Art as lifesaver: Figuring out Irish identity in mixed hip-hop space

Art Keeps Me Alive is the theme of a music, singing and spoken word gig at the Axis arts centre in Ballymun. Here six artists talk about creativity and their lives

The tormented artist, struggling writer or moody musician is a cliche but what if we flip that trope and instead ask the question whether being creative can actually save your life and whether the act of composing, performing, recording and showing your work can keep you alive.

Art Saved My Life/Art Keeps Me Alive is the theme of a collaborative evening of music, singing and spoken word on Friday, December 2nd, in the Axis arts centre, Ballymun, Dublin. The performances by singer/songwriters, spoken word artists and musicians from the United States and Ireland is the final event in a series celebrating community and creativity at Axis on its 21st birthday.

And a recording will be made of a new piece of work featuring all six artists – Carlos Andrés Gómez, Brent Shuttleworth, Adam Mohamed, GI, Sharyn Ward and Zenaib Elguzouli – at this last of 21 projects held over 2022.

Niamh Ní Chonchubair, the artistic director at Axis, says that Axis is “a community resource centre with an arts centre at its heart”. “Being creative is not about the lightning bolt moment. It is about the daily showing up for yourself, each other and the community. We use creativity to do everything from early years arts in our creche to youth mental health to positive ageing. Axis is nothing without the people who visit us every day and contribute to the richness and depth of our stories,” she says.


We sit chatting in the large ground-floor cafe of this purpose-built arts centre which has a theatre, dance and recording studios and an exhibition space. The skyline is no longer interrupted by the notorious tower blocks which defined this working-class suburb. But life can still be tough and this arts space – described by one local resident as Ballymun’s living room – is a refuge for many.

‘Kind of freedom’

American singer/songwriter Brent Shuttleworth, who is in Dublin for rehearsals this week before the show, says that being creative helps him have a healthy balance in his life. “The connection to art and other people’s art is a kind of freedom that helps save your life. It’s a way to exorcise things, let them go and be fully present,” he explains.

The idea of creativity offering freedom is something that also resonates with Sharyn Ward, a singer/songwriter and proud Irish Traveller woman who lives in Belcamp Lane beside Darndale in north Dublin. Ward is currently the artist-in-residence at Axis.

“I feel very free since I came to Axis. I’ve written 16 songs since I’ve been here. I’ve a room upstairs with nice views of Ballymun. That’s where the magic happens. I feel included, encouraged and supported by non-Travellers. It’s a safe place to be as a Traveller woman,” says Ward.

Ward’s talent was first spotted when RTÉ’s Lucy Kennedy did her show, Living with Lucy, with Irish Traveller actor John Connors. “I was singing at the camp fire and she got her sound crew and recorded me and the producers of Ireland’s Got Talent gave me an audition. I wasn’t that pushed about going on the show because I was sure there would be a backlash and discrimination,” she explains. “But, I did and [although] I didn’t want to be famous – I still don’t – it’s good to have a positive role model to build up confidence in the Traveller community. Life is great at the minute. And I don’t pass heed to the negativity,” says Ward, who sings Irish folk songs unaccompanied and plays the tin whistle.

Colombian-American spoken word poet and author, Carlos Andrés Gómez, who will curate the performances, says that art provided him with the “emotional lexicon for the unsayable”. “When I was 17, I felt lost, depressed, trying to be anyone but myself. I was a tender-hearted, sensitive little boy who grew up in a culture in which I couldn’t be like that,” says Gómez, whose book, Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood, chronicles his personal journey and his view of healthy masculinity.

Gómez, who has led workshops at Axis over the years as part of his international collaborative initiative, Artists Across Borders, has spent this week at Axis rehearsing with all the artists for Friday’s performances. He will also perform his spoken word pieces with music by Shuttleworth from their two records, Opus and Volta.

Working-class boys

Chris Buckley aka GI, who grew up in Finglas, says that Axis – and in particular the Creative Space project – has given many young working-class boys the confidence to go and do what they want. When he was 15, he was MC for HipNos, the Axis show of rappers and sean nos singers and was later chosen to tour with the show in New York where the Axis performers first linked with spoken word artists including Gómez.

Being mentored by Ballymun-based MC Lunatic – the late rapper/hip-hop artist who founded the Working Class Records label – was also crucial for GI who now produces music videos and mentors new performers.

“Axis is the epicentre for young people in Ballymun. These lads would be ridiculed for doing something artistic in a place riddled with crime and poverty. But, in Axis, they can be themselves,” says GI.

“Fortunately, for me, I was able to use this negative environment as inspiration and motivation to create socially conscious music to highlight what working-class people go through on a daily basis. Through music, I have therapeutically dealt with issues of witnessing a murder of a person being shot in the face at 16, losing multiple friends and family to death and becoming immune to multiple gang wars in our area. Music is a healer. When I do music, good things happen for me,” he says.

Adam Mohamed, an Irish-Sudanese poet and musician from Ballymun, is another young man who found his voice through the Creative Space project. “I was always into writing and talking and saying stuff but I just didn’t know what,” he explains. He had his first gig at the Other Worlds Halloween festival in Ballymun in 2016 and four years later, his spoken word short film, Untitled (now on the Junior Cert curriculum), about growing up mixed-race in Dublin, went viral. “It was my opportunity to write my own narrative. Ballymun’s story and my story are linked,” says Mohamed whose spoken word debut has since evolved into hip-hop, songwriting and singing. “My goal is to work with different people and hopefully this project will be the start of that,” says Mohamed.

Career path

Zenaib Elguzouli, a Dublin-born soul/RnB singer-songwriter of part Sudanese heritage, jokes that she has been doing this for 10 years, waiting to be an “overnight success”. “Singing is what I always wanted to do but it’s hard to stay on a career path that doesn’t make much money,” says Elguzouli, who supplements her income by reviewing on television and radio shows.

She says that she has been encouraged by songwriter/producer Joe Clear, who used to work at Axis. “He mentored me and encouraged me to write by saying – hone your craft, turn up every day and put yourself out there often and always,” says Elguzouli.

Songwriting has helped Elguzouli deal with emotions and figure out her mixed-race background and identity as a black woman. “During the whole Black Lives Matter movement, I sat at my piano playing chords, bawling my eyes out, not knowing what I was doing. I ended up releasing my song called Crying in 2022,” she explains. And as part of the promotion for the single, Elguzouli has been photographed by Stephen Kiernan. “He took pictures of me, no make-up on, to show the raw emotion of it,” she explains.

There are high hopes for the recording about to be made with all six artists. “It will have a R&B melody with trad overlayered with the lads rapping and singing,” explains Elguzouli. Mohamed adds, “I’m hoping it will show all our different personalities blended together and that it will spark off something else. Ireland is still figuring out what its musical sound is in the hip-hop space.”

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment