Belfast band Kneecap defying convention

Belfast band Kneecap defying convention

THE band Kneecap is appalling. They will no take offence at me saying that for their whole purpose is to flaunt themselves in front of us as garish and rude. Their music is a mix of punk and rap. Their ethos is a mix of west Belfast hood culture and brash republicanism.

Hood culture, if you don’t know about it, probably emerged as a response to the IRA in working class areas among young people who were being policed by IRA vigilantes. Some of the proud hoods that I knew years ago, when I researched the culture, were sons of IRA men. They resented the chauvinism and discipline of the republicans and risked getting ‘kneecapped’ for their outrageous behaviour, from stealing cars and roaring round the streets, showing off hand brake turns to their mates, taking drugs and organising raves to actually attacking the homes of the same republican hard men. Those hard men would take them into back alleys when they caught them and shoot them in the legs.

One hood that I knew of tied a poker to a length of rope, fed it through the letter box of an IRA man, tied the other end to the back of a stolen car and drove off, pulling the door off its hinges.

The hoods were not unionists or in any sense pro-British or aligned with the State, though many of them, when arrested, were recruited to spy on the IRA in return for having charges dropped.

The band Kneecap announced its existence first with a Falls Road mural showing a police land-rover in flames, as if struck by an unusually effective petrol bomb.

The message in Irish was that the RUC weren’t welcome.

But the RUC was disbanded 23 years ago so that was hardly a problem.

The easy inference was that the band encouraged the petrol bombing of the police but much more respected art has also reproduced imagery from the violence and without unnerving us. When artist Rita Duffy made a model Armalite rifle out of chocolate, her old grammar school St Dominic’s proudly put it on display.

But Kneecap really is in a different league. The band raps in a mix of Irish and English, sings about drugs and mayhem, is totally raucous and rude.

Last month they went to the Sundance Film Festival and won an award for a movie they’ve made with Michael Fassbender. But they also drew derision to Northern Ireland Screen and other bodies which funded them.

Then a grant that had been approved by the Music Export Growth Scheme (MEGS) to promote music abroad was withdrawn by the British government.

The reason given for withdrawing the fund, said UK Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch's spokesperson, was that they did not want to hand taxpayers' money ‘to people that oppose the United Kingdom itself’.

Northern Ireland Screen had been reviled in the media for giving the band money because they are anarchic and foul mouthed. Ian Paisley MP claimed Kneecap were “rewriting and glorifying” what he termed the “sectarian war of hate by the IRA”.

Given that they sing mostly in Irish, I am not sure that Paisley really grasps what they are saying most of the time. I don’t.

Former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, said the money was ‘squandered’.

Presumably Badenoch was aware of the criticism Kneecap’s other funders had faced when she withdrew the MEGS money.

But her choice of excuse betrayed a serious ignorance of Northern Ireland politics.

If arts funding can be refused to a group which is opposed to the Union and wants Northern Ireland out of it then all funding decisions will be made on sectarian lines.

Seamus Heaney would never have got a grant if support for the Union had been an essential qualification. I’m not sure he ever applied for one but you get my point.

Every year the West Belfast Festival attracts public money to events which celebrate republicanism. And, yes, it is often followed by media debates on whether that money should be spent in such a way but a core principle of the Good Friday Agreement is “parity of esteem”. It is perfectly legitimate for a Northern Ireland citizen to identify as Irish, oppose the Union and to express that opposition culturally. This would be violated if one community was favoured over the other by funders and if money only went to artists and organisations after they had been vetted and found to be sound unionists.

As for Kneecap, I am sure they are thrilled to bits by the attention they are getting. The £15,000 that Kemi Badenoch denied them would surely not have been enough to buy the attention that her decision has brought them.

Anyway, it is a misreading to see them as representative of republican culture and the IRA. One of them calls himself DJ Próvaí and wears a Tricolour balaclava. This is no more respectful of modern republicanism than the Sex Pistols rendition of God Save the Queen was of monarchy.

Sinn Féin, which is the true legatee of that culture, is notoriously tight with its messaging and must have some members wondering how they might rein in these headers.