Photography: George Voronov
Styling: Michael O’Connor
Bespoke Suiting in Look 1: Stephen Blake
Words: Dylan Murphy
This St. Patrick’s Day, Jameson Connects presents ‘Join In’, a virtual gig featuring two of Ireland’s leading acts in Kojaque and Denise Chaila alongside a host of international luminaries including Jessie Reyez. Ahead of the March 17 event we caught up with Kojaque to discuss his journey since his debut release ‘Deli Daydreams’ and the release of his new track ‘No Hands’.
To tune into Jameson Connects ‘Join In’ follow this link and register ahead of March 17. Join in wherever you are!
Despite our rich history of poets, storytellers, and musicians, Ireland isn’t always the easiest place to make a living from your art. Whether it’s the lack of a genuine industry, getting the support you need or even just having the resources it’s easy to feel discouraged. Moreover, when no one is making the music you want to hear, it becomes an even more mammoth task to fill the void and muster the resilience to follow the road less travelled. However, in terms of successful graduates from the school of DIY arts Kevin Smith AKA Kojaque is top of the dean’s list.
While Rejjie Snow set the bar for Irish rappers seeking major label deals across the pond, Kojaque laid the blueprint for homebrewed rap goodness on a budget. Not seeing anyone create the music he wanted in Ireland, he and Kean Kavanagh founded Soft Boy Records, took beats from their bedrooms to the stage and the rest is history.
Kojaque first spoke to District way back in 2017, detailing his viral debut and his plans for a forthcoming project Deli Daydreams. His journey has been well documented since, but I don’t think even he would have predicted the impact that would follow.
Hot on the heels of its release, Deli Daydreams forced a revision of the longstanding rules for Irish album of the year at the RTÉ Choice Prize following a public outcry. Building on that momentum, he would go on to give a packed-out talk at Trinity’s Philosophical Society, join rap’s resident rager slowthai on the road in Europe, have his own UK tours and feature on the modern curation kitchen of our age – COLORS.
What makes it even more impressive is he plotted it all from his home in Cabra.
Following this rich vein of form, Kojaque made the move to London, though since he’s returned to Dublin for a few months to finesse forthcoming music videos. Chatting to me from his family home in Cabra he tells me the move was partially influenced by finances. As if we needed another indictment on Dublin’s rental market, it turns out it was cheaper to get accommodation in one of the financial capitals of the world than it was in Dublin.
Though through all the roadblocks, he reminds me it’s not all so bad.
“There’s loads of great shit about Ireland. You can get a lot for a little here, especially in terms of what you can make and calling in favours, people are usually good to help out if you are starting out”, he explains.
“London doesn’t have any cultural favours or anything like that. They’ve a real hustle culture. I think it comes with big cities and anonymity, everyone is no one and no one wants to be no one.”
London doesn’t have any cultural favours or anything like that.Kojaque
They’ve a real hustle culture.
I think it comes with big cities and anonymity, everyone is no one and no one wants to be no one.
Following the accolades, a move to London, and with a debut album on the cards, there’s enough to suggest it’s been plain sailing for the Dublin rapper. However, this is far from the truth.
Back in 2019, he was in the midst of an “intense” touring schedule with slowthai and with his own string of UK shows on the horizon, Kojaque decided to try and relocate to England’s creative hub. In between performances he slept on friend’s sofas and tried unsuccessfully to find a place of his own. Unsurprisingly it left him feeling crushed.
“[I arrived in] August 2019 and I was there until December” he tells me, bobbing his head side to side as he works out the rough timeline. “I was sleeping on a couch, touring and trying to get stuff off the ground. I just lost the run of myself a bit and became extremely depressed.”
“When you can’t sort something as basic as that out, shit starts to fall by the wayside and you feel like you lose your independence and your agency”. “Sleeping on a couch in a living room I didn’t even have a little room I could fuck off into. It’s hard not to feel like a burden constantly. When that becomes your mindset that’s depression 101 – feeling like a burden on other people. Coming back to Dublin was a great decision, but at the same time I felt defeated, ‘like fuck sake nothing has changed’”.
