'The days of people laughing at Irish hip-hop are over'
Choice Music Prize nominees Rusangano Family's politicised and opinionated take on the immigrant experience arrived just as questions of what it means to be Irish came to the fore
For much of last year, especially in the months around the centenary of the 1916 Rising, the country looked at itself like never before. Big questions about identity were the currency of the time: just what does it mean to be Irish?
Slap-bang in the middle of the celebrations - and the back-slapping - came a debut album quite unlike any other from an Irish band last year. Let the Dead Bury the Dead casts a cold eye over identity, belonging and the immigrant experience. It's politicised and opinionated. Once heard, it leaves an indelible impression.
Now, it's on the shortlist for Thursday's Choice Music Prize - which aims to honour the best Irish album of the year - and it stands a very strong chance of winning.
An arresting debut from the Clare-Limerick trio Rusangano Family, the album - whose title is a direct quote from the Bible (Luke 9:60) - takes Irish hip-hop into an exciting place. This is social-conscience rap that's ballsy and brave and the product of three people from very different backgrounds who have formed an alchemical musical relationship.
The Rusangano Family are comprised of two MCs - God Knows Jonas, a Zimbabwe native who relocated to Shannon with his family 16 years ago, and Murli Boevi, originally from Togo but resident in Limerick since the age of 12 - and a DJ, John Lillis, aka mynameisjohn, who hails from Ennis.
The genial God Knows is delighted to be Choice-nominated, if only because it's helping him to justify his choice of career to his parents. "March is turning into a magical month," he says. "We're on telly performing at Other Voices [broadcast on Tuesday, but available on RTÉ Player now] and that's a big deal for my parents, who'd worry that I was doing the right thing in being a musician.
"We've got this nomination, which we're delighted about, especially as we're in such good company considering the other people who've been nominated. We know some of those musicians - people like Bantum, whom we've collaborated with in the past.
"And to top it all off, we're playing Young Blood [one of the most noteworthy of the cultural offerings at this year's St Patrick's Festival] alongside some of our favourite rappers and poets, people like Stephen James Smith [responsible for the new, viral epic poem, 'My Ireland']. So it does feel as though things are happening for us."
Things have been happening for Rusangano Family for quite a while. This time last year, they were earning white-hot reviews for their performances at taste-making festival SXSW in Austin, Texas, and in 2015 they were showing what they were capable of with an incendiary song 'Heathrow', which is included on Let the Dead Bury the Dead, and remains defiant, angry and unforgettable.
"It's not all black and white, zebras and pandas," raps God Knows, "History finds us, our history binds us/ No blacks, no dogs, no Irish."
It's a song rooted in time and place and captures the refugee crisis that has been felt keenly in the Mediterranean over the past few years.
"It was written in about 40 minutes," the MC says. "John was playing this really dirty, angry, disgusting drum beat in the studio and the words just poured out of me, almost like I was vomiting. You have people whose lives are in danger who feel they have no choice but to uproot their lives and try to find safety in another country. And sometimes, they get to that country - somewhere like Ireland - and they want to contribute to society, but they have to live on €19 a week in a direct provision centre. I know people like that."
It wasn't the trio's intention to release the album during a time of national reflection, but he says the themes were in synch with much of the conversation. "We're three Irish men, three Munster men and three men from Clare and Limerick who write about our experience and the experience of living in Ireland today."
There are references to their immigrant backgrounds, not least on another standout, 'Lights Out', when God Knows raps: "I landed in Ireland in 2001/ About the same time that Dre dropped 2001."
God Knows says he doesn't like to label Rusangano Family as a hip-hop troupe exclusively, arguing that several genres, like dancehall and grime, vie for attention on their debut album. But rap is what they do most convincingly and those who have heard their music, or seen their forceful live shows, would be in little doubt that they do it very well indeed.
"The days of people laughing about the idea of Irish hip-hop are over," he says, mentioning a host of names including Dubliner Rejjie Snow. "If you laugh about Irish hip-hop now, you'll find that people will laugh at you."
He says there's a greater confidence among hip-hop artists here now than there has been before and that's because they realise that by being themselves, and not always looking to the US or Britain, they can deliver a music and message that bears the ring of authenticity.
It's a sentiment expressed on the aforementioned 'Lights Out': "Thought I had to be American/ Thought I had to be English/ Everything else but myself."
God Knows first came to the attention of discerning music fans in 2014, when he and Lillis released an album, Rusangano/Family, together. At the same time, Murli was getting some rave notices for his Surface Tension EP. When the three started working together, they called themselves Rusangano Family. Now, God Knows says the trio have a strong musical communion.
None feel the need, for now, to move to Dublin, or overseas. "There's a lot happening in Limerick and there's a vibrant music community and a lot of connection between very different musicians. We'd be good friends with [alt-rock band] Windings and were really thrilled when they got their Choice nomination a few years back."
The three do a lot of work with young, fledgling musicians in the area and are heartened by the huge mix of sounds and influences they're hearing. "It's Ireland in microcosm," he says, "so much good music, so many young musicians with a lot to say."
Perhaps wisely, he's unwilling to offer a prediction about who might join Jape, Villagers, Two Door Cinema Club et al in the Choice winners club.
"Getting nominated is a prize in itself and just about anybody could win," he says diplomatically. "It'll be a night for celebration and proof that Irish music is in a good place right now."
The Choice Music Prize live show is on Vicar Street, Dublin, on Thursday. Rusangano Family play the St Patrick's Festival's Young Blood event in the National Concert Hall on March 18