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Northern Irish trio Kneecap raps about politics and the desire for a united Ireland

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

One of Europe's hottest new hip-hop acts just wrapped up its first North American tour. They are called Kneecap and hail from Northern Ireland, and while their music has a lot in common with the rap you hear in the U.S. thematically, there is something surprising about how it sounds. NPR's Fatima Al-Kassab reports from Belfast.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "H.O.O.D")

KNEECAP: (Rapping in Irish).

FATIMA AL-KASSAB, BYLINE: It might sound like other rap music. The group Kneecap raps about partying and taking drugs and being young. What makes their music different, though, is that they're rapping in the Irish language.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "H.O.O.D")

KNEECAP: (Rapping in Irish) (rapping) equals a cocktail brave for unleashing the beast. (Rapping in Irish), (rapping) at least.

AL-KASSAB: One of the oldest written languages in the world, Irish has long been associated with poetry and folklore, but...

MO CHARA: Not, you know, talking about fiddles and shamrocks all day.

AL-KASSAB: Kneecap rapper Mo Chara is 25, born right around the time that the Good Friday peace agreement ended the conflict known as the Troubles. For decades, the Irish language was marginalized under British rule. A generation on, there is a growing Irish-language community in Belfast, and Mo Chara, along with his fellow rappers Moglai Bap and DJ Provai, have been credited with helping that. Here's a bit of their debut song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C.E.A.R.T.A.")

KNEECAP: (Rapping) C-E-A-R-T-A.

AL-KASSAB: "C.E.A.R.T.A.," which means rights in Irish. The song was born out of a night when Moglai Bap and his friends were out spray-painting around Belfast during an Irish-language rights protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C.E.A.R.T.A.")

KNEECAP: (Rapping in Irish).

AL-KASSAB: But he says the song is about more than just language rights.

MO CHARA: We always flip everything and try and twist it and add a creative twist to everything. It's the right for us to get off our heads in Irish, to get high.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C.E.A.R.T.A.")

KNEECAP: (Rapping in Irish).

AL-KASSAB: High on drugs. And that required new words in the Irish language.

MO CHARA: That was part of the band - was creating these new vocabulary that didn't really exist.

AL-KASSAB: Kneecap also doesn't shy away from addressing politics or their desire for Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET YOUR BRITS OUT")

KNEECAP: (Rapping in Irish) (rapping) harassing me. But now we're all on the yokes, and it's starting to be...

AL-KASSAB: One of their biggest hits is titled "Get Your Brits Out."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET YOUR BRITS OUT")

KNEECAP: (Rapping) ...A good night out. They forgot all about the time that I said something like, Brits out.

MO CHARA: It's impossible not to be political here if you're going to speak Irish. It's very hard not to be political growing up in Belfast.

AL-KASSAB: The Irish language has gone from being banned in government and the courts, which are under British control here, to last year becoming one of the official languages of Northern Ireland, where 12% of people speak it. Kevin O'Shannon is a tourism officer at the Culturlann Irish Cultural Center. He remembers a time when locals fought to learn Irish in school and even risked getting arrested.

KEVIN O'SHANNON: Irish-speaking families managed to get a school open. They didn't get any support from government - in fact, quite the opposite. They were threatened with being arrested for teaching Irish.

AL-KASSAB: The biggest Irish-speaking school is now actually in Belfast, which reflects a big demographic shift. For the first time, Catholics now outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland. That has many saying that the prospect of a referendum on Irish reunification is not a question of if but when. And use of the Irish language is growing beyond the Catholic community.

LINDA ERVINE: I'm a Presbyterian.

AL-KASSAB: Linda Ervine is a member of the Protestant and Unionist community. She set up the biggest Irish-language center in the predominantly Protestant area of East Belfast. And to her, that's no contradiction.

ERVINE: In Irish, to say that you speak Irish, you say, I have Irish. (Speaking Irish). And I remember thinking at the time, I would like to be able to say, (speaking Irish). I'd like to be able to say it's part of my identity and who I am.

AL-KASSAB: For Linda, having Irish isn't about politics. It's about reclaiming her heritage and understanding the city that she is from, Belfast, or Beal Feirste in Irish.

ERVINE: You know, before I started learning Irish, I didn't know that I was born in Beal Feirste because nobody ever let me know that. I only knew the Anglicized forms.

AL-KASSAB: Each month, Kneecap organizes a house concert, but the music this night wasn't the rap that I was expecting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOGLAI BAP: Ireland is a place where music is very important to us.

AL-KASSAB: Moglai Bap says that Kneecap's music is inspired by all sorts of genres - traditional as well as rebel songs. And Mo Chara agrees.

MO CHARA: These were all songs that were, like, very Republican about the unification of Ireland, very much, like, anti-British involvement in Ireland. And we kind of grew up listening to that, like most of West Belfast did.

AL-KASSAB: They say rebel music in Ireland is, like hip-hop in America, a way for marginalized communities to express themselves. And their music is part of that heritage, from folk to traditional to Irish rap.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S BEEN AGES")

KNEECAP: (Rapping) Oh, it's been ages since we made the front pages.

AL-KASSAB: Fatima Al-Kassab, NPR News, Belfast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Fatima Al-Kassab