'Pain and passion': The artists giving voice to the black Irish experience

Rapper JYellowL: ‘I noticed in my community and around where I was, people didn’t have – especially aspiring artists – anyone to look up to from their own reality or from similar circumstances.’ Photograph: Usman Akhtar
Inspired by Black Lives Matter and moved to action by personal experience, musicians JYellowL and Erica Cody have found themselves at the forefront of a growing movement championing Irish diversity

“Everything this year has been monumental. The whole year is monumental. You can’t catch a break, can you? Jesus.”

In a year where everything has gone off course, rapper JYellowL’s focus remains sharp. As one of the lead organisers of this summer’s Black Lives Matter peaceful protest in Dublin, the 22-year-old believes in the power of unity against racism.

On his debut album, 2020 D|vision, he strives to lead a compassionate conversation around the social schisms in Ireland while working through the hurdles of becoming an adult. Initially intended as a rollout release paired with quarterly live gigs, that plan was scrapped but the events of 2020 – the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests that washed across America, Covid-19 – have given his album a greater relevance.

Jean-Luc Uddoh, aka JYellowL, and his family moved to Ireland in 2012 when he was just 14 years old, first living in Blanchardstown, Dublin, and then moving to Newbridge, Co Kildare. Photograph: Usman Akhtar
Jean-Luc Uddoh, aka JYellowL, and his family moved to Ireland in 2012 when he was just 14 years old, first living in Blanchardstown, Dublin, and then moving to Newbridge, Co Kildare. Photograph: Usman Akhtar

“It allowed us to look inwards and see how this actually is applicable to society in an Irish context because there is racism on our shores here,” he says, referring to the protests in the US that inspired thousands of people to walk in solidarity from Dublin’s O’Connell Street to the US embassy on June 1st. “It allowed us to have an open dialogue about it and hopefully we came to some sort of understanding and compassion because we do have the same divisive elements within our society.”

Born in Nigeria, Jean-Luc Uddoh and his family moved to Ireland in 2012 when he was just 14 years old, first living in Blanchardstown, Dublin, and then moving to Newbridge, Co Kildare. With a degree in politics from UCD, the MC understands the power of individual representation as a foundation for broader issues. By rapping about his own experiences in his own accent, he knows it will help others fine-tune their voice.

'I didn’t organise the march to get my name out there more or introduce myself to a new audience or anything like that. It was completely out of pain and passion'

“I noticed in my community and around where I was, people didn’t have – especially aspiring artists – anyone to look up to from their own reality or from similar circumstances,” he says, mentioning how Irish hip-hop acts might adopt accents and personas from UK and US artists. “They’re just emulating the closest thing that’s relatable to them because they’ve seen that work. They haven’t seen it work from Ireland, you know? Representing their own narratives, they haven’t really seen that.”

Uddoh’s natural instinct is to look out for others. He set up his own label (JYellowL Records Ltd) so that people behind him have him as a blueprint or someone “to look up to as someone who has achieved success from where they’re from”, but it’s also what caused him to be so active in Ireland’s Black Lives Matter movement.

Was it difficult for his name to suddenly be known by so many more people in a context outside of music? “I didn’t organise the march to get my name out there more or introduce myself to a new audience or anything like that,” he says. “It was completely out of pain and passion. That was the basis of the whole protest.”

JYellowL was one of the organisers of the Black Lives Matter protests in Dublin during the summer. Photograph: Lorin Gannon
JYellowL was one of the organisers of the Black Lives Matter protests in Dublin during the summer. Photograph: Lorin Gannon

“What is the end goal?” he wonders aloud. “It is to open up a conversation about these sorts of things because this is a subject that I’m passionate about. I want to open that dialogue and keep it open and fluid, as opposed to adversarial. So if that’s the only reason someone knows my name, then so be it.”

