Kojaque: Dublin indie hip-hop hero finds beauty in the anger

Each week in Next Noise, we go deep on the rising talent ready to become your new favourite artist. On his debut album, Dublin's Kojaque tackles his city's contemporary social challenges through the prism of a New Year's Eve night out. Words: Max Pilley

Like many of us, Kojaque hasn’t got a lot of love for New Year’s Eve. “Perpetually disappointing, so fucking overrated” are his sentiments, to be exact. The heightened sense of drama, anxiety and almost inevitable anti-climax that the night promises serve as the backdrop to the Dublin rapper/producer’s debut album ‘Town’s Dead’.

Our lead characters are on their way out for the big night and through a series of skits, we gleam snatches of their lives: deceitful love triangles, personal insecurities and competitive rivalries dominate, the same as every generation before them, but these people are also creaking under pressures that are specific to their time and place. They could be forgiven for feeling that their town is dead, because just surviving there as a young person has become financially, socially and emotionally challenging; on no night of the year is that more obvious than December 31.

The story is familiar in cities across the world, but the plight is especially real in the Irish capital. For Kojaque, the city’s most celebrated independent hip-hop star who rose to international attention with his 2018 mixtape ‘Deli Daydreams’, presenting the city he loves to the world in all of its gory detail is very conflicting.

“I think Dublin oftentimes feels like a paradox,” he says. “But then again, if you really love something, you kind of have to acknowledge the faults in it. It’s the people that I love, but the city and how it’s structured and the institutions within it are appalling in a lot of senses. It’s a shithole, but it’s my shithole.”

Anger rifles through the verses of ‘Town’s Dead’, a brilliant, personal, urgent record that confirms Kojaque as one of the leaders in the current wave of great musicians emerging from Ireland. We hear one of our lead characters joke at one point that Kojaque only lives in his “ma’s gaffe” still because he’s “scabby”, but the subtext is clear. “I think it’s very difficult to get a sense of security,” he says. “Especially when 80% of your wage is going on your rent, it’s kind of mental. It keeps you in this perpetual apathy. I feel like so many of my friends are in the same place where it just feels like, ‘well nothing ever changes, so what is the point’.”

Kojaque, who was born Kevin Smith, did indeed record the entire album while he was living in his parents’ home in the Cabra district of Dublin, “in the same fucking room I’ve been since I was pissing the bed.” The renting crisis and homelessness bites hard in the city (in late 2020, Dublin surpassed 3000 homeless adults for the first time), and while he believes progress has been made by campaign groups like Give Us the Night, he has little faith in change at a government level. “They’ve made it very easy for multinational companies to come and get very little tax and set up letterbox accounts, and what has it done? It’s sent young people out of the country. Or into rivers, oftentimes.”

Kojaque is peaceful and warm-natured in conversation, but with his music he is able to channel his anger into something not only constructive but beautiful. Tracks like ‘Jinty Boy Blues’ and ‘Wickid Tongues’ find his smooth, conversational flow matched with smoky, jazz-inflected beats. Great artists can articulate wider truths about their listeners’ lives just by telling their own stories, something in which Kojaque takes great pride, even if he is too self-effacing to admit that he knows he is doing it. Even when he lets us into his most personal space on ‘No Hands’, a song written to his father who took his own life about how he has grown to protect his mother and little brother, he channels such a potently bittersweet blend of loss and pride that listeners are likely to find a poignant parallel to details from their own lives.

His career has been fiercely independent, starting his own label Soft Boy Records with his friend Kean Kavanagh in order to release his music. This album is a joint release with Different Records (Greentea Peng, Deema), but there is no question that Kojaque remains in full artistic control, the same way it has been since he first starting tentatively assembling beats nearly ten years ago. When he looks back, though, he admits that he ended up working outside the system as much because of his own insecurities as out of any strict sense of integrity.

“If you really love something, you kind of have to acknowledge the faults in it. Dublin is a shithole, but it’s my shithole”

“I think to begin with, I was a little bit embarrassed about what I wanted to do and what I really enjoyed,” he says. “And so that meant that I was a little secretive about it. That meant that I made a lot of stuff myself. I think I was just worrying too much about people’s opinions, not valuing my own opinion. Over the years, that sheds away and you get your head set on straight.”

He now finds himself living in Hackney, his second stab at moving to London in the last two years. He is settled now, but the first stint had a detrimental effect on his mental health as he spent four months alternating between friends’ couches and the festival circuit. Returning late last year, he now finds himself paying less rent than he could find back in Dublin, highlighting one of the driving messages of the album.

Expectations are understandably high for the album, after Deli Daydreams was nominated for Ireland’s prestigious Choice Music Prize, previously won by Two Door Cinema Club, The Divine Comedy and Villagers. If the wait has piled on the pressure, though, it doesn’t show. “I know this is something that I’ve wanted to do since I was 15, 16, the album’s been that long in the making,” he says. As he begins to look ahead, the insecurities of the past are long behind him and his mind appears to be at ease, too. “You just have to balance. Music is so important to me, but it’s not who I am, and I have to remember that. But it’s nice to have people recognise it as well, because I want to be fucking big, man.”

Kojaque’s debut album ‘Town’s Dead’ is released on June 25 via Soft Boy Records / Different Recordings

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