- 31 Dec 22
As part of our 12 Interviews of Xmas series, we're looking back at some of our unmissable interviews of 2022. Back in August, KNEECAP sparked headlines and fiery Twitter debates in the wake of their controversial mural unveiling – but it did little to slow their rapid development into one of Ireland’s most lauded live acts. With a debut album and a feature film in the pipeline, Móglaí Bap, Mo Chara and DJ Próvaí called into Hot Press for a revealing conversation about growing up, generational trauma, mental health, misconceptions, class consciousness, drugs, the far-right, Palestine, and more. Originally published in September 2022...
Half-drained cups of instant coffee have done little to quell KNEECAP’s seemingly collective hangover. But these are well-earned heavy heads – the group staggering out of their cars at the Hot Press offices in Dublin having come directly from their weekend takeover of Connolly’s of Leap in West Cork, dubbed the ‘Michael Collins Revenge Party’.
As most people with an unhealthy interest in chaotic Twitter discourse will be well aware, the Leap show wasn’t the only stand-out moment on the trio’s summer calendars. In addition to major sets at Falls Park in Belfast for Féile an Phobail, Sziget in Budapest, and Electric Picnic, KNEECAP also managed to squeeze in a fresh controversy – and trend on Twitter in the process.
KNEECAP have taken a provocative stance throughout their career, using their platform to address crucial social issues, while simultaneously offering up satirical, no-holds-barred commentary on their experiences as young men from the North – an approach that has translated into sold-out shows and streams in their millions. They’re also Gaeilgeoirs, who infuse their lyrics with an authentic mix of the conversational Irish and English they speak amongst themselves and their friends.
Ahead of their recent Falls Park show, the group – made up of MCs Móglaí Bap and Mo Chara, who hail from Belfast, and DJ Próvaí, who grew up in Derry – hosted a session at West Belfast’s Hawthorn Bar, which included the unveiling of a new KNEECAP mural, depicting a PSNI Land Rover in flames. As videos and photos were shared on social media, it soon attracted the condemnation of some of Northern Ireland’s most prominent politicians, including the leaders of the DUP, Alliance and UUP. KNEECAP, meanwhile, have defended it as “fine art.”
The sun shining down on our fine piece of art 🔥 pic.twitter.com/jxyjdq09lD
— KNEECAP (@KNEECAPCEOL) September 14, 2022
“The funny thing is, the atmosphere there was the most fucking wholesome craic you’ll have, ever,” Móglaí Bap says of the unveiling. “People singing folk songs, kids playing hurling and gaelic…”
“It was honestly a street party,” younger group member Mo Chara adds. “It was the loveliest buzz ever. Everyone drinking on the street. Tunes. Sun. All locals, as well. But it was made out like there was this mad grooming process going on – we were out grooming these kids into hatred, they said.”
“An IRA training camp!” laughs a bare-faced DJ Próvaí – who’s just removed his trademark tricolour balaclava.
Headlines, of course, are nothing new to the group. In 2019 alone, they famously saw their debut single ‘C.E.A.R.T.A.’ effectively banned by RTÉ; got kicked off stage at UCD; ended up on BBC News after performing at the Empire Music Hall in Belfast directly after Prince William and Kate Middleton’s visit to the venue; and made front page news following the unveiling of a tour poster that featured Arlene Foster and Boris Johnson tied to a rocket.
As KNEECAP themselves succinctly sum up: “Free press!”
“We’re not ones to shy away from controversy,” Mo Chara shrugs.
But there’s more to the trio than just being mindless agents of agitation and chaos. In conversation, they swing organically between madcap tales of dodgy drug dealers, to highly informed explanations of their area’s social history.
In many respects, they represent an emerging generation that challenges the establishment on both sides of the border – with their fearless willingness to highlight aspects of life in their local area that are still wrapped up in trauma for many, and damaging misconceptions for others. And despite moralistic attempts to paint them as this year’s biggest threat to civilised society, their views on class, community and religion – as they showcase during our interview – are considerably more nuanced and wide-ranging than many journalists and commentators have given them credit for.
Behind the stage lights and headlines, these past few years have also been marked by considerable challenges and immense loss for the group. As lockdown came into effect around the world in March 2020, KNEECAP were in the US, having just embarked on a string of tour dates.