At the forefront of Ireland’s Black Lives Matter movement are several musicians who now double up as activists. With the likes of Loah, Denise Chaila, Rusangano Family members MurLi and God Knows, Soulé, Tolü Makay and Barq member Jess Kavanagh using their platforms to share their own experiences of racism, they are generously letting us in with the reward of changing minds but at the high and very likely risk of receiving abuse.

Singer-songwriter Erica Cody, whose new single Calculated provides a blissful R&B escape, has been processing not just the events of this summer but the casual racism and misogyny that goes unchallenged in everyday life and mainstream pop culture.

'Every black person knows that when someone says a racial slur to you, is aggressive, that’s one part of a spectrum and the fullest expression of that spectrum is murder'

It began when she had an online back and forth with the Dublin parody hip-hop duo Versatile over the racist and misogynistic lyrics in their 2017 song Dublin City Gs, lyrics too profane to reprint. The crux came in July when she addressed an encounter she had with a member of the group in a car park. In a video posted to Instagram, her anger and shock were palpable, demonstrating how the flippancy of lyrics can spill over into real-life fear.

“It was a very dark couple of months. I shut off my phone for a couple of weeks. I got really depressed. I got extremely anxious 10 times more than I usually will be. I was getting triggered quite a lot as well because it was just bringing up a lot of trauma that I didn’t deal with when I was a kid,” she says, “because you know these things don’t really get dealt with.”

Singer Erica Cody grew up in Baldoyle, Co Dublin. Photograph: Usman Akhtar
Singer Erica Cody grew up in Baldoyle, Co Dublin. Photograph: Usman Akhtar

Ireland has a problem with racism. Any person of colour living here can share multiple examples, from microaggressions to full-blown and undeniable aggressions, at the drop of a hat. In an extremely eloquent video posted to her Instagram on June 1st, singer Loah breaks down the risk into one very clear but frightful statement:

“Every black person knows that when someone says a racial slur to you or is aggressive towards you or is casually racist, that’s one part of a spectrum and the fullest expression of that spectrum is murder”.

Those words do not land lightly, nor should they be taken as such.

Cody, who grew up in Baldoyle, Co Dublin, with her Irish mam and American dad, remembers the comparisons made between her and Irish pop star Samantha Mumba when she was growing up. These comparisons carried over into the early days of her singing career and she believes that because there were so few women of colour in Irish music or media, if people wanted to make sense of her, they had to compare her to Mumba.

'I’m so sick and tired of seeing black people get gunned down in the streets by policemen. It’s bothering me. Why is it not bothering everyone else?'

“You’re kind of conditioned when you’re a bit different. And by different I mean a child of colour,” she says. “You’re told ‘but you look like this person’ so you can’t really be yourself. You don’t feel that sense of comfort in your own skin. Like I used to come home and want to wash the brown off my skin because I was like ‘well, like, this doesn’t get me anywhere’”.

“‘I need white skin and blue eyes and straight hair’. That was my idea of perfection. My idea of normal,” adds the 23-year-old, emphasising the longevity that throwaway comments can command. “I was told so many times that ‘ah! but you are not good enough’ because you’re meant to look like the next person. The lines get so blurred.”

With the pressures mounting online and escalating in real life, her music took the backseat until she joined Irish Women in Harmony, the collective of singers and musicians who released a cover of The Cranberries’ Dreams to raise money for Safe Ireland. Organised by RuthAnne Cunningham, the women involved have become a support network for each other, mostly through WhatsApp these days thanks to Covid-19 regulations.

“That gave me so much hope and so much light and it also was one of the leading factors in why I even decided to release music this year,” she says. “When I was going through all my stuff and Black Lives Matter, they were the first to send me flowers and RuthAnne was the first to say ‘look, we were going to push this back another couple of weeks because Black Lives Matter needs everyone’s attention right now.’”

Like Uddoh, after Cody heard about Floyd’s death she could not sit and do nothing. Although hesitant to be called an activist, her actions prove otherwise.

