“The government is probably writing up a new law as we speak to ban Irish-language hip-hop for life.” Annoying all the right people, Kneecap have been called “the most controversial band since the Sex Pistols”, and they're only just getting started

(Image credit: Kneecap)

Above the urinals in the men's toilets in The Rutz, there's a faded black-and-white poster featuring an image of a masked paramilitary gunman alongside the stark warning 'Loose-talk costs lives'. Additional text cautions patrons of the bar not to go shooting their mouths off 'in taxis, on the phone, in clubs and bars, at football matches, at home with friends, anywhere!' In case that message isn't quite clear enough, there's one final, bold-type instruction: 'whatever you say - say nothing'.

Growing up in the North of Ireland in the 1970s and '80s, that phrase was Rule Number 1, repeatedly drilled into the consciousness of every man, woman and child. At the height of a complex, deep-rooted political, social, civil and religious conflict known by the painfully simplistic sobriquet 'The Troubles', sharing the most basic details of one's life - your name, your address, your school, your workplace, your pronunciation of the letter 'H' - with the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, could prove to be a fatal error of judgement, marking you out a 'legitimate target' for abuse, assault, or even assassination. Understandably, this could cast something of a pall over day-to-day life in a statelet whose name and very existence was a subject of endless heated. and potentially violent, debate.

Right now, however, 26 years on from the signing of the Belfast Agreement (aka the Good Friday Agreement), the most talked-about band in Ireland is Kneecap, a proudly working class, openly Republican, West Belfast hip-hop trio who have not only displayed a blatant disregard for keeping their mouths shut and their opinions to themselves, but are speaking their truth loudly, globally, without fear... and in two languages, Gaeilge (Irish) and English.

Trust us, you're going to hear a lot about Kneecap in 2024, whether you like it or not.

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Fine Art at The Rutz

Fine Art at 'The Rutz', June 13, 2024 (Image credit: Paul Brannigan)

Strictly speaking, The Rutz does not exist. The fictional West Belfast bar is the setting for the trio's smart, sussed, wildly exuberant and thrillingly eclectic debut album, Fine Art, where Irish traditional music sits alongside punk rock riffs, garage beats, rave rhythms and the most hilarious, hedonistic and authentically human lyrics you'll find on any record released in any genre in 2024.

But for one night only, on the eve of the record's June 14 release, that fictional boozer became a bricks-and-mortar, custom-decorated reality in East London - "a little bit of the Falls Road in the belly of the beast" as the invite stated - for a raucous launch party, from 5pm to late, hosted by the band, rappers Mo Chara (Liam Óg Ó Hannaidh) and Móglaí Bap (Naoise Ó Cairealláin) plus DJ Próvaí (JJ Ó Dochartaigh). Guests in attendance included The Pogues' Spider Stacey, Lankum's Radie Peat, guest vocalist on Fine Art's opening track 3CAG, former Radio 1 DJ Annie MacManus, another album guest, married to its producer Toddla T (Thomas Bell), and Hollywood superstar Michael Fassbender (Hunger/Shame/The Killer), who plays Móglaí Bap's father in the band's forthcoming award-winning, semi-fictionalised biopic Kneecap, which we'll come to later.

Featuring a trad music session, a DJ Próvaí set, and no shortage of spontaneous, full-bar Irish 'rebel song' singalongs, it is, to quote a Spider Stacey social media post, post-shindig, "a proper fucking party", with Fine Art given its first public playback at 6:15pm, to roars of approval. The following evening, notably not the following morning, The Pogues man offered his own mini-review of the record on X (formerly Twitter), writing: "I’m out of superlatives. Kneecap are giants. You should buy this record now. All of you."

Realistically, although it's been awarded fistfuls of five-star reviews across a broad spectrum of media - on this site, by NME, by DIY magazine, by The Irish Times, The Times and more - this won't happen, not because of the quality of the band's music, but because there are many who have already written off and dismissed the band, based purely on headlines they've generated since their formation in 2017.

Fiercely intelligent, unapologetically political, outspoken and blessed with both finely-tuned bullshit antennae and a keenly-developed sense of mischief, Kneecap have honed their ability to wind people up to a... ahem... fine art. Their gift for provocative button-pushing was there from day one, to be fair - their name is a reference to a brutal, long-established (and often community-approved) form of punishment meted out by paramilitary groups to individuals accused of 'anti-social behaviour', anything from drug-dealing to petty theft - but as their profile has risen, and their reach expanded, their critics too have swelled in numbers, with not everyone approving of, or even understanding, their use of Republican slogans or the black-humoured satirical savagery of songs such as Get Your Brits Out (a riotous fantasy about a night on the lash with famously uptight DUP politicians), the poignant, achingly-tender and beautifully sincere love-across-the-barricades anthem Fenian Cunts, or the gleefully self-referential, insult-weaponising H.O.O.D with its chorus that runs "I'm a H.O.O.D / Low-life scum, that's what they say about me."