“We had one gig, and then everything else was cancelled – and the fucking world shit itself,” Mo Chara recalls. “A mad aul time. That was before anyone even knew what it was, as well. You were just hearing about all these people dying from this fucking virus. We were like, ‘What the fuck is happening?…’”
An online fundraiser was ultimately launched to help cover the costs, with the group having spent thousands on visas, travel and accommodation. In the midst of the uncertainty, as weeks of lockdown dragged into months, their remarkable upward trajectory was temporarily stalled.
Six months later, Móglaí tragically lost his mother to suicide. KNEECAP went on to release the bittersweet tribute ‘MAM’ in December 2020, which they’d been working on before her death.
All three members are only too familiar with the real lives behind the North’s devastating statistics – with reports emerging in recent years that more people have died by suicide since the Good Friday Agreement than were killed during The Troubles.
“Aye – people from our school, my ma…” Móglaí reflects.
“And his brother’s friend recently enough,” he adds, nodding to Mo Chara. “A 16-year-old. It’s not even one age group anymore.”
Suicide has been described as an epidemic in areas of Belfast – and the causes, Mo Chara points out, are “endless.”
“Generational trauma,” DJ Próvaí notes. “I think 800 years of oppression is enough to bring us to this point.”
“Something’s definitely not being dealt with,” Móglaí nods. “But there’s no urgency to it. Because it’s so taboo that no one wants to talk about it. So no one really knows the extent of how rampant it is. Fucking young people – 16-year-olds, 12-year-olds who have hung themselves. It’s scary that’s a go-to solution to problems now, more so than other avenues. Instead of going to the health system. I think older people don’t really believe in therapy and stuff like that as well – a lot of them wouldn’t even bother with it.”
Lockdown, of course, made matters worse for many struggling people – something Móglaí reckons should have been addressed better at the time.
“You have to treat a country that has serious mental health issues differently,” he reasons. “To provide some avenues for people to go to during the pandemic.”
THE NEXT REBELLIOUS STEP
Móglaí’s parents were both well-known champions of the Irish language in Belfast – and he spoke Irish as his “first language” growing up.
Mo Chara’s connection to the language came from attending gaelscoil.
“There was a massive culture of it after The Troubles, from people coming out of jail,” he explains. “Everybody was putting their kids into Irish schools. It was the next rebellious step.”
“Because there were no Irish schools,” Móglaí elaborates. “The first Irish primary school only started in 1971. My dad and all, they just learned Irish off their own back."
“The teachers used to be paid by collections,” Mo Chara says. “The pupils would go around collecting in buckets, and go around with sponsor sheets. That’s how people were paid for like ten years – because there was zero state funding.
“And now look what they’ve started!” he laughs. “Fuck sake!”
As Móglaí notes, the Irish language culture in Belfast has always been “very punk.”
“A lot of these people have barely any secondary level education, and they’re starting schools,” he remarks. “Literally people who were in jail for ten years came out and went to these poorest areas, and started schools. It’s fucking mental.”
“All our friends know people who learned Irish off a fucking wall covered in shite,” Mo Chara tells me. “And that’s not even an exaggeration, it’s true! Doing their verbs on a wee gap on the wall, in cells covered in shite. Learning Irish in a fucking corner.”
“Scraping verbs in the shite,” Móglaí adds. “The cells were always getting switched around, so you’d go into one cell that would have an irregular verb, and then go into the next cell and it would have the future tense or something. And that’s how you learned those bits of grammar.”
The Irish language remains a controversial topic in Northern Irish politics, with a High Court judge recently ruling that the Stormont Executive has continued to breach a legal obligation to adopt a strategy “to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.”
KNEECAP were among the tens of thousands of people who took part in An Lá Dearg protest in Belfast in May, in support of the campaign for an Irish language act in the North. But there’s no strict language policy when it comes to their lyrics.
“It’s just whatever the fuck comes out,” Mo Chara shrugs. “We’re not strictly this or strictly that. We’re flexible as fuck.”
“Some people speak only Irish, and there’s people who speak Irish and English,” Móglaí adds. “You mix it up. It’s fun. We’re so used to just using one language here, because of English. We’re not used to people jumping between languages. If you go to Europe, cunts are speaking like five languages.”