It’s that very notion that inspired ‘Shmelly‘, a powerful cut he debuted on COLORS, accompanied with horns that sound as though they were lifted straight from Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered. Between quips about cheese and his skin routine, the Soft Boy Records co-founder addresses heading back to square one after the failed move to London, whilst the rest of the world were none the wiser.
It can be tough receiving compliments sometimes when your internal psyche is like ‘you’re a piece of shit, this is worthless,Kojaque
this isn’t worth doing,
it was all a fluke’”
“Yeah yeah, ‘Funny how shit change and it still ain’t different’. That’s exactly it. It’s an interesting one because it feels like your internal world and external world aren’t meeting up properly”.
“Especially when it is kind of like… eh dunno..”, he says hesitating a little. “…Especially living in Dublin cause it is so small… You do get people recognising you out on the street the odd time or people telling you they like the music. It can be tough receiving compliments sometimes when your internal psyche is like ‘you’re a piece of shit, this is worthless, this isn’t worth doing, it was all a fluke’”.
“To receive a compliment when your internal and external aren’t lining up” he says pausing to clasp his hands together, “it feels like people are lying to you, which is insane, it’s just a trick of the mind and depression will do that. Sometimes it’s like you can get offended by it.”
For me, this all came as a bit of a surprise. It’s easy to think what we see on social media is the whole picture – when in reality it’s a highlight reel. That’s something that the Cabra spitter has tried to grapple with for a long time and he admits that for him, comparison was often the thief of his joy. Through lockdown, he largely stayed off social media and says having that breathing space helped shatter the illusion and reinforce what he’s always known deep down.
“When the whole world stops and you don’t have your institutes around you, it’s eye-opening – they’re just people and why the fuck would I care what they do compared to what I’m doing? It also realigned stuff for me. I recorded a whole album in my wardrobe, more or less did the music videos off my own back from the get-go – I’m good at this stuff”, he says resoundingly.
I feel like when you start off you look at people making music or people you look up to and for me what I tend to do and be like ‘why am I not like them?’, ‘I feel so different I feel strange in comparison’. You get worried, you get anxious, you think ‘how am I going to make it if I’m not like this other person?’ Looking at it now, I think it’s exactly what separates me from everybody else. I’m just this white Irish kid from Dublin making hip hop and making it the way I want to”.
Looking at it now, I think it’s exactly what separates me from everybody else. I’m just this white Irish kid from Dublin making hip hop and making it the way I want to.Kojaque
As our conversation comes to a close it’s clear the benefit of hindsight has allowed Kojaque to reflect on just how much he’s grown since he first penned those bars about hitting the Christmas party with Susan from the office.
Leaning back in his chair with his star-covered wallpaper in the background pixelating in and out of focus on my monitor, he details his at-the-time unreleased single ‘No Hands’ which in part mirrors this reflective mood.
Having played the song for years at shows, it became the subject of fascination for fans keen to hear the song on record, however, with such a personal subject matter it needed the treatment it deserved before release.
“I wrote the tune on my 21st birthday, it’s kind of just about growing up to be honest. I was reminiscing on my childhood I suppose.”
“My dad would have died when I was three. We lost my dad to suicide… I had an unusual childhood I guess.”
“I felt like a bit of an alien sometimes, but looking back I don’t remember it being particularly sad. Your parents influence you whether it’s their presence or their absence. Obviously, it has an effect on you but it was a fairly happy childhood.”
“I think the tune is pretty hopeful really in my opinion. In one sense there’s a significant loss of potential there as there always is when it comes to suicide. But I think just, I dunno, I think I learnt to appreciate what I do have…”
Kojaque is Ireland’s most celebrated rapper and in the face of adversity, he’s learnt the importance of silencing negative inner chatter and embracing what makes you different.
“The song is looking how far I’ve come and look how far you can go.”
Watch Kojaque and a host of others from the comfort of your living room this St. Patrick’s Day as part of Jameson Connects ‘Join In’ global event. Register for tickets here. Enjoy Jameson’s responsibly. Visit www.drinkaware.ie for more information.