summer’s biggest banger comes from a decades-old initiative helping refugee and working-class kids in Cork

summer’s biggest banger comes from a decades-old initiative helping refugee and working-class kids in Cork

This year’s early contender for banger of the summer started in an unlikely place, the idyllic rural community of Lisdoonvarna on the edge of the Burren, West Ireland. The viral hit, The Spark was a collaboration between a crew of pre-teens in Lisdoonvarna and Kabin Studio in Cork City — aka “the real capital of Ireland” — two hours south.

While this collaboration has been widely reported as the track goes viral, what many people don’t know is that it started in an asylum seekers’ home.

Kabin Studio went to Lisdoonvarna with their Rhyme Island initiative, which seeks to make rap an accessible tool for expression, personal development and wellbeing. The Spark was made for the annual Cruinniú na nÓg (Youth Gathering) with local kids, many of whom live in the village’s Direct Provision centre.

Direct Provision is shorthand for the system that provides accommodation, food, money and medical services for people waiting for international protection applications and asylum claims to be assessed.

I spoke to Kabin Studio Director, Garry McCarthy, who explained: “The asylum process can be really isolating, so the Rhyme Island initiative gives young people a way to connect and create.

“The Kabin has worked with young international protection seekers over the last decade now, to the point where we have had youth from Direct Provision develop into mature artists themselves and work as youth mentors at the Kabin.”

As a member of the Kabin’s Advisory Board and global hip hop researcher, I’ve seen how McCarthy (aka GMC Beats) has expertly connected and promoted hip hop arts expression around the world.

He has written and produced tracks for the United Nations’ World Food Day Youth Music project with young rappers from Armenia, Cameroon, Chile, China, Ireland and Lebanon. Even more notably, he helped launch the career of viral sensation MC Abdul – the young man who has documented the humanitarian crisis in Palestine through his raps since 2020.

This is all to say that The Spark didn’t come out of nowhere.

As I’ve written over the course of my last decade in Ireland, Irish hip hop is hitting its stride as it connects Ireland’s millennia-old poetic and musical storytelling heritage to a newly confident hip hop generation from diverse backgrounds. Just ask Denise Chaila and Raphael Olympio, two rappers that are putting a new global twist on the famed Irish “gift of the gab”.

Olympio served as MC for a collaboration between The Kabin and the Cork Migrant Centre (CMC) in 2021, producing another youth-led arts production titled, UBUNTU: Local is Global. Hip hop music, art and dance brought Northside youth together with migrant youth from Direct Provision Centres across County Cork to create a beautiful afternoon of energy and expression that has spawned countless artistic connections.

Indeed, Cork’s youth hip hop scene boasts a range of successes, from the women’s empowerment of Misneach (Irish for “courage”) and the proudly local swag of MC Tiny and Jamie the King to the Anti-Racist Youth Led Summit, now in its second year, and the recent launch of Sauti Studios — a new Cork Migrant Centre initiative.

But despite these amazing celebrations of youth creativity and diversity, some people still badly miss the point.

In the recent EU elections, the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister), Simon Harris, used the track to promote his centre-right party, Fine Gael, in the EU elections without credit. The video was quickly taken down and apologies issued, but the incident set off a feeding frenzy for far-right internet trolls and their bots, who used Harris’s bad look as a ruse to attack the government’s immigration policy.

Responding to Fine Gael’s offending Tweet McCarthy suggested to me that lost in the middle of this political hullabaloo were the kids.

“On one side was the Taoiseach and his political party using the track for their own purposes without contacting us, and on the other were these bigots trying to spin the Irish success story of “The Spark” for their own intolerant purposes.“

Ironically, the far-right trolls completely missed the fact that many of the young people in the video were those very same immigrants they were demonising. But as the kids say themselves:

“Think you can stop what we do? I doubt it!”

This multicultural crew’s got the energy. And they’re telling the world all about it.

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