The Songs We Don't Talk About

Denise Chaila performing at Other Voices Ballina in February 2020 (Photo: Other Voices)

The Songs We Don't Talk About

If we are going to tackle racism, we need to improve our conversations about culture, writes Toner Quinn.

Of all the ways that we could tackle racism in Ireland – from educational campaigns to investing in communities to stronger legislation against hate speech – the potential of music and culture to open our eyes to the issue must surely warrant serious discussion.

Music and culture are a glue. They create common understanding. Within traditional Irish music, there is an appreciation of Traveller culture because so many admired musicians and singers, from Paddy Keenan and Thomas McCarthy today to past legends such as Margaret Barry, Johnny Doran and John Reilly, have come from the Traveller community. Reilly, who died in 1969, was posthumously inducted into the Irish Traditional Music Hall of Fame at the first RTÉ Folk Awards in 2018, followed by Barry the next year. There is also a unique store of songs that comes from Traveller singers, and these are championed today by artists such as LankumDaoirí Farrell and Christy Moore

But although Traveller culture commands respect in traditional music, this is not reflected in the consciousness of wider Irish society. Why? Because our public conversations around Irish music and culture are generally at a surface level. It is an example of why the public’s cultural view of Travellers continues to be relatively one-dimensional, with little to get in the way of the stream of prejudice, and the blockage continues to build. If we are to have any chance of tackling racism, we need to radically improve our public conversations about culture. That means bringing the same breadth and depth of coverage and level of scrutiny that the media bring to Irish politics, economics, health and sport to our discussions of Irish music, film, television, literature, theatre and comedy. Does that sound over-ambitious? It’s actually an imperative at this stage.

Without that approach, we will have a very narrow public discourse, and that could be seen over the last two weeks since George Floyd was murdered at the hands of US police. Why were so many white Irish people surprised that Irish people of colour came out so strongly after his murder? It was news to whites that they were suffering – how they were being subjected to constant racist slurs, unprovoked violence, stopped from entering bars and clubs, treated differently at school and work, receiving suspicious looks in shops and being followed by security guards, social isolation at events, social and educational disadvantage, lack of representation at every level of power, not to mention the national shame of the Direct Provision centres. The pain of people of colour in Ireland that came through social media videos and posts –  and it was artists such as Loah, Celaviedmai, JYellowL, Denise Chaila, Erica Cody and UD that were to the fore in expressing it – was heart-breaking.

But why was it such a surprise? Irish black artists have been telling us for years about the challenges of being a minority in Ireland. In 2016, when Ireland was celebrating the centenary of the Easter Rising, the Rusangano Family trio of hip hop artists from Limerick released the album Let the Dead Bury the Dead, including the song ‘Lights On’, telling us clearly that it wasn’t as easy as we thought to be Irish: ‘Thought I had to be American, thought I had to be English, everything else but Irish,’ they rapped. On ‘Isn’t Dinner Nice’ on the same album, rapper Denise Chaila spoke about misogyny and told us how she was ‘screaming until my voice bleeds… screaming for the woman with acid burns on her face… screaming for the seven-year old girl getting ready for her wedding night right now… For the teenage boy on Twitter learning to substitute the word Woman with four letter words in his vocabulary…’.

Last year on MuRli’s album The Intangibles, Chaila explored the practice of women bleaching their skin. ‘I have a problem,’ she spoke, ‘with the way of thinking that has broken us so far mentally we believe a whole ethnicity can only be celebrated in one shade of skin.’ Her 2019 track ‘Duel Citizenship’ begins with the line ‘Where are you from, originally? Where are you from, originally?’ ‘Our souls are composed of borders…’, she continued, ‘I could tell you about Lucan, Limerick and Lusaka… So Cén scéal? Because I learned how to be Irish knowing that some people would always know that I was beyond the pale.’ 

Think of all the conversations we have not been having over the past two decades. When Damien Dempsey released the song ‘Colony’ in 2000 on They Don’t Teach This Shit in School, and then again in 2005 on Shots, even though every young Irish person was listening to the song and knew the lyrics, and just as immigration was increasing in Ireland, there was no in-depth discussion in Ireland about our experience of colonisation and its contemporary significance (even with regard to the North) and how we should have much more empathy for those still suffering the repercussions of it. Dempsey’s urgent social commentary passed by as if it never happened. Perhaps if there had been a conversation, we would have drawn a connection with the conditions of the Direct Provision system for immigrants which had been set up just the year before in 1999, and maybe we have thought again about the referendum on citizenship in 2004, which denied nationality to the most vulnerable children in our society.

We don’t talk about these songs. When the pandemic came, we put Hozier on Ireland’s biggest television show, the Late Late Show, singing the seventeenth-century Scottish song ‘The Parting Glass’, plus Patrick Cassidy’s arrangement of Pádraig Pearse’s 1912 poem ‘Mise Éire’, all affirming our old image of Ireland rather than progressing our sense of identity. Meanwhile, Chaila, God Knows from the Rusangano Family and DJ Replay were in the National Gallerydelivering the performance of their lives as part of Other Voices’ Courage series.

The voices we need to hear are all around us. We just need to start listening to them.

Published on 11 June 2020

Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music. His new book, What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, is available here.

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