In 2009, when photographer James Forde left Ireland, homegrown music didn't have a lot going for it – a load of landfill indie bands playing over a catastrophic economic downturn that saw thousands of people emigrate. Returning a decade later, James found that things had changed.
Today, in both the north and south, Irish hip-hop in particular is thriving. Belfast's Kneecap and Dublin's Versatile play headline shows in venues which have historically eluded most native acts – let alone rappers – while the likes of Jafaris, Kojaqu and Nuxsense are producing innovative, exciting music that should be as big globally as it is locally.
For the past year, James been documenting Ireland’s hip-hop, breakdancing and graffiti scenes in a photo series titled "Cad an Scéal?" ("What's the story?"). I had a chat with him about the project.
VICE: Irish rappers seem to be a lot more comfortable in their own identity these days. Is that something you've seen?
James Forde: Absolutely. It's definitely a topic of conversation amongst a lot of people. I don't know at what point that happened, but you can take a look at Scary Éire, which a lot of the artists today will reference as the original Irish hip-hop that recognised Irish identity and kind of owned it. Artists have realised there's power in owning their own identity instead of pretending to be someone else.
It's interesting that it's taken hip-hop this long to get a real hold here.
Yeah, I would completely agree. Even this year, having seen numerous artists getting larger followings, selling out shows and getting headline acts and stuff like that – it's only in the last, like, five years. But it's been bubbling away for more than a decade, you know. The only thing I wonder is, how long will it take for the Irish accent to be accepted and normalised across the board, like English hip-hop artists have?
There are second-generation African kids in Ireland getting into hip-hop and exploring what it means to be Irish through their music. What influence has that had on the scene?
I think that's had a big effect on the diversity of the scene. And maybe that was the kind of spark that it needed to ignite it a little bit more. There was obviously lots of talent and lots of artists here before, but maybe the culmination of all of that together is what has brought it more to the forefront.
Let's talk a little bit about the night that some of these photos were taken, at the Wiley Fox in Dublin.
It was probably mid-July last year, and I was only really getting to grips with the project. I'd reached out to Kneecap because I'd stumbled across their stuff online. I went and met with them upstairs before the gig and chatted a little bit. One of the members was filling up bags of "coke", but they weren't even coke – it was just flour to be thrown out to the crowd.
I was blown away. Everyone came to see Kneecap, but there was a support band called IMLE who were really amazing as well. They also perform in Gaelic. When Kneecap came on at around 10PM, the whole place just exploded. The Wiley Fox is a long, rectangular stage area, so there was just people everywhere. It was an amazing atmosphere. I've also noticed that the following of hip-hop in Ireland is the younger generation, so like late teens, stuff like that. I suppose that’s because a lot of the artists are around that age as well.
One of things that’s really intriguing about Kneecap is how they’re promoting the Irish language.
I think that’s why that concert was so interesting and awe inspiring as well, because I'd imagine that about 90 percent of the people at the concert didn’t understand the lyrics, or wouldn’t be able to sing along to them. If you don't speak Gaelic – which most of us don't – it would be difficult to follow along or understand sentence for sentence. But then you have this pride that they've brought out in Irish people that do speak Gaelic, or went to the Gaeltacht [designated Irish-speaking areas], or went to all-Irish schools, but who don't use it in their day-to-day life. Now they go to a Kneecap gig and they wanna speak Irish with their friends.
They’ve been banned from RTÉ radio, and infamously were kicked-off the stage in UCD – do you think people are afraid of them?
I don't know if people are afraid of them. I would imagine, as any artist would say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Whether its negative or positive, it’s good for any upcoming artist.
I suppose, certainly with the song being banned from RTÉ radio, it's just because it's a little too much? I suppose Kneecap are maybe just poking the fire just a little bit too much? That's what it would seem. But I think there’s only a matter of time before that becomes accepted. I mean, look at Versatile. Versatile are poking every fire or flame they can. And they’re doing it well. Like, I met both of them and they're two smart young guys who kind of know what they’re doing, and are aware.
The production value of Irish hip-hop has increased quite a bit in recent years. To what extent has that been important to the success of the artists you've been working with?
I feel that every aspect of the production is important. I mean, if the lyrics didn’t resonate with the fans from the get-go then the beats would most likely fall on deaf ears. However, I do feel that raising the bar when it comes to production value, in terms of having extremely talented young producers who can create world class beats from a computer in their bedroom, and then adding experienced and equipped cinematographers, directors and producers to create sometimes fantasy worlds to match the tone of the song, has allowed many of the artists to broaden their fan base both nationally and internationally.
I mean, if you look at a song like [Anto and Fintan's] "Gerrup Outta That" , it could have been a lot more popular if they had a bigger budget for production or the technological tools that kids are growing up with today... but it's ten years old at this point.
Where do you see the scene going in the future? Do you think Ireland will be recognised alongside the likes of Britain and the US as a legitimate source of hip-hop?
Many of the upcoming artists are speaking about their own personal turmoil and that of the country, whether it be on a serious note or a complete joke. I believe this has resonated hugely with the younger generation as it's given them some control of their own Irish identity and connects them through their frustrations, rather than looking to the US or British artists for some solace.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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