"I landed in Ireland in 2001, about the same time that Dre dropped 2001."
By the time God Knows raps these lyrics on Lights Out, the third track on Rusangano Family's debut album, Let The Dead Bury The Dead, most listeners will be aware that they're hearing something different.
God Knows was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in Limerick. His fellow frontman MuRli was born in Togo before arriving in Ireland as a kid. Together with John Lillis, a Co Clare native better known as MynameisjOhn, they formed Rusangano Family in 2014, formalising a musical relationship that had been developing for years. Lillis’s production brings together hip-hop, dancehall and grime, as well as the indigenous musics of Togo and Zimbabwe, to provide a platform for the pair’s lyrics.
The album is constantly playing with voices and masks, searching for a way to make difficult tales hit home with power. As God Knows says: "We live by stories, as human beings." The story of emigration is well told in this country, but not usually from this perspective. Let The Dead Bury The Dead is a vibrant exploration of migration – of people, music, ideas – and its effects on the individual, the family and the wider social sphere.
Perhaps the best example of this is Heathrow, a visceral narrative about the immense personal cost of uprooting a life. It details the struggles – emotional, physical and bureaucratic – facing African migrants attempting to make a life for themselves in Europe. It's a passionate track built on lived experience, and a powerful expression of protest.
"I know people in those situations, everything we talk about in Heathrow," says MuRli. "I know people who have been through the worst just to get here, to get that €19 a week. If you've got to come all this way, leave your family and everything you loved, to go to a place and live on €19 a week, you have to really want to survive.
A little understanding
“My friends don’t know about these things; people I grew up with don’t know that these things happen just down the road. What we try to do is be a voice for the unheard.”
“I think people just don’t know and when you don’t know, you can’t act,” adds God Knows. “It takes some people to tell the story in some way that’s relatable. I think sometimes when you hear about something, it’s too far away. You know sometimes we only look at a headline or something, and we go, ‘I can’t understand this’, so then you flick on. I think it takes a Rusangano to speak about something with fresh eyes and go, ‘hey, this is actually a play-by-play’. It’s the fact that somebody can tell a story where, from the opening page, you’re like, ‘Ah! I finally understand what they’re saying.’”
Many of the group’s lyrics seem to puzzle out what different identities, labels and tags mean in 2016. At a time when there is so much noise around the idea of remembering and reimagining what it means to be Irish, God Knows and MuRli are sharp voices, picking apart the easy narratives, complicating and broadening the notion of belonging with their personal stories.
“You want to be proud of your identity,” says God Knows. “You want to hold it with both hands and say, ‘This is who I am.’ But I think when those people who have platforms and responsibilities use that responsibility in a way that they’re not supposed to, we, the public, reject that and say, ‘That’s not who we are, actually.’ I can’t hold that and say, ‘That’s me.’ ”
“If you were to go 500 years into the future, what will make an Irish person will be really, really different from what it is today,” adds MuRli. “But I think we’re at a point where things are shifting. Today, what makes an Irish person is a mix of a lot of things.”
Period of transition
Lillis highlights an important point about his bandmates: their position between cultures is a once-off. The transitional nature of their lives, which powers so much of their work, will be different for their children and grandchildren, whose links to Togo and Zimbabwe will be altogether more distant.
“They’re the only generation who will be able to say their fathers are African,” he says. “The next generation that comes along, they’ll have Irish fathers and they’ll be Irish themselves. So there won’t be that kind of cross-cultural thing of, am I African, am I Irish? There won’t be that.
“There’s thousands of people across Ireland, tens of thousands of people, who are in that exact same position. They go to school and learn Irish and about Christianity but they go home and they’re probably a different religion, speaking a different language, eating different food. This is a unique period where that is taking place.”
All three members either work or have worked for Music Generation in Limerick, bringing a contemporary musical education to the city’s schools, and feeding a positive creativity back into the community. As well as giving them the inside scoop on the best young talent, the experience of teaching inspires the way they work, and how they live.
“For myself, watching those guys and what they do, it makes you go, ‘Wow, I need to go back in and perfect my art because these kids are coming heavy,’” says MuRli.
“Also, it’s grounding in a way. Last week, we were in Texas at South By Southwest and people were going wild at these hardcore performances. Next week, I have to go into a school and sing songs with five- and seven-year-olds. To me, that’s good because one day, I’d like to have a family. As much as I want to do this music thing, I want to come back home and still be a human for children.”
“We get to see who they’re becoming, who they’re going to be,” adds God Knows. “These kids are all phenomenal. It’s very rewarding because, if you’re selfless, you will enjoy every moment of it.”
For Lillis, one of the great benefits of catching kids while they’re young is that they’re able to teach them how to connect with their own experience, their own environment and forms of expression, rather than emulating what might be happening elsewhere. This, he says, helps to create a really distinct scene, one with its own roots and its own aims, and it’s this scene that has helped create
Let The Dead Bury The Dead
. It’s hip-hop, but in the most liberated and most basic sense; it’s about having the confidence to tell stories about where you come from and what your life is like.
“If we tried to make Irish hip-hop, Dublin hip-hop, American hip-hop, UK hip-hop, we would fail at all of those,” says Lillis. “This is the only way we can make music.”
“I think there’s a lot of people who are hip-hop but if you’re going to look for the typical thing of what hip-hop should be, then you’re going to be wildly confused by anything that we do,” adds God Knows. “I think that’s what makes it amazing.
“I would say there is a scene here that is enriched, that’s been here for a very long time. Hip-hop in Ireland should not be hip-hop in England, it should not be hip-hop in America, because this is Ireland. We live as Irishmen. At the end of the day, I want to help you learn about my culture.”