“When we were playing Sziget, the two people who were on before us were Slovenian and Slovakian, singing in their own language,” says DJ Próvaí. “And then we came out. It was brilliant.”
Whether overseas audiences can understand every word or not appears to be irrelevant, as the crowds at their Sziget show, as well as previous gigs in England, Scotland and the US, have showcased.
They weren’t shown the same love everywhere they went in Budapest, however.
“I got robbed flat out in Budapest,” Mo Chara says, shaking his head.
“He went out thinking he’d bought grass,” Móglaí laughs. “Then he came back to the house – and it was fucking green tea. We went back out again after that for another bag of weed, and met another dealer. He was like, ‘Yes, no problem, I have good weed here – come with me.’ We walked around the corner with him. I was like, ‘I want to smell it this time, and see it. Because last time I got stroked.’ He says, ‘No problem at all!’ And it was the same. A bag of green tea again.”
“It’s the healthy option,” DJ Próvaí nods sagely.
From their early days, KNEECAP’s lyrics have been littered with drug references. The title of their 2018 mixtape 3CAG is a coded acronym for MDMA, as they explain in ‘Incognito’: “Trí chonsan agus guta” [“Three consonants and a vowel”]. Of course, resistance to drugs has been a historic feature of Republican communities. Kneecapping – the paramilitary act the group take their name from – has long been dished out as a punishment for drug dealing.
“It’s irony – because we’re talking about things that would get us kneecapped,” Móglaí says of their name.
Mo Chara is quick to mention a lesser known aspect of the North’s drug-related history.
“There’s a good documentary, called Dancing on Narrow Ground,” he says. “It’s about the rave scene in Belfast, when things were still a wee bit violent. People from both communities were coming and taking pills, and nobody gave a fuck what religion you were. They were saying that the dance scene, and pills coming in, brought a big change in people’s beliefs and stuff.”
“But there was definitely a lot of suppression to do with drugs,” Móglaí argues. “So it was very hush-hush. Even now, still. Like heroin and all – people still get shot for it.”
“You can’t hate anybody when you’re on ecstasy,” DJ Próvaí shrugs.
And their families’ reactions to some of their lyrics?
“My mam’s our No.1 fan,” Mo Chara asserts. “People always ask, ‘What do they have to say about yous rapping about fucking MDMA and cocaine all the time?’ It’s art, mam! Young people take drugs – what a shocker!”
“That’s just what the craic is,” Móglaí reflects. “We all abuse drugs. But we have fun doing it…”
“We’re the only ones who suffer,” DJ Próvaí remarks.
“Victimless crime!” Móglaí laughs. “But we don’t want to be fucking criminals – we want to smoke a joint. Or take a bit of MDMA. So legalise fucking everything.”
“Murder!” Próvaí throws in.
Clearly, nothing and no one’s out of bounds when it comes to KNEECAP’s penchant for piss-taking. For Mo Chara, offending people is more of a goal than a fear.
“We’ll take the piss out of everything,” he adds.
Last year, they added blasphemy to their list of offences, as they got up to some very questionable behaviour inside a confession box in the video for ‘Guilty Conscience’.
“We tried a church, but they wouldn’t let us in, so that’s actually in a museum,” Móglaí says of the video’s setting.
“The church said, ‘Send us the lyrics first,’” Mo Chara recalls. “And we sent a fake song. It was the most PG song we sent them. And they still said no!
“We’re taking the piss out of Irish guilt as well,” he continues. “Irish people are addicted to feeling guilty. It’s Catholic guilt and shame. ‘Sorry, sorry!’ – that’s an Irish person’s favourite word.
“They’d shit on your chest in Holland, and they wouldn’t even say sorry!”
By any standards, Móglaí’s first brush with religion was unusual. His baptism was held at a mass rock in Belfast’s Colin Glen Forest Park – though he says it was more of a cultural celebration than a religious one.
British Army Helicopter hovering over him as a baby 🚁
Móglaí Bap’s christening was at an ancient rock outside Belfast and the British army watched from above. pic.twitter.com/z7snEoEwtu
— KNEECAP (@KNEECAPCEOL) September 10, 2022
“Oh yeah, not religious,” he explains. “It was more tied into the Irish language – because we all mostly spoke Irish pre-Famine, during the Penal Laws. A priest who supported the IRA baptised me in a forest, and a British Army helicopter flew over on top of us. It was very noisy. Couldn’t hear anything!”
“What a welcome to the world,” DJ Próvaí laughs.
All three grew up at a time when The Troubles were by no means a distant memory. Although some commentators have claimed that KNEECAP are too young to remember the severity and trauma of the conflict, Mo Chara points out that, “If anyone can talk about it, surely it’s fucking us.”
“It’s all been through our families,” he resumes. “It’s not like we just showed up, and don’t know anything about it.”
“All the people around us were all Ra men – and women, as well,” Próvaí, who was raised in the Creggan estate in Derry, reveals. “You just knew, and it was just a normal thing. They were oppressed people. Internment happened – and they were being lifted off the street and fucked into jail without any trials, and without any reasons. Obviously people were going to get angry about that. They felt they had to do something. They had to stand up for themselves.”
His father was also active in the local community.
“He would’ve helped organise stuff for people coming out of the jails – with Aras Tar Abhaile, which was a welcoming place for prisoners getting out, so they could go in and play pool and chill out,” he resumes. “We would’ve had uncles and stuff who were on the Blanket Protest.”
But KNEECAP are more than happy to take aim at dissident republicans in their lyrics.
“It’s with the current dissident stuff that there’s problems now,” Móglaí notes. “They’re the ones who are really actively doing shit still. We take the piss out of those cunts.”
BUILD THAT CULTURE
Their progressive stance on political and social issues has won them plenty of support among young adults in Ireland, but having the craic was much higher on KNEECAP’s list of priorities when the group was first established.
They emerged out of what Móglaí calls their “mini subculture” – around 20 Gaeilgeoir friends who would organise gigs and festivals together.
“We were trying to get free festival tickets, basically,” Mo Chara explains. “And the best thing to do was start a group. It’s worked so far – haven’t paid for a fucking festival in years. And I’m never paying for a festival again.”
Around that time, they were also known to throw parties in a small squat in Belfast.
“Because we were organising festivals, we had these class sean-nós singers coming up from the Gaeltacht, and Cork, and everywhere,” Móglaí elaborates. “They’d come in, and all be smoking joints, drinking Buckfast, and singing songs. That went on for a while. It was some craic, having our own space. We could develop and build that culture.”
“We had our own wee bar in there called An Síbín, and we’d be making kalimotxos,” DJ Próvaí recalls. “There were people from all around the place – Basques and all – coming in.”
While they ultimately found their voices by exploring hip-hop and dance influences, KNEECAP have also maintained strong ties with folk and trad music – with Móglaí playing the flute and tin whistle.
“And on The Twelfth, I play the Lambeg drum,” Mo Chara deadpans.
‘All our mates play trad – and they’re all coke heads as well, so they all play techno trad,” Móglaí grins.
“200 BMP trad!” Mo Chara laughs.
You could also compare KNEECAP’s approach to that of another early influence, The Irish Brigade.
“That’s the type of rebel music I would’ve been into,” Móglaí says of the Co. Tyrone band. “It’s rebel music, but it’s a piss-take as well. Turning something really serious into something a bit more… fun.”
Their own sense of humour, Móglaí reckons, is a natural response to their surroundings.
“It’s a really serious place,” he says. “The only thing to do is take the piss – because if you don’t laugh, you’d be crying your eyes out. It just loosens it up a wee bit. Especially with the Irish language. The Irish language is sometimes very serious, especially down the South.”
Their provocative nature has, of course, had real world consequences for the group. Back in 2020, DJ Próvaí received a damning disciplinary letter from the secondary school he worked at – regarding his “alleged membership of a musical group known as ‘Kneecap’” – which the group subsequently shared online.
Gerry Adams was never the in the RA
+ DJ Próvaí was never a member a kneecap pic.twitter.com/skAnlYguTt
— KNEECAP (@KNEECAPCEOL) July 1, 2020
But alongside the unapologetic messing, KNEECAP’s worldview is also tied up in a deep sense of class consciousness.
