The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Escape Velocity

Embrace All Sides: An Interview With God Knows
Fred Garratt-Stanley , September 26th, 2022 07:52

God Knows speaks to Fred Garratt-Stanley about the magic of Limerick City, his pioneering Irish rap collective Narolane, and the complicated legacy of his freedom fighter uncle Dixon ‘Chinx’ Chaingaira

Photos by Nina Val

The Irish rap scene is flourishing right now. In just a few years, MCs have gone from being reluctant to rap in a regional accent to building a strong collective identity, while spreading their gaze far beyond their home country. That vision is encapsulated by the work of God Knows, a Limerick rap linchpin whose pioneering musical collective and record label Narolane (formed alongside Denise Chaila and MuRli) is pushing to give Irish artists the platform they've been missing.

Munyaradzi ‘God Knows’ Jonas has been spearheading the Irish scene since 2017, when his group Rusangano Family became the first Black artists to win the Choice Music Prize for Irish Album of the Year, with Let The Dead Bury The Dead. A second Choice Award was added to the Narolane collective when Denise Chaila's Go Bravely won the 2020 Album of the Year, a victory spurred on by the Narolane crew being in a lockdown bubble together. "We were the only thing moving," Jonas tells tQ. "Producer, manager, label, everything's here!"

Born in Zimbabwe, raised in Shannon, and adopted by Limerick, God Knows is informed by the rich cultural legacy of his uncle Dickson ‘Chinx’ Chingaira, a well known Zimbabwean musician and an influential freedom fighter in the independence struggle of the 1960s and 1970s. The Limerick rapper's new EP We Move The Needle pays homage to that history, channeling the energy of his Southern African musical heritage by spitting over exciting contemporary African sounds like amapiano and Zimdancehall. A cultural celebration that cements God Knows' status as one of Irish rap's most exciting innovators, it maps out the rich creative pathways between Ireland and southern Africa.

The post-colonial struggle is inherently complex, however, and Jonas' relationship with his uncle's legacy is complicated by his late relative's support for Robert Mugabe's controversial land reforms. tQ caught up with God Knows to find out more about his heritage, the growth of his label Narolane, the role he plays in Limerick's music scene, and his experiences of being Black and Irish.

You've described yourself as 100% Irish and 100% Zimbabwean. Can you tell me about the process of developing that view of your own identity?

Munyaradzi ‘God Knows’ Jonas: When you're part of multiple cultures you feel like you're forced to pick one, rather than embracing everything to a point where you feel like you're whole. And when you're whole in who you are, that makes it easier for you to see the similarities between cultures. As a first-generation African, you're still trying to figure out where you belong. For me, I found my identity outside of trying to fit into both, knowing I can embrace every side of me without neglecting any side, which obviously comes with its sacrifices because you have to fight twice as hard in every regard.

How has that process been impacted by Ireland's population becoming more diverse in recent years?

MJ: With Rusangano Family, we were the first Black artists to win the Choice Music Award, so in many rooms that I performed in, myself and my brother MuRli were the only Black people. It wasn't until 2017 that I started to see more diversity in the arts. We had to go into that bubble in order to break out of it. It ended with us winning the Choice Music prize, because we were the first people to tell the story.

Limerick's musicians seemed to be bound by a real sense of unity and togetherness. What is it about the city that creates this environment?

MJ: Genres don't shun other genres, it's not like ‘prog rock is over there, hip-hop is over here, reggae is over here,’ we all band together. Everybody goes to see each other's shows, and it's not the same as other cities where there's a bit of hatred underneath it — everybody wants to see each other win, and that's what's made us a cut above the rest. Limerick literally gave us the key to the city based on our musical endeavours and our mentoring of teenagers in Limerick, which means these guys coming up were raised with good musical morals. We instilled that in the next generation.

Your new EP, Glory was produced by your brother, Godwin Jones, while 'Twelve 61' features your cousin Jah Master, and samples the music of your uncle, freedom fighter and artist Chinx Chingaira. What's it like working so closely with family members?

MJ: I'm blessed. I'm very lucky that my business partner is my best friend, my younger brother produces, and of course I have great family lineage, with my uncle Chinx sampled on the record. I had to call my family and be like "Can I clear this sample?", and hearing the stories of my uncle alongside all these greats like Sting and Bob Marley, it was like I'm not the first one to do what I'm doing.

Your uncle Chinx Chingaira was a huge influence, but there are parts of his legacy that you're uncomfortable with. How do you balance those two sides?

MJ: It's been hard, but it's my family member, that's my mum's brother, I love him. Also, he was part of setting us free from colonialism! So I could always separate it. The untouchable part of his legacy is within the time of the struggle and a little bit post-independence. When unfortunately, politically, he started to go on the decline, in the 90s, it was really hard for me. I felt for him, because I knew he was polarising. But we could always separate it, and that made it easier for me. We may not align politically, but we're family.

We Move The Needle is shaped by that southern African heritage, drawing on sounds like amapiano and Zimdancehall. What was it like blending your own distinctly Irish rap style with these sounds?

MJ: What makes us amazing as a culture, as Ireland, is that we're not married to anything. Someone from Houston is married to that sound, someone from New Orleans, or from London, is married to that sound. I don't have political connects, I don't have emotional ties, nothing. If I believe I can make a great song, I'll do it. Everything is up for grabs.

Your collective Narolane is at the forefront of a flourishing Irish rap scene. What is about you, Denise Chaila and MuRli that has allowed the collective to succeed?

MJ: We all wanna see our friends win. The same way our friend wants to see us win, we're giving that same love back. We've won the Choice but we've also seen each other go through hell in terms of family and stuff. Our lens of culture is so diverse, and we're also willing to appreciate other people's cultures and give people room in different ways, because for us, this is what we needed when we were kids. It makes it easier for us to connect musically, to connect in terms of business, to connect emotionally and spiritually, too. It's more than just work for us.

What are your hopes and ambitions for We Move The Needle?

MJ: My goal is to continually create releases that are excellent; well-mixed, well-released, the lyrics are sick, the riddims bang. Because we're still so young! Ireland, in terms of rap music, and diasporic influences, is still so young — you wanna be able to look back and say "wow". Because England has such a rich history of many genres, it means that you can still fall back on excellence. I want the next generation of Irish artists to be able to fall back on excellence. And I want people to always be able to reach out to me, because I didn't have that. I wanna be Ireland's representation of the Daves and Stormzys and Skeptas… me and my gang are Ireland's version.

God Knows' new single 'Twelve61' is out now via Narolane