That perfectly-pitched, hilarious mix of panic, revulsion, incomprehension and mounting impotent fury which consumes Alan Partridge when County Sligo's own 'Alan Partridge impersonator' Martin Brennan breaks into Come Out Ye Black And Tans on his primetime magazine/chat show This Time? That's how The Daily Mail and professionally-outraged cultural commentators feel when confronted by Kneecap, already dubbed "Britain’s most controversial band" by a newspaper headline writer who presumably never got around to checking the trio's Irish passports.

One of the group's most vocal opponents is boorish BBC Radio Ulster/BBC 5 Live presenter Stephen Nolan, the corporation's most highly-paid Six Counties-based broadcaster, who has accused them of stoking sectarian hatred ("Fuck religion, we're about working class solidarity," Mo Chara insists). Nolan's sneering, sarcastic description of a mural of a burning PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] Land Rover unveiled by Kneecap on Hawthorn Street in Belfast in 2022 as "fine art" gave the trio their album title, with the title track cheekily sampling his attempted diss and mocking his blustering rhetoric.

"He's been harassing us," jokes a clearly-amused Mo Chara, as the quick-witted, articulate and hugely likeable trio join Louder around a table in a central London bar/venue. "His assistant called our manager, begging us to go on his show, and our manager recorded the phone call. We said we'd go on if he gave us one per cent of his [taxpayer-funded] salary, which would be four grand [£4,000]...very reasonable, we thought. [Laughs] Then he went on the radio and told his listeners that he wouldn't have us on his show, and hadn't invited us... this after the cunt begging us, and with us having a recording of it! We went on Twitter and asked him if we should release the tape. Never heard back..."

The performative bullshit of provincial blowhards need not detain the trio much further anyway, for 2024 is already shaping up as the year Kneecap go global. 

KNEECAP: Sick In The Head | The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon - YouTube KNEECAP: Sick In The Head | The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon - YouTube
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On January 18, the band's wildly entertaining self-titled biopic became the first Irish language film ever to premiere at the prestigious Sundance film festival in Utah. Set in west Belfast in 2019, it relates the trio's stranger-than-fiction origin story and chronicles how our unlikely heroes overcome bigotry, discrimination, harassment, death threats and ketamine benders en route to changing "the sound of Irish music forever." With its fabulous soundtrack, furious energy, copious drug-taking and irresistible, unbreakable lust for life, its most relevant cinematic reference might be Trainspotting, if Danny Boyle's film was set in Belfast not Edinburgh, the Beastie Boys played Renton, Spud and Sick Boy, and nightmarish visions of dead babies were swapped out for a gloriously surreal cameo by Sinn Féin's long-time [now retired] President Gerry Adams. 

Ahead of its premiere, Kneecap, in which the trio brilliantly portray cheerfully-exaggerated versions of themselves, became the festival's first major sale, with industry bible Variety reporting that Sony Pictures Classics had acquired all rights to the title for North America, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Turkey and the Middle East. Later that same week, after scoring glowing reviews, the film also picked up the festival's Audience Award, which the trio humbly accepted while expressing their hope that the honour "will give people in Ireland the confidence to pursue the arts through their native tongue."

A synopsis of the film, co-written by the band and English writer-director Rich Peppiatt, on the official Sundance website reads: "Armed with a blend of English and native Irish verses and blazing, politically charged rhymes, Kneecap’s music takes us on a ketamine-fueled, rollicking trip to encounter the meaning of pure defiance. Filmmaker Rich Peppiatt captures the untamable essence of this singular trio with unapologetic humor and energy, revealing a generation born out of chaos and ready to reclaim their cultural heritage.

"Fervent and unforgettable, Kneecap is the rallying cry of a music group poised to take the world by storm."

Today, the trio happily admit that they were more than a touch suspicious and sceptical when first approached by Peppiatt  - "The English have a reputation for exploiting the Irish" quips DJ Próvaí - but opened up and embraced the idea after being won over by the film-maker's persistence, enthusiasm and insistence that their natural charisma, on-stage swagger and shared chemistry would translate perfectly to the big screen. 

"We were obviously protective because if the movie was shite, we still have to be the band Kneecap," says Móglaí Bap, "whereas everyone else who was involved would walk away to their next project. We were conscious that if it's shit, we'd be kinda fucked."

