Jack Bashful’s life is split into two opposing worlds, one half in a corporate office job, the other half as an musician making music in the genre taking the country in its grip – rap.
In order to find out more it was important to meet some of the key players in this emerging hip-hop scene.
Bashful has just finished his shift at work. A 9-5 office job in the city, eyes fixed to the computer screen with fingers painting a frantic rhythm across the keyboard in uniform with his co-workers in a spacious, unscented room. This streamline organisation and conformity is traded at night for alcohol stained pubs and venues where disorder is the norm where he transforms on small stages across the country. Northern Irish hip hop is not yet self sufficient for all so this day time job is necessary for Bashful.
Meanwhile, fellow Belfast based rapper, Dena Anuk$a is using music as her side gig as she has been DJ-ing in the Maldives for a few months.
In contrast to this, Belfast trio KNEECAP (who despite numerous attempts were not available for interview) have been selling out shows across Ireland, U.K and more recently, booked a run of shows in America which was halted due to the current pandemic.
This, following the inadvertent PR courtesy of the DUP councillor Christopher Stalford who condemned the group following a chant of ‘Brits Out’ at their gig in the Empire, Belfast of February last year.
Bashful was born in Huddersfield but moved to Northern Ireland when he was two years old, and settled in the Co. Armagh town of Lurgan. “I was always into rap music since I was like 11 or 12 but it was always like [London rappers] Tinie Tempah or Tinchy Stryder”.
Similarly, Anuk$a was born in England, and despite growing up in Dundonald until she was eleven, the family moved about a lot with spells in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
On what first made her want to create music, she said “Writing poetry inspired me to start writing music”.
Bashful speaks of a turning point from spectator to participator after watching the film “Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, and a quote from legendary MC Big Daddy Kane simply stating Anyone can rap”. “In the same night, I wrote something in this wee notepad I had” he remembers fondly.
The turning point for Anuksa was when she made the decision to move back to Belfast to put everything aside and pursue music. She states “In 2018, yeah I just like gave up everything and moved back to the UK, moved back in with my Mum and spent all my last money on getting recording equipment…basically being a f****** social outcast”.
In practicing out loud, Bashful states, “I never actually did it in an American accent…I’m not one hundred percent sure I’d heard any Irish Hip Hop at that point but it might’ve just been listening to Tinchy Stryder cause they don’t use an American accent”.
This speaks to the issue of identity, as some rappers in Northern Ireland may use an American accent instead of their own. Portstewart hip-hop producer ‘Cbakl’ speaks to this by telling a member of his own collective, Class Craic Records; rapper Lacuna to rap in his own accent. “I was saying to him it’s good to use your own accent ‘cause is gonna bring more attention to you like if people listen to you from Northern Ireland and they see your from Northern Ireland, they’ll be a lot more likely to continue to listen to you”.
Speaking on the Northern Irish rap scene as a whole, Bashful said “It’s definitely the best it’s been in the north when it comes to hip hop music, I mean I like to think I know a fair bit about like the history and everything that’s been happening over the years and I can’t really say that it’s been at a point like it is now because you’ve got so many people doing it, and there’s definitely not the stigma around it that there was.”
Though, he acknowledges that there are negatives to it, specifically the tribalism with there being different groups within the scene by stating, “Because there are so many things going on that obviously develops into different cliques cropping up and there’s not a lot of collaboration, I mean there’s collaboration between certain groups but as a whole people aren’t that supportive of one another”.
On her thoughts, Anuksa states that “I think I moved back at the right time for sure”. And believes with Belfast becoming more culturally diverse, this will benefit the scene. “With the cultural diversity growing, the hip hop scene is gonna grow as well because we’re taking more sounds from different places”. Though, she speaks to the limitations of the scene which come with it being in its infancy. “It’s very like unsaturated as well compared to Dublin so when you go down to Dublin there’s so many more people you can work with, there’s so may more producers, there’s labels, there’s like booking agents that are working specifically with hip hop artists but in Belfast its been really hard to find someone who can mix and master my stuff the way that I wanted it.”.
Belfast based rapper Leo Miyagee echoes the thoughts of Bashful stating “It’s very fractured but people are seemingly willing to learn”. Though, is resolute in acknowledging the variety of the scene. “I know there are…hip hop artists that believe people are scared to take risks and try new things…I completely disagree with that 110% because myself as an individual as well as the people I have worked with and associated with from the scene, there all different sounds, and they’re all different artists who do different things and different forms of art”.
In terms of the process of writing song Anuksa believes in writing songs with a message, she said “I focus on some social issues, sometimes writing in the moment based on how I feel”.
One of Bashful’s earliest lyrics he remembers well as it was recorded in a local studio, as he states “The first verse I ever recorded was in Portadown…some guy had a recording studio…“One of the bars was… A fenian but when it comes to religion I do not give a fuck, it’s not my fault how I was brought up”.
This line speaks to Bashful’s own disinterest in including politics in his music. He finds it jarring as he goes on to say, “I imagine when Eminem first came out and everyone was all, how does it feel to be a white rapper?…It’s sort of like how does it feel to be from Northern Ireland you’ve had a troubled past?”.
Bashful attributes his attitude to his upbringing, with an English father and his mum from Lurgan, and states “My mum didn’t have strong opinions on certain things, and we were always taught to be respectful of others, and not care what religion you are”.
Bashful’s music is very much in contrast to that of KNEECAP, a tore de force in Irish rap, a controversial entity with the name alone.
Their music which is bilingual, rapping in Irish and English in thick Belfast accents re-appropriating the image of a “H.O.O.D” and creating humorous songs like “Get Your Brits Out”.
The trio made up of Móglaí Bap, Mo Chara, and DJ Provaí have stated that people shouldn’t take everything they do as serious.
This is echoed by Dylan Murphy, digital editor of District Magazine and founder of Irish Hip Hop podcast, Mabfield who spoke on their impact. “Ireland has a long history of using humour and surrealism in poetry, and even like trad music and things like that, it’s been used for a long time”.
Although, Murphy notes that the political elements to their act are reflections of the groups own astute understanding of pop culture. “They’re very in tune with what’s going on and not afraid to speak their minds”.
He also states that they are aware of their target audience stating, “An older white man that’s part of the orange order is gonna see them as disruptive kids that only care about drinking and partying…whereas, like I say an 18/19 year old, politically progressive young person at university see them as socialist, and advocates for that sort of thing”.
Though, Murphy acknowledges the contradictions by stating “It’s not black and white…with them its very much open to interpretation”.
Northern Irish Rap is very much in its infancy, and there is still practical and internal limitations within it, but what it reflects is is the new generation of post Good Friday Agreement babies empowered to create their own narrative. Jack Bashful would like to wipe the slate clean, and avoid politics in his music, “I wish I could forget it all”. Dena Anuksa wants to steer clear of the crowd, “I never wanted to be one of these artists that just like making music to match the current wave”. While, Kneecap tread the lines between fiction and reality, borrowing from the past but with a following that is very much focused on the future.
Audio clips of interviews with Cbakl, Jack Bashful and Leo Miyagee: