Family Values: Interview with God Knows

God Knows of Rusangano Family chats to Cian Montague about making his family proud, Irish hip hop, and (reluctantly) top fives. God Knows Jonas is late for the interview but he’s all apologies. He was just about to leave his house when he got cold-called by a salesman, and couldn’t get away. He’s unbothered though, “You’ve got to be kind to that guy, ‘cause he’s trying to do his job.” This remark is in line with the lasting impression given by God Knows during our interview. He’s funny, friendly, unguarded, and we chat freely. At the end I am shocked to see it has been a full hour.God Knows forms one third of the Limerick-based Rusangano Family, alongside fellow MC MuRli, and producer mynameisjOhn. The trio are a rising force in Irish music, and just weeks before our talk, performed a bombastic set at Electric Picnic (“one of our favourites this year”). March saw an incredible success for Rusangano: a Choice Music Prize for Irish Album of the Year. Footage from the ceremony shows the group’s shock upon the announcement, and God Knows relishes in the memory, “There was a lot of people that we love and respect, so like oh, OK. We won? What? It was incredible.”Rusangano are the first hip hop act to win the award, but nevertheless, God Knows is reluctant to infer a change in Irish music tastes. He is quick to praise earlier pioneers like Scary Éire and Messiah J & the Expert, and thinks that for Rusangano, it was simply that “the stars aligned.” Coming off the back of strong live shows at Vicar Street and on Other Voices, he says the feeling was: “Oh my gosh, these guys are killing it! If they don’t win, there’s something wrong!.”
“Some of the best MCs that I have seen with my own two eyes are Irish MCs.”
Rusangano’s 2016 debut, Let the Dead Bury the Dead, is full of moving lyrics like the following, taken from ‘Kierkegaard,’ ‘I’m not a doctor, I’m not a lawyer, to the eyes of my family I’m still a failure.’ Has their recent success seen an improvement here? God Knows’ answer is heart-warming: “You know what, yeah…  It kind of changed when ‘Lights On’ came out. Because all my aunts called me, and they were like, ‘Oh, your dad is so proud, anyone who comes to the house, he shows your video to them.’ Now when I talk to him about music, he’s like, ‘What are you gonna do next?’”Another factor has been important to this reversal. God Knows’ great-uncle, Cde Chinx Chingaira, a legendary Zimbabwean musician, and somewhat controversial figure in his home country, passed away in June. God Knows, who is clearly proud of his uncle’s musical achievements says that his death and the revived interest in his legacy saw a rejuvenated spirit in his family: “[Now they say] ‘you’re going to be a legend too, one day, hopefully.’” No pressure, then.God Knows says that when writing about the fear of being a disappointment, Rusangano hoped to provide inspiration to up-and-comers, “Maybe there’s someone who loves music as much as we do, who’s like… ‘I have this big dream, should I go for it?’ And hopefully they can be like, ‘you know what? if Rusangano did it, I could do it.’” He emphasises the universal nature of this worry, “We make music for the people and I felt everyone could resonate. We all want to make our parents proud.”This is not the only time he mentions this idea of ‘making music for the people.’ It also comes up in our discussion of Rusangano’s track ‘I Know You Know,’ which was released over the summer. The song dives headfirst into mental health issues in a way that is still quite unusual for hip-hop. The pre-chorus goes: ‘Feeling inadequate, feeling unfit, losing my confidence, trying to conceal it.’“Definitely it was brave from us to be like, ‘let’s be vulnerable,’” but he explains that “the world needs that. We make music for the people! What do the people need right now?” God Knows says, “That’s why we went from ‘I Know You Know’ to [their most recent track] ‘Tea in a Pot,’ where it’s like, even though it looks like the world is falling apart, let’s just have a cup of tea! Take a little break right now. It’s a perspective.”God Knows seems genuinely delighted when I tell him I spotted his Chance the Rapper hat at the Choice Awards. I wonder if, as unsigned musicians, Rusangano Family take inspiration from Chance, who is probably the biggest independent rap artist in the world right now. In response, God Knows highlights the potential contradiction, where nominal independents like Chance can still make exclusive (and lucrative) deals with Apple Music or other platforms. For his part, Chance has defended this action, saying that although he was paid $500,000 for a two-week exclusive of Coloring Book, he had total control over the product released.God Knows highlights this in way that comes across less as a gripe than as a recognition of America’s different playing field, and God Knows is keen to express his admiration of the young Chicagoan: “I am definitely inspired by Chance. He does take those risks as well.” In particular, he is impressed by Chance’s willingness to make his music available for free, also citing Run the Jewels in this regard. “If we could give you this music for free, we would and that’s the truth, ‘cause it’s for the people. Whatever we can do for our fans we will do, and that’s one thing I do admire about Chance.”
