Can you guess who is making headlines again? It is the beloved Republican hoods,” declares Móglaí Bap on Kneecap’s song from 2019, “Get Your Brits Out.” This lively and rebellious track is rapped in both English and Irish, as the trio envisions a wild night out with DUP politicians.
The term “Favourite Republican hoods” has been used to humorously and accurately describe the reception of the Irish-language rap group, Kneecap, this year. The group unexpectedly rose to fame at the Sundance film festival with their semi-fictional biopic, in which they star alongside Michael Fassbender. The movie received glowing reviews and won the festival’s audience award in January. The film’s chaotic and irreverent style tackles themes of identity and the complex social and political climate of Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement.
Unfortunately, Kemi Badenoch’s Spotify Wrapped will not include the group. Despite Kneecap’s recent achievements, the British government intervened and denied them a £15,000 grant. The group had been approved for the Music Export Growth Scheme, a government-funded program that supports artists in promoting their work internationally, but the funding was later revoked. According to a spokesperson for the UK business secretary, they did not want to allocate taxpayer money “to individuals who are against the United Kingdom.” This raises the issue of whether art must align with union beliefs in order to receive recognition and adequate funding.
The intervention sets a troubling precedent for creative, political expression. In the era of arcane streaming models, where artists can be paid as little as 13% of the income made from streams, musicians are all the more reliant on independent grants and funding. It seems a flagrant attempt to defang subversive art: Kneecap’s themes directly confront the Tory government’s failings and the stifling post-Troubles landscape it has manufactured.
In December, I attended the Belfast homecoming performance of Móglaí Bap, Mo Chara, and DJ Próvaí, who make up a group. The show took place at the revered Ulster Hall, a venue that was previously associated with Ulster unionism and used as a platform for Ian Paisley’s divisive sermons. It was not lost on the performers that they were now using the same stage to spread their message of unity, in contrast to its former use for promoting hate.
“We prioritize the working class, and there is a greater adversary present,” exclaimed Móglaí Bap while on stage. “May God bless the Good Friday agreement. They seek to divide us.”
The Republican politics promoted by Kneecap is genuine and provocative for those on the right. The group has faced numerous controversies as a result. In interviews, they frequently address the issue of Britain’s colonial history and at a pub previously visited by Prince William and Kate, they led a chant of “Brits out”. In Belfast, they also revealed a mural depicting a burning police Land Rover. While it may be seen as unjust, Badenoch’s choice to withhold funding from the group is not unexpected. Kneecap views it as yet another manifestation of the British government’s colonial mentality.
When I saw them again in Belfast, our discussion was lively, humorous, and positive. We talked about their vision for a diverse and inclusive united Ireland, and their belief in promoting class unity to combat sectarianism in Northern Ireland. We also touched on the fact that more people have died by suicide in the north since the Good Friday agreement than were killed during the Troubles, and how the band views the Irish language as a form of expression and connection with others, rather than a tool for conflict. They see it as a way to be true to themselves and communicate with friends.
Kneecap are part of the “ceasefire generation”, born at the tail end of the Troubles and with the Good Friday agreement and its promise of peace ringing in their ears. This is a youth contending with a living, amorphous conversation about its identity and political future. The British government’s attempt to stem that is draconian and dangerous. It also seems to directly contravene the Good Friday agreement, which enshrined protections for diverging political aspirations – the tongue-in-cheek Get Your Brits Out and otherwise. The result of this insidious form of censorship? Potentially, the proliferation of state-sanctioned art, which would not only blunt the intentions of the Good Friday agreement, but suppress a generation expressing their full political identity.
It is a charged time in Northern Ireland, with change afoot. Figures for national and faith identities have shifted massively. The last census figures showed that, for the first time, there are more people from a Catholic background in the country than Protestant, while 29% identified as Irish-only. The Irish language was only officially recognised by the British government in 2022, and later this year, the first Irish language primary school will open in east Belfast – a generally loyalist area. Michelle O’Neill has become the first ever Republican first minister.
With these changes, it is expected that there will be artists who will express these movements in their own unique manner, even if their art may be deemed controversial by traditional conservatives. Kneecap has assembled a legal team to contest the decision and hopefully achieve success. Art, whether it be well-funded or expressed through a balaclava, is valuable and deserving of recognition on a museum platform.
Anna Cafolla is a Belfast-born, London-based writer and editor with a focus on youth culture