Móglaí Bap, Mo Chara and DJ Próvaí, of the Belfast punk-rap group Kneecap, arrived in New York City on a day in October as the season turned to autumn. They’d already done two shows on their US and Canada tour, in Toronto and Boston – where a local Irish pub arranged a meet-and-greet and merchandise stand when their gig sold out.
As they crossed the United States that month they played at more sold-out venues, where the fans were young American rap fans and punks with home-made Kneecap T-shirts, young Irish immigrants, metalheads, older Irish-Americans fascinated by this wave of Irish-language hip hop, kids wearing Kneecap bucket hats, young women holding Tiocfaidh Ár Lá signs, and shirtless men reaching stageward for a swig from a bottle of Buckfast. After each show people would stampede to the T-shirt stand waving $20 bills.
The group’s growing success since they released their first single, Cearta, in 2017, suggests that the specific really is universal. They rap in Irish (and English). As is common in hip-hop, they write songs that tell stories about where they’re from, who they are and the culture they’re immersed in.
They have a flair for spectacle, making community events out of their now-annual mural unveiling in Belfast. They thumb their noses at the controversy they say is generated by politicians, journalists, radio talkshow hosts and others who don’t understand the subtext of their songs, nor the culture from which their art is emerging. Yet, while jaded by the cliche of controversy, they also revel in it, labelling criticism from unionist politicians as free PR.
Their team is small but nimble. Their manager is Daniel Lambert, who simultaneously manages one of Ireland’s hottest music acts, co-owns Bang Bang cafe in Dublin and holds the position of chief operating officer of Bohemian FC. Lambert recently oversaw Kneecap’s signing to Heavenly Recordings, a British independent label whose roster also includes David Holmes and Saint Etienne, and which released the early work of Beth Orton, Doves and Manic Street Preachers.
After their US tour they played the Airwaves festival in Iceland and the prestigious Pitchfork festival in Paris; next week they play gigs around England; and in a few weeks’ time they round off their year with shows in Dublin, Derry, Belfast and Cork.
But there’s a sense, even with their current full schedule, that this is the calm before the storm.
This summer, filming wrapped on their debut movie, which is loosely based on their lives and trajectory. As well as featuring Kneecap’s acting debut, it also, in a head-turning piece of casting, stars Michael Fassbender. The film, written and directed by Rich Peppiatt, was selected for Great8, a showcase run by the BFI and the British Council at the Cannes film market that has previously featured Aftersun and Saint Maud.
Twenty twenty-three is also the year when Kneecap wrote and recorded their debut album, working with the producer Toddla T, who has also worked with Stormzy and Aitch. At the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards in March, Mags Mulvey won best video design for her work on Minimal Human Contact, a critically acclaimed play written by Móglaí Bap.
So it’s hard not to feel that, when their film and album are released in 2024, Kneecap will leap from an emerging Irish act generating an international buzz to something much bigger.
In Manhattan, a few hours before they hit the Bowery Ballroom, the group convene in the Two Doors Down bar, on the Lower East Side, shaking off their hangovers over cans of Modelo beer. This has been a year of tremendous growth for all three. In the run-up to recording the album they were constantly writing and recording, yet “it wasn’t really hitting the standard we wanted”, Mo Chara says. “Then we got that connection with Toddla T.” They arrived in his London studio with a collection of about 15 tracks and “didn’t use one of them”, Mo Chara says. “We started again. That wasn’t a decision that was made: it just happened naturally.”
They wrote a new album in-studio in three weeks. Throwing away a lot of material can be painful for artists, but DJ Próvaí says the work wasn’t wasted. “It sharpened the tools.” Toddla T, Mo Chara says, “would start with a beat and ideas would just run”. That led to a concept in which the album acts as an entry point to Kneecap’s world, set in a bar, where tunes are interrupted by singsongs, traditional music, conversations with barmen and the racking up of lines of white powder in the bathroom. (RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta removed their first single from its pre-watershed playlist because of its drug references.)
The recording process also allowed them to view themselves in a new light. “It’s nice to see someone from outside our culture who can look at it and really enjoy it and appreciate it,” Móglaí Bap says of Toddla T. “We appreciate our culture a lot, but we don’t have that perspective to reflect on yourself, that introspection ... It was refreshing to see someone so enthusiastic about it.”
The preparation to shoot their feature film involved a long stint of acting classes. Once the group got over the initial awkwardness of the introductory exercises, Mo Chara found himself becoming immersed the process. “It became therapeutic, almost,” he says. “The whole point of acting is being present.” For DJ Provaí, it was also discombobulating. “It’s strange, because you’re playing caricatures of yourself. You’re playing a parallel version of yourself, so you’re pretending to be yourself.”
Then there was the practical aspect of being on a shoot. “A driver picks you up at your house. You’ve got your own trailer. People are bringing food to you and all,” Mo Chara says, pausing a beat. “I hated it. Ah no, it was great. F**king hell, I lost all cognitive ability by the end of it.”
The beginning of the shoot was not without hiccups. “Two months beforehand we’re staying focused, not really drinking, staying healthy, fit,” Móglaí Bap says. “Then, the night before we were shooting the film, we got absolutely pissed.” Morning dawned in Dundalk. “We’re hungover,” Mo Chara says. “There’s about 60 people staring at us. We’re in a ditch digging a hole, doing our first scene in front of all these people.” Through the haze of the hangover they realised their work had paid off. “We all read really f**king well on camera. We’re all very good at it, if I’m being honest. Everyone was at ease instantly.”
Downtime on the shoot created some intensely surreal moments. “We had this singsong with Michael Fassbender, and [the former Celtic coach] Neil Lennon happened to come in with a big black eye,” DJ Provai says. “I was in the toilet, throwing up creme de menthe, and I look up and see Neil Lennon and Michael Fassbender. Like, is this a f**king dream?”
It’s not. Outside the Bowery Ballroom, unlucky stragglers call out for spare tickets. Inside, Rolling Stone magazine is photographing and interviewing the group. Móglaí Bap speaks of their delight, on the road in the US, at meeting people “who have Californian accents in English and then they have Donegal, Tory Island Irish.” DJ Provaí almost starts to glow when he speaks of the wonder of having American fans shouting their Irish lyrics.
Other musicians are full of praise for Kneecap’s work. Their latest single, Better Way to Live, features Grian Chatten of Fontaines DC, as well as his bandmate Tom Coll on drums. Both are fans of the rap group, as is Radie Peat of Lankum and Øxn, who mentioned recently that she also appears on their upcoming album. “Kneecap are really important,” the legendary producer David Holmes told The Irish Times earlier this month. “I’ve seen them live. It’s pretty extraordinary. It’s like watching NWA in west Belfast.”
Much more attention is paid in Ireland than abroad to their use of Irish, perhaps because pop music is increasingly non-anglophone. As for Ireland, “The youth culture and the Irish language is changing,” Móglaí Bap says. The impact of colonialism, he says, creates a “lack of confidence towards your own culture because of the way you and it are treated, that it’s not that cool. When I was a kid, it wasn’t the coolest language to speak, because there was you, and everyone else was speaking English. But I think in Ireland people are getting away from that, the young people are. People are less uppity about it and not giving a f**k.”
Mo Chara has always believed in himself, he says, but right now “you just feel you can take on the world”. At the Bowery Ballroom that night, as the mosh pit takes hold, you can only conclude that Kneecap already are.
Kneecap play the 3Olympia, Dublin on Tuesday, December 12th, and Wednesday, December 13th; Nerve Centre, Derry on Thursday, December 14th; Ulster Hall, Belfast, on Thursday, December 21st; and Cork City Hall on Friday, December 29th