“[Run the Jewels] are like superheroes, man.”
Rusangano have previously opened for Run the Jewels and God Knows laughs when I mention that he knows them, “It’s very weird to say that, but yeah!” He is emphatic in his description of them: “They are cool. They’re like superheroes, man.” He talks about El-P’s joking around backstage and ability to find humour in harsh truths, something for which he had earlier praised the Rubberbandits. He recalls how excited RTJ were to see Rusangano again at Electric Picnic this year. “That’s a testament to them, like: for you guys to still know who we are and when we’re performing! That was inspiring.”From RTJ we segue to Outkast. God Knows mentions that André 3000 is his all-time favourite rapper, but groans when I ask for his top five. “You can’t do that to me, man… You know what? Let me just say my influence. Some people might stop being my friends after this.” The second person he names is Kanye, “If anyone wants to pinpoint what I loved about Kanye, it’s that he made regular cool as hell.” He suggests that Kendrick Lamar, who he says is probably his favourite MC today, might not have had the same career without Kanye’s influence.God Knows continues his list with Pusha T, although he says that as a Christian he identifies more with Push’s brother No Malice. To round off he gives me Jay-Z and Eminem, “’Renegade’ is one of those songs that I always come back to.”I bring up a line from ‘Kierkegaard,’ ‘You can’t tell me you’re the best MC if you don’t know Chuck D.’ In response, God Knows tells me: “When I was 18 I would go to the library and I would ask for different books and I would go on the internet and search deeper and deeper. I realised, in order to be the best MC, you really have to study.” He is mid-sentence when he suddenly exclaims: “oh my gosh, I forgot to say Tupac!”God Knows is glad that when Tupac died in 1996 there were other older influences around. “It was nice that somebody loved me enough to go, ‘you know what? Here is All Eyez on Me. Just listen to this and soak it in.’” With the Chuck D line, he was hoping to do the same, “So maybe that was my subtle way of directing some of my younger brothers, to be like, before you say “I’m the best MC”, go and listen to Chuck D.”We move on to a recent documentary featuring Rusangano Family, ‘The Truth about Irish Hip-Hop.’ This title implies the existence of some misconception about Irish hip-hop. What exactly does God Knows think the truth is? “I think that there was one documentary that blemished a lot of things. It made everyone look really shabby and not serious. I think the truth about Irish hip hop is that we work hard, and we are doing our thing. One thing that I respect about everyone, is that everyone is on their hustle. Some of the best MCs that I have seen with my own two eyes are Irish MCs.”
“We make music for the people!”
What of the future for Irish hip-hop? Here he makes a comparison to the UK grime scene, using Skepta as an example: “2015 is when the light suddenly shone on him, when the likes of Kanye and all those guys have shouted him out. These guys had been killing it for years and years. I think maybe a community, the way that they have a grime scene, is what I hope that we would have. Usually they go, ‘oh Cork is a great scene,’ or Dublin, or Limerick. Nah, I just want everyone to say, [Ireland has] a great music scene.”And finally, the most important question: when can we expect new music from Rusangano? “We have a lot of new music cooking up right now. We’re back writing, and mynameisjOhn is always cooking up heat!” When I ask about the possible direction of their new writings God Knows laughs: “Come on, I ain’t gonna let the cat out of the bag this early!” It looks like we’ll have to wait and see. Rusangano Family play Button Factory on November 24. They play Galway, Cork, and Limerick in December.