"I remember learning about class war and class consciousness in school, in third year,” Móglaí recalls. “The teacher was telling us about the difference between what happens when a working class person does a crime, and someone from a more affluent area – and how they’re treated in court and all. Those were the things we were taught in school.”
“It’s not like we’re trying to fucking throw unionists out in a united Ireland,” Mo Chara says. “It’s beneficial for everyone. We want everyone to win here. We’re not like, ‘Take the vote off them!’ People try to mask it like that’s what we’re about.”
“Yeah, divisive,” Móglaí adds. “But we were down the Sandy Row on the Twelfth of July. There was an Orange Order march. And there were kids singing ‘C.E.A.R.T.A’ – they were loyalists. That blew my mind. We stayed talking to them and drinking Buckfast with them after that.
“That’s the reality. Middle-class journalists want to push that we’re divisive, but they’re the ones who are creating all this – that we don’t get along, and all this shit.”
As DJ Próvaí notes, most of the schools are still segregated in the North. But Móglaí finds that multi-denominational schools aren’t always the best option when it comes to promoting the Irish language.
“They’re offering this bland, middle-ground kind of language,” he says. “Gaelscoils are the best option for the language. But Protestants don’t go to Irish schools yet. Our secondary school was actually non-denominational. There was no religion – maybe once a week.”
“And they stopped teaching religion completely when I was there,” Mo Chara says. “The whole school was atheist.”
While they say it’s not their outright mission to bridge the gap between communities in the North, KNEECAP are the first to point out their shared similarities.
“Obviously we’re exactly the same as those people, because we live right beside them – just because the Peace Wall closes at 9pm or whatever doesn’t mean we’re not the same,” Móglaí says. “If you go to the Shankill, and ask a young loyalist what he thinks about the cops, his response would probably be very similar to what that mural is saying...”
EFFIGIES OF REAL PEOPLE
As such, KNEECAP have laughed off attempts to condemn the controversial mural as a symbol of “sectarian hatred” – the term used by Alliance leader and Northern Ireland’s Minister for Justice, Naomi Long, on Twitter.
“It’s not even sectarian to burn a police jeep, unless the police are for one side,” DJ Próvaí asserts.
Although they count Mary Lou McDonald’s children among their fans, KNEECAP aren’t too surprised Naomi Long isn’t lining up to sing their praises.
But Móglaí claims it’s hypocritical for the leader of Alliance to denounce a mural, when councillors from the party have supported holding the British Armed Forces Day in Belfast.
“A public event, for the British Army to come to Belfast and show off all their guns, to recruit people,” Móglaí laughs. “The British Army is infamous around the world for causing atrocities – but they want to talk about a mural.”
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, meanwhile, deemed the mural “offensive to every serving police officer in Northern Ireland”. But, as many of KNEECAP’s defenders have argued, anti-police sentiment and imagery is nothing new in hip-hop.
“That’s because most people who do hip-hop are working class – and working class people know that the police aren’t there to serve them,” Mo Chara states. “The police are meant to be helpful – so why is it that everybody gets nervous as soon as they see a cop? There’s something wrong there.”
“Because they’ll be the first ones to turn up when you can’t pay your rent,” Móglaí says. “Even in the cases where something has happened to me, and they’re there to help you – they’re just very insensitive and incompetent.
“There’s literally effigies of real people being hanged off fucking bonfires, every year,” he continues. “The First Minister is hanging off a bonfire, which says ‘Kill All Taigs’ underneath. But the police don’t want to go near loyalist areas. My dad was actually sectarianly abused on the bus one time, and called a cripple. And he told the police about it. But the guy came from a staunch loyalist area – and the police were basically like, ‘We just don’t go in there’.”
The controversy over the recent mural has also brought the group’s popular ‘England Get Out Of Ireland’ stickers under scrutiny once again. But KNEECAP have previously stated that it’s the British Government, rather than the English people, who are the intended targets of that kind of rhetoric.
— KNEECAP (@KNEECAPCEOL) August 24, 2022
“Partition has not really served this country too well,” Móglaí remarks.
“For loyalists too,” Mo Chara interjects. “It hasn’t done them any favours.”
Do they think there’s currently any party in the North that will make a real difference to the lives of young working class people, regardless of the community they come from?
