When it came to predicting the surprise outcome of General Election 2020, most political pundits failed miserably. But Dundalk rappers TPM were on the money when it came to the national sentiment.
The duo released a track called 'TPM Don’t Have Your Money', which includes the catchy refrain “F**k Fine Gael and F**k Fianna Fáil too,” a week before the general election. It seems a fair proportion of the Irish population was in agreement, most notably amongst the youth vote.
Professor J Griff Rollefson, musing on the recent election result, draws a correlation between this political youth backlash, the burgeoning Irish Hip Hop scene, and his own work in the area of Hip Hop and post-colonialism.
“My thesis is that Hip Hop music derives from a post-colonial solidarity, rather than a race one,” Rollefson says. “I think my thesis is right, but moving to Ireland made me realise I hadn’t even properly understood what Turkish kids and Palestinian kids and Irish kids all had in common: they’re all feeling different valences of marginalisation.
“Senegalese kids in Paris were told they were French citizens on the one hand, but at the same time not equal. I think the Sinn Féin showing demonstrates that these are histories that are not finished. People in Ireland still feel this cultural chauvinism that’s coming from across the Irish sea.”
Many Irish Hip Hop acts, including TPM and countless others – with the notable exception of Dublin’s Versatile, who seem to have followed in the footsteps of a transatlantic brand of misogynistic Gangsta Rap rooted in conspicuous consumption – wear their austerity-era upbringing as a badge of honour.
Many more of the rising stars in Irish Hip Hop are young, black and Irish, the children of recent arrivals on these shores, some of whom have spent time in Direct Provision centres.
Rollefson has recently been awarded a €2 million European Research Council grant to fund a new five-year global Hip Hop studies programme, charting Hip Hop knowledge on six continents. The research grant is the result of a four-year application process.
“They don’t just dump a pile of cash at me,” he says. “Now I’m able to hire a team. €2 million, when you hire five people to work for five years, suddenly doesn’t seem like such a lot. At the moment, I’m hiring researchers to go around the world to look at what it is about Hip Hop that speaks to people.”
The project, entitled CIPHER (Le Conseil International pour Hip Hop et Recherche), includes the first ever global academic journal of Hip Hop, issue one of which is due out in June, and a worldwide call-out via social media for Hip Hop fans to name their “top five artists, tracks, and gems of hip hop knowledge,” Rollefson explains.
“We want public engagement, for this to be a citizen science project,” he says. “We’re asking for the top five artists with local resonance for you, and for your top five tracks that hold that local resonance. And then specifically, what are your gems of Hip Hop wisdom, the lyrics or beat that you love.”
Working with research fellows including recent Harvard PhD Graduate in Ethnomusicology Dr Warrick Moses, whose research centres around his native Capetown, and Australia-based Jason Ng, a scholar of Asian Hip Hop, for the next two years, the research will focus on Europe, Africa and Asia before being expanded to include Latin America and the US.
It may be global, but Rollefson says Cork is an ideal base for CIPHER: “Cork has an amazing Hip Hop scene. There’s Speculativ Fiktion and Ophelia and Outsiders and Jar Jar Jr. Right down the road there’s Limerick, which has an even more remarkable scene. And this whole project is about how Hip Hop speaks to locality.”
From NWA’s Straight Outta Compton to Eminem’s 8 Mile, Hip Hop has always been about place, and in Ireland, that’s no different, Rolleson says.
“The most authentic way to be Hip Hop is to be totally where you’re from,” he says. “GMC Beats, Garry McCarthy, is working on the North Side with Knocknaheeny kids: they have a song called Yeah Boy, they’re referencing ‘the gaff’ or calling people a ‘langer.’ Wherever you go around the world, Hip Hop artists demonstrate their authenticity by demonstrating a knowledge of where they’re from. Cork being such a self-proud place, and the Rebel City, it’s really well-placed for that.”
Professor Griff's five personal hip hop takes
“I was walking home from church where I grew up in Milwaukee, and there was a block party happening. There was this kid with a piece of cardboard and two big speakers and he was doing a headspin. I stood and watched with my mom. For a lot of kids of my generation, break-dancing, or b-boying as we’d call it now, was their first exposure. I instantly wanted to become a break-dancer. I never got the headspin down but I could do windmills, the worm, the bronco and the moonwalk. It was ’83 and I was eight.”
“I got into things like DJ Jazzy Jeff, but it was Public Enemy’s 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions, and later in 1990 Fear of a Black Planet, that helped me to see this isn’t just music, but is a political project. That came at the point of my own racial awakening and questioning where I belonged in that music. I grew up in a very diverse American city and had friends of all sorts of backgrounds.”
“A lot of hip hop discourse deals in ‘real vs fake’ and I don’t ever want to get to into that. But 95% of the hip hop I see in Ireland knows how to position itself and the Soft Boy label in Dublin is a great example. Their logo is a vanilla soft-serve ice-cream cone. To me, that’s a gem of hip hop wisdom that says, ‘we all know the discourse here: Vanilla Ice, white appropriation. But we’re not going to play that hard man stereotype; we’re going to be Soft Boy, we’re going to own our whiteness and we’re going to make this reflect who we are.’ They’re flipping the script on the idea of hip hop masculinity.”
“Marxman were a Marxist Irish hip hop group formed in the late ‘80s in London, with Donal Lunny’s son, Oisín Lunny. They released a song called ‘Ship Ahoy’ about the Irish famine ships. To me that’s a gem of Irish hip hop wisdom because there’s bodhrán and trad flute and then the turntable. How is hip hop able to say, ‘I know the history of this music and I know what it means vis-a-vis oppression and adversity, or revolt or whatever, but I also know that I can’t pretend to be a black kid from the US?’ That’s what we’re really looking for: how hip hop is localised.”
“I am dad to two small kids, so it’s really difficult to get out and see enough live music at the moment. But I went to see Mango X Mathman [Dublin hip hop duo] in the Kino last weekend.”