Irish Rap Had to Get Brutally Honest to Make Its Mark
A new generation of largely Dublin rappers is taking aim at political inequalities and the stereotypes holding their scene back.
Karl Mangan – the rapper Mango Dassle – with his grandad Gerry in the house they share on the outskirts of Dublin. They had just watched Mangan perform on national TV
In the narrow side room of a disused warehouse on the north side of Dublin, a young crowd is packed at the front of the stage, arms swinging in the air, as a ginger-haired, bespeckled rapper, seemingly named after a tropical fruit, riffs about the hypocrisy of the Catholic church to the refrain of “Lord Hear Us”.
“This is like modern Irish poetry,” the host MC breathes into the mic before heralding Emmet Kirwan and Mango Dassle as two of “the most bleedin’ deadly, bleedin’ whopper rappers you’ll ever bleedin’ see”. After Kirwan's spoken-word attack on the country’s abortion ban has people pounding the walls in support, Mango follows with equally sharp jabs at the state of affairs in Ireland since the bubble burst. A one-liner on his track “Bread & Butter” delivers a deliciously below-the-belt insult that doubles as a fierce deriding of the reproductive rights denied to Irish women: “Your ma only had you ’cause she had to.”
Outside, among a constellation of freshly lit cigarettes, Kirwan tells me that a decade ago the Irish rap scene was a lot of posturing, but “now it’s so political”. He puts that down to a simple motivation: rage. Young people feel sold out by their government after coming of age in a recession that gutted their future. Now they’re faced with growing inequality and a housing crisis.
Mango Dassle – real name Karl Mangan – raps in a growling Dublin accent. “I don’t think we had confidence in ourselves, but newer generations, they don’t give a fuck,” he tells me. “I live here, I should be proud of it.” At 27, he remembers the waves of people leaving during the bust. “There was no one left. The clubs were closing down. There was no money.”
Mangan started rapping in school and by the time he was 20, while working in construction fixing bus shelters, had joined a group called the Animators. In the last few years he has carved out a niche for himself in the Irish rap scene, recently performing on the same bill as US R&B legends TLC, along with his collaborator MathMan. He lives with his 90-year-old grandad, Gerry, in an estate in Finglas, on the outskirts of Dublin. In a living room packed with family portraits, Gerry sits with oversized earphones clamped over his grey hair, ensconced in a brown leather lazy boy. “He’s a G,” Mangan nods to the old man. Gerry had just watched his grandson on national TV performing an orchestra-backed ode to hip-hop at the biggest festival in the country.
Down from the house, a white stretch Hummer drives past the industrial estates and fields near the high-rise flats – giddy teens headed to a school dance. Mangan wants to represent the real Dublin, rather than posing on street corners or in flash cars. He wants people to see him on the bus he still takes to his day job or in the sacred local institutions: the chip shop, the bookies and the barbers.
“My ma got me into Tupac,” he says. “She fancied the arse off him.” She would drop him to school blasting rap and his friends would ask “who the fuck is that?” in the car. He concedes that he was often given a hard time for being the white lad listening to rap, back when people called Irish footballer Paul McGrath “the Black Pearl”. “There was a racial undertone: oh, you like that black music?” he says. But he always felt a connection with the political messages in rap. Ice Cube’s “Alive on Arrival” made him think of the internment of political prisoners in Northern Ireland. He parallels rap artists with Irish literary greats such as James Joyce, who challenged what was socially acceptable. “‘Come Out Ye Black and Tans’ is ‘Fuck tha Police’,” he says of the Wolfe Tones’ famous republican anthem. “It makes absolute sense we would do this.”
Back in the 1990s, a whole generation of pasty Irish kids, raised on MTV videos, skating and Grand Theft Auto, sported baggy trousers and baseball caps. “Gangsta rap was San Andreas,” Mangan laughs. “There was not a young fella out in the streets.” People were too busy inside playing video games, imitating American rappers. But he is dedicated to respecting the origins of rap and not appropriating or stereotyping a culture. “I’m not going to be throwing out gang signs and putting up fake patois. Salute what comes before you. I want to make a new branch on that tree.” But Ireland, he says, still has a “weird issue with rap”. While some radio stations remove rap sections from songs as if an Irish audience couldn’t stomach it, DJs such as Mo K have tirelessly supported homegrown rap talent.
But as rap becomes commercially successful in Ireland, Karen Miano, an Irish-Kenyan member of Blackfish Collective, stresses the importance of not treating black Irish artists as a novelty in an industry where they are still largely unrepresented at a higher level, especially if homegrown artists are going to stay in Ireland and grow rather than looking abroad. “People who run shit, write in magazines, work in radio – we need more diversity,” she says. “The younger generation needs to start coming up.”
