Kneecap On Their New Album, Movie, And Legal Battle With The UK Government

Sarah Ellis

Kneecap On Their New Album, Movie, And Legal Battle With The UK Government

Sarah Ellis

One thing is for certain: Belfast rap trio Kneecap are made of strong stuff.

For instance, halfway through our interview, the band casually recounts a frenzied writing session for their upcoming biopic KNEECAP costarring Michael Fassbender (which will be released in the US through Sony Pictures Classics in late 2024, and which has already received rave reviews from Sundance).

Facing a looming deadline, the band barricaded themselves in their Belfast flat for three days straight, piecing together an entire script from scratch, fuelled by a crate of Guinness and what the group confidently claims was “Ireland’s largest pizza.”

“It was so big, the pizza company had to drive to the house with the pizza strapped to the roof of the car,” MC Móglaí Bap explains. “They had to turn it sideways to get it through the door.”

“We ate it for three days. I think we were fucked enough at that point that anything would have tasted good. But we weren’t leaving until the script was done. We refused to be defeated by the pizza!”

The fact that the trio managed to escape severe food poisoning is pretty remarkable, but Kneecap’s steely constitution won’t surprise anyone already familiar with them. Self-described “Republican hoods” (in the Irish sense, not the American sense), Kneecap sport tracksuits, balaclavas, and a name which recalls the paramilitary practice of shooting perceived traitors in the knees. They’ve become the soundtrack to a generation of disaffected youth in the North, frustrated by dysfunctional politics, economic inequality, and entrenched intergenerational trauma, born after the Troubles, but nevertheless indelibly marked by it. Their music swings between real political urgency and an outrageous, filthy sense of humor — one of their breakout tracks, “Get Your Brits Out,” details a wild night out with members of the DUP, Northern Ireland’s conservative, pro-union party (who historically certainly haven’t been fans of the trio).

Kneecap’s music blends genres — garage, trap, glimmers of Irish traditional music — with the frenetic flow of emcees Mo Chara and Móglaí Bap, who seamlessly switch between Irish and English. The Irish language — historically banned by the British, and only recognised as an official language in 2022 — is key to Kneecap’s appeal. Kneecap’s rise has dovetailed with a resurgence of interest in Irish, as a generation of Ireland’s young people begin to explore their native history and identity beyond the shadow of the conflict.

Throughout their short career, Kneecap have been no stranger to controversy; they’ve been escorted offstage, banned from Irish radio, and have scandalized politicians from Northern Ireland’s conservative DUP party by daring to play a venue the day after a royal visit. Their response has been to gleefully troll; they’ve offered to put on private screenings of their upcoming film for furious local politicians, and even shouted out the DUP for “all the PR” when picking up an award at Sundance.

Most recently, the group’s outspoken politics have led to them being blocked from receiving a £15,000 grant from a government-backed music export fund. The group’s application had been approved by the fund, before the UK government stepped in to block the funds, stating that they “did not want to use taxpayers’ money to fund people that oppose the United Kingdom itself.” In typical, steely fashion, the group have refused to back down, instead launching a legal challenge against the UK government.

In the UK, the case has sparked fervent discussion in the scene around freedom of speech in art, as well as raising questions around the viability of the Good Friday Agreement, which (theoretically) is supposed to protect the freedom of people in Northern Ireland to identify themselves as “Irish, or British, or both” — as Kneecap have pointed out on Twitter, the idea that artists need to be “pro union” to be eligible for public arts funding is chilling.

Their label-backed debut, Fine Art, is scheduled for release in June on Heavenly Records. With a new album, a Hollywood film, and a burgeoning legal case on the horizon, it’s safe to say that 2024 is set to be a busy year for Kneecap. We caught up with them ahead of their upcoming US tour — the day before their funding was revoked.

Below, hear new single “Sick In The Head” and read our interview.

I have to ask, has anyone from the DUP taken you up on those private screenings of the film yet?

MO CHARA: No, not publicly. They keep private messaging me saying, “Can you send me a wee link? I’m down to see it, but the party won’t let me.”

What’s the origin story of Kneecap?

MÓGLAÍ BAP: We were all in Belfast around 2017/18. We were involved in the Cultúrlann, organizing festivals for contemporary music in Irish. A subculture grew out of that, everyone coming together, speaking in Irish, and taking drugs. Kneecap was born out of that scene.

It’s a very new thing for young people in the city — it’s more common in rural Ireland and Gaeltacht [Irish-speaking] areas. Obviously, we naturally translated words related to us, like we translated MDMA into “3CAG” [aka Trí chonsan agus guta – three letters and a vowel]. If we’re going to do it, we have to have our own words for it.

Around the time the Irish Language March was happening, we were spraypainting the words “CEARTA” (“rights”) in an estate in Belfast. The undercover cops came and chased us around the estate. Our friend ended up getting caught and spent the night in the cell. That was the inspiration behind our first song (“CEARTA”), basically. We had no intention beyond the first song, because we didn’t think anyone would actually want to listen to hip-hop in Irish.

Who are your musical influences?

BAP: The Rubberbandits had a massive influence on us. When I heard Horse Outside I was like, ‘that’s great craic’. Instead of Irish artists talking about American culture, it’s Irish artists talking about Irish things. Like, it’s literally a whole song about a horse.

You’re about to head off on a US tour. What’s the reaction been like from US audiences to your music?

BAP: There’s been such a big shift in terms of world music. We have BTS…

CHARA: Before they were conscripted. I’d be terrified, imagine being invaded by a load of K-pop singers…

BAP: But there has been a shift in terms of people being very open to listening to music in other languages. There was one girl in San Francisco, and she knew every single word to our music. We just assumed she spoke Irish, so we started speaking Irish to her, and she was like, “Fuck no, I don’t speak Irish.” But she knew every single word. It was freaky.

