KNEECAP accuse UK government of trying to ‘silence’ them

The Belfast rap trio KNEECAP has accused the UK government of trying to “silence” them after it blocked a British Phonographic Industry (BPI) funding award.  The band have since instructed a prominent Kneecap: Belfast rap group take legal action after UK blocks grant – BBC News

“On December 4th, 2023, our clients applied in their capacity as artists, for a grant under the Music Export Growth Scheme. Their application was shortlisted and approved by the panel,” their legal letter states. 

“Thereafter, the minister for the department of business and trade took a decision to refuse the request for funding on the premise that our clients were ‘people that oppose the United Kingdom’. It is this decision to which is the subject of this proposed judicial review,” it says, asserting that this decision was “unlawful and ought to be quashed”. 

 The funding decision has placed the group at the centre of a controversy around freedom of artistic expression and how this impacts on arts funding.  A government spokesperson said it was “hardly surprising” it had stopped the award given the group’s political opposition to the United Kingdom. 

The funding, an award under the Music Export Growth Scheme (MEGS) to support the expansion of bands in global markets, had already been signed off by the BPI’s independent selection board when Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch directly intervened. The scheme is funded by the department for business and trade (DBT), the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), with investment from the UK recorded music industry. The BPI has expressed its “disappointment” at the government’s decision. 

KNEECAP has said that their 2019 tour poster is to blame for the decision, responding: “We’re told that our 2019 Farewell to the Union poster p*ssed off the Tories. Once again, the British government is trying to silence voices from West Belfast – once again it will fail!” 

Since releasing their first song C.E.A.R.T.A (“rights” in Irish) in 2017, the group has been at the forefront of an Irish cultural revival, rapping in both Irish and English. They’ve created a deluge of interest outside of Ireland, embracing social media with viral clips confronting Britain’s colonial past, as well as being undeterred by the regular stirring up of media controversy; from a radio station ban to local DUP politicians condemning their ​“Brits out” chant and the colourful murals that they’ve unveiled close to their home in West Belfast. KNEECAP’S biopic, starring the rap trio and Irish actor Michael Fassbender, debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and won the audience award.

The Belfast rappers have stated their ongoing commitment to fighting censorship and they certainly don’t shy away from making political statements. This weekend they confirmed that they deliberately reneged on an agreement with Irish broadcaster RTÉ not to wear pro-Palestine symbols ahead of their appearance on Friday night’s Late Late Show with Patrick Kielty. The band received thunderous applause from the audience when the tricolour balaclava-wearing DJ Próvaí removed his jacket to reveal a Palestinian football top, just minutes into the interview.

Following the government’s decision to directly defund the rap artists, the leader of the SDLP and Belfast MP, Colum Eastwood, directed questions in the Commons to business and trade secretary Kemi Badenoch. 

 “It is highly irregular for a secretary of state to intervene to overturn the decision of an independent assessment board to award funding to an artist on the basis of their political aspirations,” Mr Eastwood stated. “It would be unacceptable if the British government had instituted a policy of defunding groups because they support Irish unity, Scottish independence, Welsh independence or any other change to the constitutional status quo.” 

He went on to question whether, in the context of Northern Ireland, the decision could represent a breach of the government’s obligations under the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement which includes “a commitment to exercise power on the basis of parity of esteem between communities in the North.” This parity recognises the right of the nationalist community to believe in Irish unity just as much as it recognises the unionist principle of remaining in the United Kingdom.

What does the Kneecap funding decision mean for musicians and artists who support Scottish independence? Could we also be blocked from UK-wide grants, amid this growing culture of control, which the Scots folk singer Iona Fyfe has compared to “McCarthyism 2.0”?

We’ve already seen right-wing authoritarianism affect artists and musicians elsewhere. In Catalunya, concerts are being cancelled by the government for promoting the Catalan language. A stark example was the imprisonment of rapper Pablo Hasel in 2021 for nine months on a charge of recidivism. Amnesty International tweeted at the time that Hasel’s arrest was terrible news for freedom of expression in Spain.

Back in the UK, we’ve seen other recent examples of creeping censorship, with the Arts Council of England warning artists this month that “political statements” could break funding agreements.

Art is meant to be challenging and Scottish artists have consistently questioned the establishment and shone a light on social injustice. Whether via music, art or literature, is it not our job to question and to give a platform to those who are voiceless? The KNEECAP decision sets a dangerous precedent but Kemi Badenoch and her colleagues in government should be under no illusion that this will be challenged, whether in the north of Ireland, Scotland or Wales. Our artistic freedom is at stake.



Comments (1)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Mark Howitt says:

    Late to the party as always, I’d only heard of – and listened to – KNEECAP a couple of days ago. Fantastic. And the fact they’re pissing off the establishment only makes it better. Playing Glasgow Barrowlands later this year, should be a laugh.

    Thanks for the article Donna.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.