Black Jam, a Dublin event run by Fried Plantains Collective in September, which Miano helped organise, celebrated the “roots of Africa” in all “its punk, funk and grunge deadliness” – an inclusive space for all, “whether you’re brown, white, punk or into trap”. On the bill was 24-year-old Maimouna Salif, stage name Celaviedmai, an Irish-born MC whose mother is Ivorian. She moulded her explicit and self-assured brand of rap growing up in Dublin and Galway. Her parents played her Lil’ Kim, her biggest inspiration, though she swears she was a shy kid. “Music was a way for me to express my feelings,” she says. Now, few MCs in Ireland are as bold.
“Stop playing games, come suck on the clit,” she raps on “Lights On”, set to the Modjo house track “Lady”, her riff a blunt retort to a man swooning, “I feel love for the first time.” She told me she aims “to show females not to be scared to express how they feel, whether that be in the most vulgar way or the most clean way”. Radio stations have shied away from playing her music or told her to tone it down, but her recent EP, Vibes, shows she remains uncensored. “Just being a young black woman performing in Ireland can be political in some sense, especially with some of my lyrics,” she says.
“A lot of artists are doing big things and putting Ireland on the map. What’s frustrating is that rap isn’t taken seriously by some people, and a lot of people get laughed at for being a rapper in Ireland.”
She hopes to be an inspiration to women who want to get into rap. “The mindset is changing,” she says. “The future of rap in Ireland is looking bright.”
From Dublin’s East Wall, a gritty neighbourhood on the edge of the city’s new tech hub, Ophelia McCabe, 40, has been performing rap since starting at open mic nights in the early 00s. While browsing through a music store in the city centre, unassuming and smiling, she asks a stranger to give her a beat on the drums and launches into a volley of candid verses. Public Enemy were her crossover: from being a metal fan, decorating her bedroom with rave flyers, to listening to LL Cool J tapes sent from the States by a friend of her mother’s. She calls out recent insinuations that black Irish artists are somehow “legitimising” rap in Ireland as divisive and racist, undermining the inclusivity she has found in the scene. She has long appreciated rap “as a form of protest” which offers a space for people to express themselves, especially those who are marginalised.
As a teacher with community music initiatives in Cork, she has watched kids learn how to be true to themselves through rap. “It’s about honesty, and honesty is political,” she says. But when she raps, as a woman, she finds people are often more concerned with her sexuality and gender. “Like, I’m aggressive and political because I have a vagina?” She throws up her hands. In the past she was accused of being “homophobic to [herself]” for somehow not representing “the gay facet of Irish hip-hop”.
Rap for McCabe is about overcoming adversity, particularly social inequalities, but still she “can’t eat music,” she points out. In Ireland, it’s tough to get paid enough, and as a rapper, people often fail to respect her as a professional, even though she has studied every aspect of her art and is currently completing a masters in music performance. “I’m a total nerd, I’m a musician,” she says. Still, she cherishes the cottage industry in Ireland, which produces a diverse range of talent in a surprisingly inclusive environment. Ten years ago she was being invited to play at “trad gigs, metal gigs, queer gigs”, even a cabaret where someone wearing a “fake mickey [penis]” played guitar, which all helped her experiment with her own work.
At only 19 years old, Jean-Luc Uddoh, a.k.a JyellowL, is on the crest of a wave of young artists in Ireland with an increasingly political bent. His work interrogates everything from the migrant crisis to racism and police brutality. Born in Nigeria, at 14 he came to live with his mother in Dublin and soon picked up the local slang and colloquialisms.
Uddoh started rapping professionally two years ago and considers himself very much an Irish artist, though here he says racism seemed “amplified” for him at first because for a long time the country was so homogeneous. “I don’t think there’s any black person that hasn’t experienced racism in this part of the world,” he says. But he sees the increasing diversity in Ireland making the country more open-minded.
“A few years ago, if you asked someone to listen to a song from an Irish rapper, expectations would be really low,” he says. People would tell him: “If you want to go far, buddy, you have to leave the country.” But he is part of a generation of artists growing up here post-recession who are determined to make Ireland a destination for music and art, rather than having to go abroad to say they have made it. “If you make enough noise in Ireland,” he says, “everyone starts turning their heads.”
Caelainn Hogan is a freelance writer, who's never in one place for too long. You can find her on Twitter.
This article was amended on 3 August 2018, to reflect the correct spelling of Emmet Kirwan's surname. Noisey regrets the error