Kneecap are shouting out to the glue-sniffers and the “low-life scum”. Ten thousand people in Falls Park are loving it. It’s a night of messy humour, beats and singalong. Here we are, in the Gaeltacht of west Belfast, where the seeds of an Irish language movement have grown into a new vernacular of pills, thrills and bellyache. This is the group’s heartland, their “DLA capital”, a community that’s engaged and up for it.
Clickbait journalists may write aggrieved copy about punishment beatings and kneecappings, but there’s a more playful side to the name that puns on the Irish, ní ceapaim – “I don’t think (so)”. It’s the punchline to a conflict joke, but the applications are various. Often, this act is more nuanced and savvy then their critics believe.
It’s the closing days of the Féile an Phobail, a festival that tends to end loudly. This suits Kneecap, who delight many people and wilfully annoy some more. They can trigger the haters, which is not so difficult in these parts. They reel off the acronyms with great pleasure. They slap down the BBC and RTÉ – the broadcasters who censor and shun them. Kneecap like to ridicule radio guy Stephen Nolan, loyalist commentator Jamie Bryson plus the DUP. These are the people who may amplify the outrage and pump up the Kneecap stock value.
Earlier in the day, they had unveiled a new mural on Hawthorn Street. ‘England Get out of Ireland’ got them the expected media space, but it was also the chance to make a useful point:
“We don’t want to get anyone out of Ireland apart from the British Tory Government. In the Shankill and Falls and other working-class areas, we are all the same. We are all one. It is about the community and love.”
On stage, it sometimes it feels like pantomime, and the Buckfast-swigging schtick is played out. But there’s an edge when they reverse the sectarian terms and re-purpose them as weapons. It worked for NWA and Public Enemy and it’s plainly working here. Their people are roaring out the chorus lines of ‘Fenian C**ts’. In the lyric, there’s a character called Eliza Woodcock, with her Union Jack bedsheets. She realises, to her horror, that she’s been consorting with a republican hood. It’s not the greatest art, but you might argue that it’s a Swiftian satire about tribal Belfast.
Móglaí Bap and Mo Chara are your rappers in the North Face apparel. DJ Próvaí is the trickster in the balaclava. The meta-modern graphics on the live screens are in part a tribute to the style of Rubberbandits, whom they hail as “our Beatles”. There is design work from Spicebag who caused some of the media ructions last year with the burning Land Rover (and most recently with his updated Eviction artwork). Kneecap have responded with a track called ‘Fine Art’, which pushes the argument into another realm.
Their recent tune, ‘It’s Been Ages’, marks the return of the folk devils. Just like Chuck D’s ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ or ‘You Love Us’ by the Manic Street Preachers, it wants to energise the ill-will. But it’s not their best tune and the take-up has been minimal. This is a critical time for Kneecap. The upcoming album has been produced by Tom Bell (Toddla T), the partner of DJ Annie Mac and is likely to include The Fontaines DC and Lankum. They’ve signed to Mute publishing, and there’s a pending feature film and record deal. Success might be a given and their front may seem bulletproof, but during their recent chat with Blindboy at the Waterfront Hall, Kneecap seemed concerned that they might simply be remembered as a novelty act.
“We’ll see youse when the Wolfe Tones die,” they say, near the end of the gig. It’s an admission that there’s a bigger, rebel moment in the Féile programme, a Sunday night mainstay that gets the passions up and the chants going. Kneecap might settle for that understudy role, but surely the ambition goes beyond it.
They play a few new tunes at Falls Park and they sound decent. The biggest shouts are for the faves like ‘Get Your Brits Out’ – a scuzzy, imagined night on the yokes with the DUP’s Arlene Foster, Jeffrey Donaldson, Christopher Stalford and Sammy Wilson. And of course there is ‘C.E.A.R.T.A.’, their defining work about Irish language rights and police interference.
The Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Act was passed last December. ‘C.E.A.R.T.A.’ is now part of our history – a hip-hop grievance that helped to voice a massive movement. So, when they play it now, the park is jubilant, singing as Gaeilge, taking the words off into the Belfast night, even after the act has left the stage. At the very least, Kneecap have soundtracked an important moment. They literally spelled it out. Sin é.
Kneecap, Falls Park, Belfast, 11.08.23