish statements that will make it into the paper and the headlines,” he argues.

“They don’t really want to engage properly. The likes of Naomi Long coming out and saying that we breed sectarian hatred because of that mural – putting that on a band is kind of really dismissing how sectarianism was established here, its violent history and how it’s orchestrated from the top down.”

Of the DUP, he says: “I think the DUP do a big disservice to working-class Protestants in the Shankill and other areas – my understanding of the DUP would be that they don’t really care about the wellbeing of those people.

“But hopefully with the shared government back at Stormont, things will change and move on.”

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As for the subject of their supposed sectarianism, Mo Chara offers: “We’ve been to Sandy Row on the Twelfth of July and Protestants have come to our gigs in the Falls Park with Jun Tzu [the Rathcoole-bred Belfast rapper].

“The people we talk to on the ground don’t give a f*** about any of that, they definitely don’t think we’re sectarian.”

Kneecap in action in Boston
Kneecap in action in Boston

Kneecap address the love/hate relationship with their critics and ‘controversial’ status on Fine Art’s title track, which features a snippet of them being discussed on the Stephen Nolan show along with the defiant refrain “you can love us or hate us, won’t affect a bit of our wages”.

Due out on June 14, the Toddla T produced album is a nailed-on Irish chart-topper, with huge potential to infiltrate the upper reaches of the UK Top 10. It’s also guaranteed to attract yet more condemnation and column inches thanks to its comically lurid bilingual tales of drug taking, drug dealing and drug debt collection.

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

“For some reason, people seem to want to demonise hip-hop and take the lyrics as fact,” says Mo Chara of the intense scrutiny that’s been directed at Kneecap’s songs and republican beliefs while ignoring the mitigating factors of creative licence, satire and parity of esteem.

“That’s just how people have read hip-hop for a long time, with the likes of gangsta rap and even Jay Z, where a lot of his stuff would be fiction.”

Fine Art’s abundance of glorified criminality and hedonism will inevitably attract more headlines than the tunes depicting the downside of such a lifestyle, like the recent Fontaines DC collaboration Better Way To Live and new tune Way Too Much, a softer more contemplative affair with a clear message that the party can’t last for ever.

“The whole point of satire is that you depict the extreme versions of things to get a reaction,” offers Móglaí Bap.

“We’re rapping about having an ounce of cocaine strapped to our chests, when I’ve never had an ounce of cocaine in my life. But it draws people in and creates a dialogue.

“People here don’t even know how to drink safely for f***’s sake, never mind taking drugs. There’s a lot of avoidable deaths just because people aren’t educated.”

While Kneecap are definitely intelligent, articulate and up for a good media debate, they are also keen to stay focused on a flourishing music career that’s about to kick into high gear this summer with their debut album, appearances at the Glastonbury, Reading, Leeds and Electric Picnic festivals and the release of their award-winning eponymous biopic - set to to screen at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival next month - in which they star alongside Michael Fassbender.

“Through no choice of our own, doing music in Irish in Belfast is political,” Móglaí Bap tells me.

“We accept that, but we don’t want it to turn into a situation where something happens and it’s like ‘let’s ring Kneecap for a quote’. We don’t claim to know the answers to everything.

“At the same time, we’re not going to hide our political beliefs either.”

“There’s meant to be parity of esteem under the Good Friday Agreement,” comments Mo Chara.

“But because we’re rapping about our republican ideals, all of a sudden there’s a big problem and we’re being denied £15k of government funding [from the Music Export Growth Scheme] because we’re anti-United Kingdom.”

Legal proceedings around that matter are ongoing. However, the band aren’t too disappointed to have missed out, as Móglaí Bap explains.

“I’m f***in’ glad we never got that funding – it was perfect PR for us again,” he laughs.

Fine Art will be released on June 14 via Heavenly Recordings, pre-order at Kneecap.ie. Kneecap 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. The Kneecap movie will screen at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on June 9, with its Irish premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh on July 9 followed by a national release in August.