"If it was shit, it'd heavily affect our music career, so, in some ways, it was a risk that we didn't need to take, because we were on a good trajectory, and it could have ended everything," says Mo Chara. "But on the flipside, we knew that if it went really well, it would catapult us ever further. Which is exactly what has happened."

"It's exciting," says Móglaí Bap, "partly because we're getting to bring our language to places it's never been before. Now we can teach Amercians that 'Irish' isn't just an accent, it's a whole different language. And we have so many people who've contacted us to tell us that they've been inspired to learn to speak Irish by discovering us, which is inspiring for us in turn."

As to which elements of the Kneecap narrative are real, and which are dramatised, the trio are keeping schtum. 

"With life in general, if you know everything, it's boring and bland," says Mo Chara. "We need to have some mystery, and, as with our music, we don't want to take people by the hand, and define everything, and put it all in a box. Whatever you take away from it, and whatever you think is real, is."

"The best art draws from reality," adds Móglaí Bap. "The start of the movie, which shows my christening in the woods, with a British Army helicopter hovering overhead, that there's real. And if something that surreal is true, you know that there'll be other mad stuff happening, but we're not going to start dissecting it and separating the fact from the fiction. Where would the fun be in that?"

KNEECAP | Official Trailer (2024) - YouTube KNEECAP | Official Trailer (2024) - YouTube
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Besides, Kneecap's lives are only going to get more surreal from here on in.

When Mo Chara and Móglaí Bap, who've known each other for 13 years, having met at an Irish language cultural centre, first hooked up with DJ Próvaí, who hails from Derry, in 2017, there wasn't exactly a desperate demand in Ireland or anywhere else for a potty-mouthed Irish-language hip-hop group. Who could possibly have imagined that, seven years on, the trio would be selling out 2,000 capacity venues in New York, or performing Sick In The Head on iconic US talk show The Tonight Show, with host Jimmy Fallon, the programme's usually-vigilant production team and watching the millions watching at home all presumably blissfully unaware that the lyric "You're a mad cunt Mo Chara" isn't actually an Irish language expression.

This week, the band announced their biggest hometown headline show to date, at the 11,000 capacity SSE Arena on December 21 [tickets on sale from 10am on Friday, June 21] and, having come this far, they understandably don't see a ceiling for their group. Oh, and there's still the small matter of their legal case against the British government to look forward to, with the frankly delicious prospect of the trio facing off against Kemi Badenoch, Secretary of State for Business and Trade, President of the Board of Trade and Minister for Women and Equalities in a court of law, after the Conservative politician personally intervened to block funding awarded to the group under the UK's Music Export Growth Scheme (MEGS).

"Fuck the Tories!" the band stated upon hearing the decision. "Once again the British government is trying to silence voices from West Belfast. Once again it will fail!"

"We actually can't go into the details of this, for legal reasons," Mo Chara admits, "but we were eligible for arts funding, and were accepted, and granted £15,000 for touring in America, and then Kemi Badenoch vetoed the decision. For her to even know about this, or about us, is mad, but a friend of ours who's a journalist got in touch with her, and asked her about her decision, and she said, 'Why would we let UK taxpayer money go towards a band who are against the United Kingdom?' Which is bizarre.

"By that logic, if we don't agree with the idea of the United Kingdom, we shouldn't have to pay taxes, but we have to, because that's the law. And because we pay taxes, we're entitled to apply for arts funding: the idea of a politician declaring that you can only make art if it's approving of the government is like something you'd hear from Vladimir Putin.

"The biggest political party in the North of Ireland," he continues, "is Sinn Féin, a Republican party, so what we say in our music or in our interviews is actually mainstream political opinion where we're from, it's not like we're some mad extremists. So it'll be interesting to see what happens. The British government is probably writing up a new law as we speak to ban Irish-language hip-hop for life!"

The trio crack up laughing once more, and down their pints.

Tomorrow, June 20, a court in Belfast will pass judgment on whether the British government has a case to answer in regards to a claim of discrimination against the band based on their political beliefs. "We think the judge will agree," the trio posted on X, "let's see."

Fuck 'whatever you say - say nothing', here's a new Rule Number 1: if you come for Kneecap, you better not miss.

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Kneecap's Fine Art is out now on Heavenly Records. Kneecap, the film, will be released in Ireland on August 8, and in the UK on August 23. Dates for screenings worldwide will be announced soon: it will not be shown in Israel, in protest against the on-going genocide in Palestine. The band play Glastonbury festival on June 29, and will take part in a Q&A alongside Rich Peppiatt at a free advance screening of Kneecap on the same day.

Kneecap's legal challenge against the UK government will be heard in court on November 14. 

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.