“I don’t know,” Móglaí muses. “If we’re depending on party politics, it’s going to take a long, long time. Because party politics isn’t something that brings everyone together – it brings you in to vote for one day, and that’s it.
And, as Mo Chara notes, “the DUP won’t go without a fight.”
“But they are going down slowly, anyway,” he resumes. “Those cunts believe that the world is 6,000 fucking years old! They’re in a bad place now. Catholics up North breed like rabbits – so we’ve outbred them!
“That’s the saying,” Próvaí smiles, “‘If you can’t beat them out, breed them out.’”
“Most of the DUP are very middle class, and don’t live in the Shankill, or any of these places,” Móglaí asserts. “So they love keeping these people in eternal poverty. It suits their agenda.”
THE WRONG REPUBLICANISM
Recent years have also seen the rise of a new far-right movement in Ireland – largely made up of deeply conservative Catholics and conspiracy theorists, who’ve attempted to repurpose Irish republicanism to further their racist and xenophobic agendas.
“They’ve got the wrong republicanism,” Mo Chara reckons.
“They’re just fucking right-wingers,” Móglaí says. “They’ll jump on the next bandwagon that suits them. As far as conspiracy theories, or republicanism, or whatever.
“It’s just people being negatively brainwashed by Facebook. Middle-aged people should be barred from Facebook. Because they can’t even tell where the line is between what’s real and what’s not.”
“But the algorithms as well are what's fucking people up,” Mo Chara adds. “Like on YouTube. You’re watching one video, and then another – and within ten minutes, you think the fucking earth is flat. Jordan Peterson came up, and I clicked on it. And the next thing you know, my whole YouTube is like, ‘MAN OWNS FEMINIST!’ videos. People are so serious about it. You can’t even talk about vaccines or masks within splitting families up.”
KNEECAP have been busy enough putting their energy into more pressing matters – including raising funds for ACLAÍ Palestine, which benefits the community in Aida Refugee Camp in the West Bank, with a special intimate gig in Dublin earlier this summer.
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“Like with any struggle around the world, the North is pretty solid on it,” Mo Chara says of their solidarity with Palestine. “Because it was less than a generation ago that the war was on people’s doorsteps. So it’s hard for people who’ve been through that to watch this stuff happening.
“If Palestinians had whiter skin they probably wouldn’t be getting it this bad – or there would be a bit more solidarity around the world,” he continues. “It’s easier for people to disassociate from it, because they’re like, ‘Ah, they don’t look like me. Can’t relate!’”
While a lot of their music may be tied up in local experiences, their international perspective is equally notable. And they’re not too frightened about the impact their latest controversy could have on their overseas success in the future.
“America’s already gone through that process, of understanding gangsta rap and all that,” Móglaí says. “Similar headlines came out there when N.W.A. and Ice-T were out.”
With some major behind-the-scenes moves currently being made, these next few years could be crucial ones for the trio.
Under a different guise as a playwright, Móglaí was announced as the recipient of the Wilde Irish Writer Bursary for 2021. His play, Minimal Human Contact – which delves into the realities of gambling addiction – is currently on at An Chultúrlann, as part of Belfast International Arts Festival, following an acclaimed run at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin last week.
There’s also a debut album en route, as well as a feature film, written and directed by Rich Peppiatt, in which the members of the group will be playing themselves.
“That’s happening hopefully this year or next year,” Móglaí tells me. “It’s not our own personal stories – our characters have their own fictional stories – but it’s the KNEECAP timeline, which is all true. The bits about being in the news will all be in the movie, and the back-stories will be intertwined in that. It will be something different!”
Whether their detractors like it or not, it looks like it’s going to take more than a Twitter storm to slow this group’s exceptional rise. But do KNEECAP think about the future?
“I don’t even fucking think about tomorrow,” Mo Chara says, slumped in his chair – his hangover, despite a valiant effort, having finally pulled him into complete exhaustion.
But Móglaí leans forward.
“At the start we definitely had a trajectory of where we wanted to take this,” he tells me. “Where it is now is probably in between the 3Arena and the Olympia. Ireland’s obviously a pretty small place, so we definitely want to do more in Europe and America. So L.A., hopefully! Bel Air?”