On a bitterly cold Wednesday afternoon in Dublin in the foyer of the National Concert Hall, Karen Walshe, the artistic director at the St Patrick's Festival, has gathered some of the Young Blood performers in the foyer.
Young Blood is a night of spoken word, hip hop, rap, poetry and other music at the National Concert Hall on March 18th. Aoife Woodlock, best known as music producer of Other Voices, curated the line-up, and the shift in focus for a high profile event in the middle of the St Patrick's Festival reflects a burgeoning Irish scene, the first responders to Irish society – poets and spoken word artists – as well as the growing energy that typifies the hip hop scene here.
Stephen James Smith, whose forceful poetry has earned him fans at spoken word, music and culture festivals, has penned a poem that forms something of a centrepiece of it all. A sequel of sorts to Smith's Dublin You Are is Ireland You Are, a poem that will feature on the night, and which has also been given the short film treatment by Myles O'Reilly (Arbutus Yarns) with music and production from Colm Mac Con Iomaire and Conor O'Brien (Villagers).
‘Edgier point of view’
Walshe talks about searching for a “more youthful, edgier point of view” for this event. “I’m 34,” Stephen James Smith laughs. But ordinarily the St Patrick’s Festival concert is a more traditional event, whereas this time its tagline is ‘The Beats and Voices of Our Generation’.
“We’re definitely taking a risk, but I think this is going to snowball into something huge,” Woodlock says. “It’s about feeling, and it’s about truth . . . there’s a truth in the words I hear in poets.”
The venue is a plush context for these young poets, rappers and musicians. "Six nights of the Gloaming and then us and then Donal Lunny, " she says of the Concert Hall's listings. "So I love that we're here on the Saturday night ripping it up."
Emmet Kirwan, whose cracker of a hip hop play, Dublin Oldschool, has journeyed from the Project Arts Centre to the National Theatre in London, is also booked to perform. His latest piece, Heartbreak, a stunning poem about a pregnant teenager's experience was first performed at the Dublin Fringe Festival hit Riot. It has since clocked up over a million views online, thanks to a short film made by Dave Tynan starring one of Ireland's most promising young actors, Jordanne Jones.
Jessy Rose from Hare Squead arrives, skateboard in tow, and thus begins the hilarity of watching people trying to herd the energetic band – Rose, Lilo Blues, and Tony Konstone – into doing a video snippet for social media. Hare Squead are concerned about whether the gig is seated. "Can people stand on the chairs?" one of the lads asks. Rose wonders if they can check out the venue, a hall they've never seen before. The RTÉ Concert Orchestra is rehearsing inside. Woodlock pulls a door open to the balcony, and eager eyes catch a view of the hall for the first time. "Oh shit!"
The Concert Hall impresses: now they have to.
Between doing kick flips on his skateboard in the carpeted foyer, and posing on the stairs, Rose refers to Konstone’s remarks as “philosophy”. “We want to be able to show a different part of Ireland,” Blues says, sitting on the stairs, and “that the culture in Ireland is changing”, Konstone adds.
Felispeaks, a poet from Longford via Nigeria and now living in Dublin, talks about how the convergence of cultures from Longford and Nigeria have informed her work and added to it. Katie Laffan tries to describe the “punky disco music” she makes.
Nathalia O’Flaherty (16) is one of the poets on the night. Her work emerges from personal experience, she says. “I’m from west Dublin. Clondalkin in particular is not a very ‘nice’ area, there’s a lot of drugs and violence and everything like that. Not only does it upset me and distress me, it makes me angry. No one takes me seriously as a 16-year-old girl shouting about junkies or gun violence unless I write it in a pretty way, do you know what I mean? That’s how I feel about it anyways. So if what I’m saying is really well articulated and makes sense to a lot of people, then I get recognition and my opinion is validated when generally it wouldn’t be. That’s why I cling to spoken word, because it’s very direct. I appreciate that.”
John Cummins, who describes himself as a "poetician" and has a tendency to pick words out of the air like a chef plating micro-greens with tweezers, is mostly looking forward to listening to the other acts on the night. Cummins' work is beautifully nostalgic and evocative, the perfect cypher for talking about Ireland both then (not too long ago) and now.
“I think Ireland is trying to redefine itself,” Smith muses, “Movements like Apollo house, the [marriage] referendum, the repeal the Eighth movement, it would appear to me that we’re finally trying to take the map of 1916 . . . so, can we become a more fairer society? I’m optimistic.”
‘Rush of voices’
It's impossible to ignore the growing popularity and rising quality of spoken word in Ireland. "There's a rush of voices now springing up," another poet, Colm Keegan says. "It happened after the crash . . . we're searching for a new identity."
Later, upstairs, O’Flaherty – the youngest of the group – confirms that sentiment. “I think people are coming to realise spoken word is a very strong, powerful medium to get your point across. Now that Ireland as a whole is changing and evolving, taking steps back and taking steps forward, I think people are looking for a hard-hitting, direct way to get what they want to say out there, and I think spoken word is a way to do that.”
O’Flaherty wants the Young Blood event to “capture Ireland. It’s a good snapshot of Ireland in a moment in time, socially, where Ireland is going to be if we take the reins, if the people involved in this take the reins, and if people like us take the reins.”
It’s rare that a festival so mainstream in Irish culture plants a flag in something that is genuinely forward-thinking, and representative of voices that dwell in the underground yet have so much to say beyond that. Voices of a generation? There are plenty of them, and Young Blood will definitely capture a feeling that is well worth tuning into.
Young Blood is at the National Concert Hall on Saturday March 18th at 8pm. Tickets are €18 - €35 and available from nch.ie