MuRli and Denise Chaila Make Music for the Black Lives Matter Movement

Dean Van Nguyen

Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.


The size of the crowd that showed up to the Dublin Black Lives Matter protests on 1 June shocked a lot of people given the restrictions on movement that were in place to curtail the spread of Covid-19. But if photos of people marching from O’Connell Street to the US Embassy on Elgin Road made you feel uncomfortable – and it’s important to say that the demonstrations that took place that week did not lead to a spike of new cases – please have sympathy for the opinion that racism is a more immediate threat to their and the country’s well being.

George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis on 25 May has ignited protests of an intensity not seen in the US since the anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movement of the 1960s. The anger and exasperation seen on the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore and other American cities five years or so ago has only intensified over time, becoming the righteous actions we see today.

At home, Irish activists have harnessed the energy of the escalated Black Lives Matter movement to shed light on racism in this country and call for the banishment of Direct Provision. This is why people march.

Irish music has been at the forefront of communicating the black Irish experience. With the mediums of YouTube, Soundcloud and Spotify at their disposal, artists don’t rely on traditional gatekeepers like those working in forms of media – such as publishing and television – that are slower to give black creatives a platform.

Nobody paying attention will have been surprised to see musicians at the forefront of Black Lives Matter protests in Ireland. On the streets, in the media, online and with their music, Erica-Cody, Celaviedmai, Max Zanga of Tebi Rex and too many others to mention are helping to drive the movement. Even those who don’t put overt protest messages in their songs do important work for Irish culture by increasing the visibility of the black Irish community.

MuRli couldn’t let the moment pass. The flash of anti-racism activism inspired the rapper to bring forward the release of new single “Till the Wheels Fall Off”. Nobody who knows MuRli – Togo-born and Limerick to his bones – as one-third of Rusangano Family will have been surprised by this. The group’s 2016 album Let The Dead Bury The Dead was a generational thesis on the immigrant experience that netted MuRli, God Knows and mynameisjOhn much cultural cache.

If ever an album was criminally slept on and deserves a second life, it’s MuRli’s 2019 solo joint The Intangibles. Entirely self-produced by the star himself, the beats are not a radical departure from the instrumentals he was served by mynameisjOhn with Rusangano Family. They lean on west African highlife guitars and drums, but with ripples of jittering electronica and Madlib-style sampling. MuRli is nothing if not a hip-hop historian – see how he evokes the name of Geto Boys’ Bushwick Bill on “Till the Wheels Fall Off”.

“304A”, a highlight from The Intangibles, showcases one of Irish rap’s best autobiographical lyricists. MuRli remembers adolescence, casting his mind back to the funny looks he’d receive when travelling by bus and wondering if the eyes were fixated on the cross around his neck. “Carried it since I turned 12 in a new town,” he says of the Jesus piece. You can almost feel him tugging at it to seek protection, the pendent becoming a safety blanket to shield him from discomfort.

“Till the Wheels Fall Off” takes its cues from news that came out of Portugal in February whenPorto footballer Moussa Marega walked off the pitch after being subjected to racist abuse from the fans of Vitoria Guimaraes, with his teammates seemingly more interested in restraining the clearly distressed Malian player as he tried to exit the pitch than offering support.

“Watching all of that unfold I was broken, baffled and full of questions,” MuRli said in a note accompanying the release. “The only thing I could do then, was to channel all I was feeling into my art.”

MuRli kicks off the track by recalling the, “Monkey chants in the stadium” before focusing his ire on the, “Roaches on my timeline” and introducing a little sharp-edge humour: “Unlike my missus, I am not fine.”

The beat may be surprisingly peppy but it’s a reminder that the strongest social justice songs are sometimes major bops. Regardless, the words and delivery leave the biggest impression: Marega’s pain unlocks MuRli’s anger.

One of MuRli’s key allies is Denise Chaila, who has quickly risen to become one of the country’s most potent voices on Irish identity, race relations and equality. Scan her Spotify page and you’ll only see three songs. Rap usually rewards releasing music in huge quantities so I like this tactic of making every song feel special. I already want to drag Chaila’s songs onto a playlist, add in the guest appearances she’s made on other people’s tracks, and form my own phantom Chaila album before the real thing hopefully emerges.

The synths on last year’s single “Copper Bullet” (produced by MuRli) sound old and analogue, while the drum machines are dinky and inexpensive. But together, the elements form a wall of sounds for Chaila, who also hails from Limerick, to breathe fire over. The looseness of her flow bears the characteristics of her spoken word work (“Dual Citizenship”, also from 2019, is a poem on race, identity and sense of belonging) as she powerful declares herself “the voice my elders fought to free”. But with a chorus that’s as antagonistic as it is unforgettable, Chaila’s prose comes with a chantable hook that adds extra replay value. The way she bounces off each syllable as she chants “Them man there can’t vex me/ Them man there can’t stress me” makes the song really stick.

Chaila’s latest track bears her name. “It’s not Ch-laay; it’s not Ch-lala,” she raps on “Chaila”, revealing some of the alternate pronouncements she’s heard of her surname before doing an impression of people who just kind of mumble it in an antagonistic way.

The song felt particularly timely when the story of a college professor in Oakland hit the news recently. In a series of emails that struck a near-aggressive tone, Matthew Hubbard told Vietnamese-American student Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen to anglicise her name as it sounded too much like an “insult in English”.

The story reminds me how white-centric societies still work hard to strip a person of their heritage. Mispronouncing a name isn’t a big deal if there’s positive intent (take it from me), but making fun of a person’s name, expecting them to anglicise it, or insisting they make the change is a hurtful form of racism that too often gets a pass. As activists battle the big ticket issues like ending Direct Provision, Chaila reminds us how poisonous micro-aggressions can seep into a society and corrode it from the inside.

At an emotional time, MuRli and Chaila’s words offer cool-headed perspective, righteous indignation and young wisdom. “Till the Wheels Fall Off” and “Chaila” depict what is just a microcosm of broader issues. Racism now doesn’t just hurt Ireland but sets the table for future injustices. Who can doubt these activists are up for the challenge?

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Dean Van Nguyen: Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

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