When Jamie Forde was invited to The Late Late Toy Show in 2021, he was told he would be performing with host Ryan Tubridy. On the night, the young Cork rap artist, who goes by the stage name The King, learned he and Tubs would be joining in on a version of Ed Sheeran’s Leave Your Life, which was when his antenna started to tingle.
“It was supposed to be Ryan Tubridy singing for the first time ever. And then Ryan went away. I heard him say, ‘Is he ready yet?’ Because it was an Ed Sheeran song, we knew that it might be Ed. There was a very big reaction. I loved doing it.”
Forde’s job was to be Sheeran’s hype man when the star put in his surprise appearance. “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Ed Sheeran,” he shouted as the singer emerged from the wings to considerable astonishment.
Eighteen months later, Forde will be in the spotlight all over again when he showcases his rap talents as part of the Rhyme Island project during Cruinniú na nÓg – a day of “free creative activity for children and young people” taking place around the country this Saturday.
He is an ambassador for Cruinniú na nÓg and will participate with other Rhyme Island artists in Rock the Block, a day of music-making for under-14s at Elizabeth Fort off Barrack Street in Cork city.
Rhyme Island has its roots in Knocknaheeny, a suburb on the north side of Cork city close to the Apple factory at Hollyhill with historically high levels of social deprivation. Here you will find the Kabin, a studio and community centre that aims to develop rappers, writers, singers, musicians and podcasters through workshops.
Those Cork city roots have been a springboard for the Kabin and its founder Garry McCarthy, who hosts hip-hop workshops across Ireland through his GMCBeats initiative. One recent morning, for instance, McCarthy and some of his rappers from Cork were in Athlone for a class with a group of 20 sixth-year pupils. The students were encouraged to compose and perform their own raps and to express themselves with lyrics that tapped into their hopes and fears.
“Back in 2012, I had recently started doing workshops – going to schools and youth groups and the like. I was looking for a space I could operate out of and set up a little study,” recalls McCarthy, who first started composing hip-hop beats as a 12-year-old.
“Through Music Generation Cork City, I was given the keys to this building which was literally a metal cabin with a couple of derelict rooms. That’s where it came from. They said, ‘If you want to start running some workshops, off you go’. It was in 2017 that we started applying for more funding and grants [and took things to the next level].”
The Kabin was born. “It’s a space that came from a love of hip hop and rap. At its core, it is a space for people who have an interest in writing rap. It’s spread to a lot more than that. It’s a creative hub. It’s a space for young people in the community and beyond to be creative, make videos, write lyrics. We try to create a close community – almost like an extended family.”
It’s kept me out of trouble. I know people my age who are up to much worse stuff. It’s keeping me out of bad areas— Darren Stewart
For Forde, the Kabin has been a portal to a new world. He has used hip hop as a way of chronicling his daily experiences. Later this summer, he will release a new track, Life in a Wheelchair, in which he discusses his experiences as a person with spina bifida who uses a wheelchair. He shares some of the lyrics from his family home in Fair Hill.
“People get in my way, when I’m trying to get through / What’s the story stop skipping the queue / If I need to get a bus will I be refused? / People need to change their views / I’m not Colin Farrell or Brendan Gleeson / So why am I getting gawked at for no reason?”
“There are barely any [wheelchair] accessible buildings in Cork,” he says. “I wanted to do that rap for a long time. I recorded it up in the Kabin. With rap music you can express your feelings on a page, write them down and then turn it into a rap. I think children should do it. It’s a very good inspiration for the younger generation. It’s helpful.”
The Kabin also helps kids stay on the straight and narrow. “It’s kept me out of trouble,” says Darren Stewart, who raps as MC Tiny and who, like his friend Forde, has Toy Show experience, having performed in 2019. “I know people my age who are up to much worse stuff. It’s keeping me out of bad areas.”
He echoes Forde’s belief that expressing your feelings through rap music dramatically benefits your mental health. “Kids will put things in a rap song that they might be reluctant to express in conversation,” he says. “My experience of hip hop is that it’s very different from other forms of music. It’s very expressive. You can express yourself more through it. It’s poetry with extra steps.”
Hip hop is also open to all, he says. You don’t have to play an instrument. You only need a voice and the desire to get something off your chest.
You can rap about everything. I wrote a rap about how I enjoy my life and that I wouldn’t take it for granted— Darren Stewart
“Genuinely anyone can do it. People make it out to be scary. Up in the Kabin five years with this lot, it gives you experiences that you wouldn’t have going on tour with the biggest people in the world. You can rap about everything. I wrote a rap about how I enjoy my life and that I wouldn’t take it for granted.”
If a teenager or child is hesitant about speaking from the heart, rap can be a way to communicate, says Stewart. “I wouldn’t say it’s not okay to say what’s on your mind, but if you’re uncomfortable doing that, it’s a great way to express yourself. I’ve often written things down – and even keeping it to yourself, it helps massively.”
“Personally I was never into hip hop before I joined the Kabin,” says Sophie McCarthy, part of Misneach, a project which has the mission of “exploring female empowerment with the goal of encouraging young women”.
“I wanted to give it a try. Garry had us rapping. I couldn’t rap to save my life. I thought this was the coolest thing ever. I kept coming and [thankfully] due to Garry I did improve. It was never about the hip hop – it was about saying what I want to say.”
Rap is a very expressive form ... It’s open and honest. It’s poetry; it’s storytelling; it’s talking with rhythm. It is very real— Garry McCarthy
McCarthy believes that the Kabin’s success could be replicated around Ireland.
“It’s not just something Knocknaheeny needs. I think a lot of communities could do with a space where the main purpose is music, creativity and art. Most communities have GAA and soccer and youth projects. A lot of youth projects, to be fair, do a lot of arts and music. The main purpose with the Kabin is creativity: it’s run by artists and musicians. We do our best to give the young people responsibility and get them involved with how the place is run and how things happen.”
Rhyme Island is a way of bringing that message to the rest of the country and to Northern Ireland, where their workshops have received a positive response.
“The Rhyme Island initiative is giving a taster to young people in different communities of what we do in the Kabin: exposing young people to expressing themselves through writing music and lyrics and being creative. And showing the value of it.”
It’s great to see kids doing anything creative. Hip hop has the additional advantage of being hugely accessible, says McCarthy.
“You will come across people who are talented rappers without realising they are good at it. I’ve found that acting and rapping go hand in hand. The young people in the Kabin are really good actors – they’re great on stage. It goes hand and hand with performing in general. Rap is a very expressive form. You can say whatever you want. It’s closer to telling a story in your own voice, your own accent. It’s open and honest. It’s poetry; it’s storytelling; it’s talking with rhythm. It is very real.”
Rappers from the Kabin will be performing at Rock the Block at Elizabeth Fort in Cork this Saturday. Details of the full Cruinniú na nÓg programme can be found at cruinniu.creativeireland.gov.ie