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Kojaque: "Governments laud artists once you’re successful, but you’re not helped on that road"

Eric Davidson talks to Irish rap star Kojaque about conquering self-doubt and the Irish and UK governments disrespecting the arts

  • Words: Eric Davidson | Photography: JOSHUA HEAVENS ONABOWU
  • 16 September 2021

New Year’s Eve is always a let down. There’s so much promise. Excitement builds for the night ahead and the fresh start on the horizon, but then it all ends in tears, with a waft of piss. Much like Irish culture right now, hopes are so often raised, but ultimately you're left disappointed while champagne flutes are clinking over at a street you can’t afford to live on.

Back in February Mixmag reported on Ireland’s plans to amend the country’s archaic legislation around club and night-time spaces. It was touted as an attempt to give hope to an industry that has been crushed since March 2020. But as so often is the case, there was a lack of urgency from the government. And worse still, until very recently, the Irish music and night-time industries were being given little to no direction as to when it would be safe to open. In August, 40,000 people descended on Croke Park stadium in Ireland’s capital to watch a game of hurling, one of the many large scale sporting events the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) organised. This was an exciting step in the right direction, but at the same time just 200 people were allowed to attend a socially distanced gig outdoors. Plus, dancing was effectively banned in the country. While a roadmap has now been drawn out (thanks in large to consistent pressure on the government by organisations like Give Us The Night), this is a glimpse at the indifferent attitude that the Irish government has towards music and night-time culture. Artists are too often an afterthought.

In Dublin especially, town’s dead right now, and those who can revive it are being pushed out. For hip hop artist and filmmaker Kojaque, he’s moved across the Irish Sea to London to try and carve a path in a city that historically has more respect for its artists. Many creators have made that journey, but sometimes even in a town with a little more life, the challenges are universal.

Boris Johnson telling people to retrain for digital, that was a piss-take for anyone who has studied art or makes music. People have years of experience behind them, and to say that to someone is so disrespectful and ignorant of the value of art and music,” Kojaque says via video chat from his place in London with the same understandable venom that his latest record is soaked in. “People were doing nothing in the pandemic except for consuming culture and art made by these same artists. My job and my livelihood are as important as anyone else’s.”

A concept album set on New Year’s Eve, ‘Town’s Dead’ arrived at the end of June with Kojaque’s familiar combination of fury and sensitivity. It’s gotten attention from major platforms and radio stations and earned him live appearances on COLORS and Vevo.

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This all followed a busy pre-COVID couple of years for the Cabra native. His debut project ‘Deli Daydreams’ was nominated for the Choice Music Prize, Ireland’s equivalent of the Mercury Prize, he went on a lengthy UK and European tour which included multiple dates with slowthai and Lana Del Rey, and his label Soft Boy Records was the subject of a Boiler Room documentary. He’s now staring down the barrel of another tour in late 2021, playing festivals like AVA in Belfast and a slew of headline shows across the continent. Alongside the likes of the Narolane crew, Rejjie Snow and many others, he’s set the bar artistically for hip hop in Ireland, embodying the DIY sensibilities which are all too often necessary to survive.

“The Irish government has a similar kind of flippancy when it comes to the value of art,” Kojaque says, donning his distinctive and now signature half blonde half brown haircut. “Ireland is not set up as a place for young, modern creative people. The system is based on old, traditional, often Catholic ways. If you’re married and you have a 9-to-5 job you might be able to afford a house. Certainly not if you’re getting money here and there from being an artist.”

For months a date had not been agreed by the Irish government on the return of the live music and club-night industries, while up north large-scale shows and festivals have been in full swing. The lack of clarity had many deeply frustrated, and Kojaque says the lack of any indication of an endpoint was not only damaging artists' livelihoods, but also to their mental health.

“The album took my mind off everything completely. I sat in my room, and I had something to do. A lot of people really didn’t have something to do, and I felt so bad for them. I’m just happy the record is out now, and I hope it’s an escape for people in the same way it was for me. The music scene has been hit in a different way to other industries. It’s been a real shame to see how different governments have reacted to it. It’s so disheartening.

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“You need to plan for your future, because otherwise you’re just leaving people buffering. To me it screams, ‘We don’t really give a fuck about you, unless you’re James Joyce’, that’s when they care. Maybe in 100 years’ time they’ll be talking about how brilliant Club Comfort or the guys at Soft Boy Records were, but what the fuck did you do to help when we were around? For current artists? They leave them to die.

“You become lauded once you’re successful, but you’re not helped on that road. It’s about doing it yourself. A lot of it is believing in yourself despite the hurdles in front of you.”

Even with how decorated Kojaque’s ascent has been, that sense of self-belief wasn’t a trait that came naturally to him. ‘Town’s Dead’ is packed with personality, with anger, love, sadness and hedonism exposed bare. There’s an uncompromising truth to ‘Town’s Dead’ that was hinted at in his previous work, an honest self-expression that was part of his foundations, but now it’s brick-by-brick built into 16 tracks. It took some work mentally to get to this point for him though. Creeping self-doubt and seemingly chronic imposter syndrome was well hidden for years behind energetic stage shows and consistently quality releases. This album has served as something of an artistic reckoning for him. A newfound confidence and many life lessons has trained him to get to this point.

“A lot of the songs are very old, but that was a big issue I had, actually getting them to a place where I was happy for them to be out. So much of that was self-doubt. A fear of failure. I was so precious about the songs, you get stuck in this place where you’ve got something written, the beat done, and for whatever reason you have this mental block that means instead of sitting in the studio recording the tune you go down to the pub… Or you sit and you write another song. You try to get away from something you really care about and are really passionate about, because you’re afraid that it won’t hit the way you want it to. Or have an impact the way you want it to. Oftentimes, especially with the early records, there was a lot of imposter syndrome. Feeling either I wasn’t deserving of the praise I was getting, or you had that voice in your head telling you it was never going to last. Which is all just ways of you giving up before you try. It’s your brain self-sabotaging. Now I’m just really happy with what I’m making, it feels more like me,” he exhales with a sense of relief.

“With music, it’s expressing something I can’t say to people. For me, oftentimes it’s about trying to make sense of life. It’s chaos. I think human beings enjoy putting order on chaos, even though life doesn’t really give a fuck about the order you try and put on it.”

While it doesn’t sound like it, his album was recorded in a makeshift wardrobe in North Dublin, but his message is far from colloquial. ‘Town’s Dead’ speaks to the struggles of artists across borders, who despite creating colour and excitement, are an afterthought. It’s a rallying call to arms for these creators, with just a little bit of sex and drugs.

‘Town’s Dead’ is out now on Soft Boy Records/Different Recordings. Kojaque plays AVA Festival, Belfast on September 24

Eric Davidson is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter

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