Do you think they understand the culture in the North?

BAP: I think the big issue is that the image that Irish Americans have of Ireland in general is a bit skewed. When we drove a Northern Irish police van into Sundance, it was a shock to them, because the image they have of Ireland is so clean-cut. Like everyone’s just walking around all happy-go-lucky. Actually there’s rocket-proof jeeps and armed police in the North. I think it’s good for people to see a side of Ireland they probably don’t know about.

I’ve noticed that your stock response to the controversy (like the response to your mural and tour posters) has been to describe it as “fine art”… which is now the title of your album. What does fine art mean to you?

CHARA: When [conservative commentators] have come out in outrage against us, it’s been good for us to wave it away with “that’s fine art.” You can’t actually seriously engage with these people because you just give them a platform. Politicians know we court controversy, so they try to play into our hands. They just love the opportunity to be on the TV or radio.

It obviously deflects from other ways they’re failing Northern Ireland.

BAP: Exactly. There are bigger issues, like massive mental health issues on both sides of the peace wall. There’s a complete lack of structural community support.

You worked with Toddla T on Fine Art, and I’ve read that you started from scratch with him and developed everything over a few weeks.

CHARA: Yeah, we had been writing for a while, waiting on a producer. But once we got in the studio with him, 80% of it was done in three weeks. He’s a great character to have in the studio.

BAP: He came in with no ideas of what the album should sound like. He always pushed us to look inwards and come up with new ideas and samples — like the intro samples an experimental 1950s jazz trad album.

CHARA: It was nice to have fresh ears from someone outside of Ireland. Even though he’s a Brit. He’s from Northern England though, so we’ll give him a pass.

The album is arranged as one long, cohesive piece of work, themed around a night out at the pub. What’s your favorite pub?

BAP: Madden’s Bar in Belfast and the Hawthorn Bar in Beechmount.

CHARA: You can’t even look up the Hawthorn Bar on Google. It just looks like a house from the outside. But it was our local for ages. Look up the reviews, it’s fucking hilarious.

It’s pretty insane that you’re starring in a film at the same time as releasing your debut album.

BAP: We haven’t fucking processed it yet, really. Even when we were writing the movie, we weren’t certain we’d get funding. We’re thinking, best case scenario, we’ll run a GoFundMe and stick this up on YouTube, or something like that. It wasn’t until the script was done that it all kind of snowballed, then we got funding from the Lottery and the BFI, which has obviously caused a lot of controversy.

How did the film come about?

BAP: There was this English fella [director Rich Peppiatt] who kept on torturing us for like six months on email. Then he came to our gig, and we just tried to ignore him. There’s always someone emailing you asking to do a film or a documentary and you kind of don’t really believe them. We eventually realised Rich was legit, and started working on the script with him in 2019.

We would sit and write the script and have like 20 tins of Guinness, and for maybe the first 10 tins, the script would be amazing. But then the next 10 tins would be really bad, and the script would be just us all fighting and screaming at each other.

DJ PRÓVAÍ: And trying to get a fifty inch pizza through the door.

How was the pizza? That feels too big to me. Was it even fully cooked?

BAP: It was nice. I was worried it was going to be floppy.

DJ PRÓVAÍ: We were fucked enough that anything would have tasted good at that point. Beer mats, shite sandwiches…

I’m surprised you didn’t get food poisoning.

BAP: It was kind of like that episode of The Simpsons where Homer won’t stop eating this massive subway, even when it starts going black.

Was it always on the table that you guys were going to star in the movie?

CHARA: Yes, because they couldn’t find any actors good looking enough to play us.

BAP: I thought you were going to ask was the pizza always on the table. I think we eventually put it in the fridge.

CHARA: It was a bit tense for the first few days of the shoot, because there was £3M going into this film, and no one had actually seen that we could act yet. But after we did a bit of acting, everyone calmed down a bit, and it went swimmingly.

It must have been a mind-fuck playing a heightened version of yourselves.

DJ PRÓVAÍ: Even though it was heightened in some senses, it was watered down in others. Sometimes real life is madder than what you can portray in a film.

BAP: Most of the maddest bits in the film are the true bits.

What do you see in the future of Kneecap? Do you see yourselves continuing to combine music with other forms of art later on?

CHARA: I’d say so. I don’t want to be rapping when I’m fucking fifty. And I definitely don’t want to be working in a call center.

BAP: We’ve always been interested in storytelling, and this is a natural way we can progress from what we’ve already been doing in Kneecap’s music videos. So hopefully we’ll all get big massive roles as police detectives after this.

As usual, it’s been a politically dysfunctional few years for Northern Ireland. But things are looking a little brighter — we’ve just got a government back! How do you feel about how things stand in the north?

BAP: It’s been a long process in the North of trying to find balance. Obviously the North was established through gerrymandering and terrorism. But hopefully, working class people on both sides will realise they have more in common with each other. It’s a historic time to have a Nationalist First Minister. Hopefully this leads to a border poll, and people on both sides of the North will realise that having a Tory government benefits no one.

DJ PRÓVAÍ: The United Ireland we envision is inclusive. For a long time, the Unionist parties have used the Irish language to divide people, even though Unionists are as connected to the language as we are, there’s actually a history of oppressed Unionists speaking Irish in the North. The Irish language connects us to our land and the people who were here before us. It’s not just for one religion or culture, it’s for everyone.

Fine Art is out 6/14 on Heavenly.

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