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'The last time someone used the N-word, he wasn't even Irish... It just didn't affect me' - Jafaris

Dublin rapper Jafaris embraced all that Ireland has to offer since moving here from Zimbabwe at the age of six. From Irish dancing to acting, the 25-year-old is now hitting his stride and has added a Choice Music Prize nomination to his artistic bow


Choice is yours: 'There is a huge variety of really  good music being made in this country,’ says Percy Chamburuka, aka Jafaris

Choice is yours: 'There is a huge variety of really good music being made in this country,’ says Percy Chamburuka, aka Jafaris

Choice is yours: 'There is a huge variety of really good music being made in this country,’ says Percy Chamburuka, aka Jafaris

It is a week after Percy Chamburuka - aka Jafaris - was nominated for the Choice Music Prize for Irish album of the year, and the news has only just settled with him. The 25-year-old Dublin rapper, who moved to Ireland from Zimbabwe with his family when he was six, says he didn't realise the nomination was a big deal at first, but now he is in no doubt.

"I feel very cut off from a lot of music being made in this country," he says, "but now that I know more about what the award means, I'm just so honoured. To get that recognition means a lot, especially when you're making music that's a long way from the mainstream."

Jafaris, who found his stage-name through the Name Generator app - it means, he says, "a deeper need to inspire" - admits that he had not been familiar with the other nominees but has been swotting up on their albums since. "It shows that there is a huge variety of really good music being made in this country."

He's not wrong. 2019 was one of the best years for home-grown music in living memory, with outstanding albums from the likes of A Lazarus Soul and two-time Choice winner Jape failing to make the final 10 nominations.

Jafaris is there on merit. His debut album, Stride, clocks in at a lean 30 minutes, but there's a great deal to admire. He excels as MC, rapper, singer and lyricist. There's super-smart production work too. Some have compared him to the acclaimed US native Chance the Rapper and it's easy to see why.

Much of the album was inspired by a recent visit to his father's old Zimbabwe stomping ground.

"I often think how different my life would have been if we had stayed there," he says. "I hadn't been back in about seven years, but unfortunately, my grandmother had died so we went back. I got to meet my extended family - they're very into traditional music and their voices sound incredible."

He also learnt much about his family history. His father had been chief of a local tribe. "My grandfather, back in the day, would have been first in the village to have a car. We had a lot of land - but no money to do anything with it. If I was living there, I would be next in line."

He says coming face-to-face with the problems experienced by the villagers showed him just how privileged his life in Ireland has been.

"So many of the things that bother me, are really trivial by comparison. I've a lot to be grateful for."

With Zimbabwe in conflict in the late 1990s, his parents sought safe haven in Europe and settled in Ireland. Jafaris grew up in Tallaght and although he has lived with his family in Newbridge, Co Kildare for the past couple of years, it's Dublin 24 that he feels a close association with.

In primary school, he enjoyed many aspects of Irish culture, including traditional Irish dancing and for much of his early life he thought he wanted to become a professional dancer. "I didn't really get into making music or singing or any of that stuff until I was about 15," he says. "Before that, dancing was everything to me."

But it was in the world of acting, rather than dancing or music, that he got his first big break. He was cast in the well received Irish movie Sing Street. Something of a love-letter to 1980s Dublin, it was written and directed by John Carney, who had enjoyed much acclaim some years earlier with the musical, Once.

Jafaris signed with an agency after the film came out, but the acting work has been modest. There have been a couple of TV commercials, including one urging viewers to pay their television licences.

"Sing Street was a great experience and I loved doing it," he says, "but if you're going to make it in acting, you really need to focus on it, to study that craft and to put everything into it. But for me, making music - and finding my voice, musically - was more important. That's where my heart is in right now, but I would still like to have my hand in acting and I do go for auditions for movies and stuff."

Jafaris meets Review a couple of days after the announcement of the General Election. One footnote this time around is the presence of the far-right, with one of the more vocal candidates calling for "mass deportation" and talking relentlessly about a so-called "great replacement" (essentially, indigenous populations being supplanted by immigrants).

It's a theory that doesn't hold up to much scrutiny, but the language is dangerous - one need only spend a short time on Twitter to note just how much racism lurks beneath the surface and how the so-called 'leaders' can stir up hate.

But if these racists were hoping their words would upset Jafaris, they will be sorely disappointment. Although the N-word has been lobbed at him, he says it doesn't bother him in the least. "If someone is racist, nothing I can say will change them," he says, with a shrug. "I know other people get really bothered by it, but not me." It's confident talk - and you believe him.

"The last time someone used the N-word, he wasn't even Irish, you know? My manager got really riled up, but personally, it just didn't affect me. It's just words and they don't matter to me. Most people don't think like that and they don't say stuff like that.

"I know that there are other people who are affected by racist stuff that's said to them and if it affects you mentally you should speak up about it."

He has a strong religious faith and he says it helps him with life's travails. "My family have a huge Christian background," he says. "And they pursued it with their whole hearts, when they came here [to Ireland], especially my dad. And, naturally, they were going to instil that in me. It was going to church every Sunday, praying every day, reading your bible every day.

"And we would do it as a family until I got to 16 or 17 and I sort of drifted away from it. Then I made friends - and one of them, King David feels very close to God and the subject of God kept coming up. The more he spoke to me about it, the more I could relate to it. It made me want to practise my religion a lot more. What you put in is what you get out and that return to Christianity really seeped into my music - because I wanted to be true to who I am when it came to making music."

He says the return to faith helped him become a better person, "especially when it came to relationships with people like my ex-girlfriend".

Ireland may be becoming a more secular place, but Jafaris says his sense of Christianity has never been more important. But he says he has little interest in preaching to non-believers.

"The very best thing is to have a society that is tolerant of everyone's beliefs, or non-beliefs," he says, "for a place where we can all live together no matter what our religions are backgrounds might be."

The Choice Music Prize live event is at Vicar Street, Dublin, on March 5

Indo Review