Belfast trio Kneecap talk debut album 'Fine Art' and suing the British government

Interview Kneecap: “[Our gigs are] an opportunity to inspire people and show them that language isn’t a barrier”

Meet the Gaels who just want to have fun (and change a few minds while they’re at it).

Kneecap aren’t the first hip hop group to rap about drugs, sex, or violence. God knows they certainly won’t be the last. But the Belfast trio are one of the few who do so in Irish. Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap and DJ Próvaí are dragging the language away from its outdated image and locating it in the heart of modern-day Belfast, on a mission tied to a punk legacy of Irish language activism.

In 1969, five couples built houses with their bare hands on Shaw’s Road, birthing Belfast’s first urban Irish-speaking community (known as a Gaeltacht). “They started the first primary school in 1971, which was outlawed for 14 years,” Móglaí explains. “It was self-funded. There’s a very big culture of doing things yourselves here.” Móglaí’s dad was so inspired by the Gaeltacht that he started learning Irish. He helped establish the first Irish language secondary school – the same one Móglaí and Mo attended. Próvaí, a few years their senior, grew up in Derry, where his own secondary school was funded by students with sponsor sheets and buckets to raise money: “I took a lot of courage from that.”

The boys knew they were onto something when they started translating the names of drugs into Irish - partially for fun, and also to avoid suspicion from police. ‘Snaois’ (‘snuff’) became coke, whilst ‘dúid’, an old clay pipe, became their word for a joint. ‘3CAG’, the name of their debut EP, stands for ‘3 consonants and a vowel’, or MDMA. And whilst detractors are outraged by their violation of the “pure” language, Kneecap claim Irish hasn’t always been so puritan: author and collaborator Manchán Magan sent them his upcoming novel about Irish words for vaginas and periods. “The Irish language was very vivid through paganism before Catholicism,” Móglaí says. “It’s quite a dirty and filthy language.”

Now, they’re taking it to new heights in a trilogy of explosive career moves. Their debut album ‘Fine Art’ is to be released this summer. Assisted by Toddla T on production, Kneecap assault the listener with track after track of festival-ready bangers, spanning garage, trance, drum and bass, drill, and boom bap.

The record unleashes several killer collaborations, with Lankum, Fontaines DC’s Grian Chatten and Jelani Blackman among the many guests. “We wanted to show people that a group who rap predominantly in Irish can collab with a Black fellow from London and it works,” Mo explains. “We’re both from backgrounds that have been downtrodden for a long time. Also, Jelani is fucking incredible; he’s criminally underrated.”

“Bringing the Tory government to court? You can’t put a price on that for PR.” - Mo Chara

The band will also embark on a North American tour and are due at big British festivals such as Reading & Leeds in the summer. “It’s an opportunity for us to inspire people and show them that the language isn’t a barrier,” says Móglaí. “You don’t even think about the Irish language when you’re going to our gigs – that’s why it’s amazing that we’re on the main stage of Leeds.”

Earlier this year at Sundance Film Festival, Sony Pictures bought the rights to Kneecap’s self-titled fictionalised biopic. With an as-yet-unannounced general release date, it’s the highest-budget Irish language film ever made and is every bit as bonkers as you’d expect. Though large parts are not, some scenes in the film are true: the band did perform their first gig full of their beloved 3CAG, and Próvaí did get fired as an Irish teacher for an on-stage photo of his bare arse, ‘BRITS OUT’ painted on each cheek.

Other narratives diverge from the band’s lives, but reflect contemporary issues in their world. A brooding Michael Fassbender plays Móglaí’s fictional father, a hardened IRA terrorist who fakes his own death. “Half the kids in my class, their parents were in the IRA,” says Móglaí. “I’m sure they suffered quite an amount when your parents are involved because it causes a lot of troubles and mental health issues. That PTSD is intergenerational.”

Unexpectedly, Kneecap have recently entered their most audacious act yet by suing the British government. Originally approved for a £15,000 grant under the Music Export Growth Scheme (which is jointly funded by the industry and government), it was overruled by the Tories at the last minute, claiming they didn’t want to give taxpayers’ money “to people that oppose the United Kingdom itself”. Kneecap have now legally challenged them for the “unlawful” decision. “I was loving it,” Mo declares. “Bringing the Tory government to court? You can’t put a price on that for PR.”

It’s a pivotal point in the story of both Kneecap and Northern Ireland. Just weeks ago, the Northern Ireland Assembly was finally restored after two years out of action, and the country gained its first ever nationalist First Minister, Michelle O’Neill. It’s one step closer to Kneecap’s vision of a better future for everyone. “People who went to private schools in London shouldn’t be making decisions based on young people’s lives on a completely different island with a completely different understanding of reality,” says Mo. “You’ve had enough of a chance at it, and you failed miserably. It’s time for an alternative.”

Kneecap are some of the most entertaining, provocative and savvy musicians around, and they’re determined to expose as many people as they can to their culture. It’s a cause close to their hearts, but at the end of the day, the rappers also just want to kick up their heels and enjoy the ride. “It’s time enough now that we can all take a step back and joke about it,” says Mo. “It’s been so serious here for so long that we wanted to do that with our music and have a fucking comedic look on it. We all know how to take a joke, we know how to toe the line. We’ll just keep doing what we do.”

‘Fine Art’ is out on 14th June via Heavenly Recordings.

Tags: Kneecap, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

As featured in the March 2024 issue of DIY, out now.

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