'We can’t reach a place of compassion without first reaching a place of understanding'

“It was nothing I ever set out to do. I was just like ‘I need to talk about this,’” she says, the frustration still there at surface level. “I’m so sick and tired of seeing black people get gunned down in the streets by policemen. It’s bothering me. Why is it not bothering everyone else? Let’s talk about it ‘cos I’m certainly not going to shut up about it now, you know?”

These conversations are difficult to have. As Loah said in her video, when people of colour have these discussions with their white friends, they can be isolating because “what we describe is diminished”. Uddoh is making sure that these conversations are heard and that no one’s experiences will be dismissed as a misunderstanding.

“There’s two strings of racism that I’ve experienced personally. And this may be anecdotal, but I know a lot of other people have experienced the same thing,” he explains. “It’s either ignorance-based or hate-based. And a lot of the time the ignorance-based can be cured by enlightenment in education. We know that the hate-based . . . that’s a little bit trickier. Some might say we are fighting a lost battle there.

“With the ignorance-based, we can do everything in our power to cure that ignorance. And the best way for us to do that is to keep the conversation open and understanding. Because we can’t reach a place of compassion without first reaching a place of understanding. I truly believe that,” he says. “So it’s always been a case to me for everyone to put their cards on the table and bring perspectives to the table. No one’s perspective is elevated higher than anyone else’s but we can contend with each other’s.”

It’s a huge undertaking but Uddoh believes that in asking enough questions, we can develop a common understanding that will help us coexist. “I want to be part of this change. And I really want to keep this conversation going. What can I do to educate myself more about you, your culture and your heritage?

“How can we do in a more measurable way in terms of infiltrating the system? And by that I mean, education. How can we do it in a way where we know that everyone is getting the bare minimum of education on this issue? How can we do it in a more political approach?”

In terms of keeping their heads above water and their careers on track, both Uddoh and Cody have used this time to reflect. While Cody praises the work she’s done in therapy to get to this point, Uddoh prefers meditation but one thing they both know is to avoid reading the comments online.

Erica Cody: ‘I feel like myself again now’. Photograph: Usman Akhtar
Erica Cody: ‘I feel like myself again now’. Photograph: Usman Akhtar

“I need to protect my peace because this s**t is hard,” says Cody. “And so it’s just like getting off the phone and stop reading all these comments on YouTube and Twitter. Twitter and YouTube are probably the worst, and Instagram is totally fine now compared to what it was like in July.”

Uddoh agrees: “I try not to be too emotionally attached to social media. That’s a really big one for me because it’s a very wild place out there. I always try to separate my personal feelings from my social media for the most part because I think when you’re too vulnerable, and your vulnerability is so exposed to anybody and everybody, you’re not really doing yourself any favours. Basically you’re letting people in over your walls. And now your fortress is vulnerable for 50 likes.”

'After seeing all the s**t that I’ve gone through this year, I’m just like "Well, okay. You’ve done it. You’ve made it the other side now do what you do best and that’s music" '

However, he lets his guard down on 2020 D|vision and people will see every side of him there, particularly the youthful side. “I was branded as a socially conscious rapper who raps a lot of politics. It dehumanised me in a very nuanced way because people then started seeing me as that guy who just is in this one lane and all he cares about in his life is politics and social issues,” he says, reminding us that at just 22, he still has room to grow.

“I want to showcase on the album that I have these moments where I’m just as hypocritical as everyone else. I lose my patience, I get upset that things don’t happen fast enough, I fall for girls, I fall in love.”

Both artists have made major adjustments this year but everything that they’ve done has been for the benefit of countless others. As the dialogue around racism in Ireland picks up pace, they have held their heads high and steered the conversation in the right direction. Knowing that they’re not alone in this movement, they can now step back a little and continue their fight in song.

“I feel like myself again now,” says Cody, who appears on Irish Women in Harmony’s forthcoming Christmas single. “After seeing all the s**t that I’ve gone through this year, I’m just like ‘Well, okay. You’ve done it. You’ve made it the other side now do what you do best and that’s music’.”

JYellowL’s debut album 2020 D|vision is out on November 20th.
Erica Cody’s single Calculated is out now.