Gemma Dunleavy Shows Love to Sheriff Street

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 opening seconds of Gemma Dunleavy’s glorious “Up De Flats” video sees the singer emerge from K&A Stores like a Dublin city divinity. The corner shop on Seville Place is a relic from a time when milk ‘n’ cigarettes convenience stores weren’t always part of a nationwide chain. Ask residents and they might call it the fulcrum point of the neighbourhood – a neighbourhood Dunleavy honours in her own indomitable way.

Amid shots of historic Sheriff Street – redbrick homes and maisonettes; barb-wired walls and a lot of cold steel – Dunleavy strikes a pose with the glass structures of Longford House looming in the background. It’s a construction typical of the development in recent years that continues at a rapid pace, increasingly boxing in the long-time residents of Sheriff Street.

You could retitle this video “Gentrification in Real Time”. Between 2017 and 2018 I lived on Upper Sheriff Street in a recently constructed domestic block that could reasonably be described as part of the problem.

The flats of St Laurence’s Mansions, St Brigid’s Gardens and Phil Shanahan House came down in the 1990s when Sheriff Street was a nationwide byword for urban mismanagement. Because stigmas stick like tar, the area is still rarely spoken about without details added about its troubled past – the promo material accompanying the “Up De Flats” video even includes the descriptor, “an area destroyed by a heroin epidemic in the 90s”.

But has the need to uplift the community been done in an egalitarian way? When the owner of K&A Stores, Gerry Fay, spoke to the Irish Times in 2018, he condemned the “30 years of complete negativity” since the development of the IFSC that took the flats off the map and gave almost nothing back to the people.

“That was done because you couldn’t have the most advantaged section of society living beside the most disadvantaged,” he said.

There are still plans to build a white water rafting experience nearby.

Gemma Dunleavy wants to combat the stereotypes and narratives. The video for “Up De Flats” is a show of hometown pride in a corner of the city too often degraded and denigrated. Dunleavy, styled in throwback urban fashion, tours the sights and citizens of the area, capturing the spirit that can pulse through a community when it feels like the deck is stacked and outside influence is working against them.

The title, of course, has long been a mantra. During Lockdown 1, footage of safe activities organised by residents of remaining north inner-city flats were posted to social media, often accompanied by those three little words that have come to encapsulate the worth, dignity, and excellence of what these structures can and have fostered. Now here comes Dunleavy, harnessing the phrase in a way that feels wholly appropriate.

Then there’s the song itself. Dunleavy – who, as she told Dublin Inquirer in the summer, spent some of her childhood living in the Phil Shanahan flats and now resides across the road on Oriel Street – doesn’t try to get too clever with the lyrics because when you strike from a place of passion you don’t necessarily have to.

The singer speaks directly to her home region as if it’s a loved one (“Will you always have me like I do you?”), describes etching her name in the stone arches on Seville Place that hold up the railway bridge outside Connolly Station, and nostalgically waxes lyrical on summer nights on the streets. “We found laughs in the middle of the violence,” Dunleavy sings.

Undeniably the most surprising element of “Up De Flats” is that it’s a UK garage tune. The instrumental that could have easily been mined from London 2001, re-re-winding the calendar back to when artists like The Artful Dodger forged a new vision of British club and street culture. With its velvet rhythms, looped harp flicks and shuffling beats, the track is equally soothing to spin on a Saturday night as it is on a Sunday morning. Custom clashes can be jarring, but in this case, Dublin vernacular on a form of music that once bumped the tower blocks of south London go together like shake and bake.

“Up De Flats” appears on Dunleavy’s debut EP of the same name, which came out in July. Having spent the last few years putting out the occasional single, it is her most fully rounded project yet. Co-produced by Dunleavy and Brendan Jenkinson, who is credited as playing synths, drum machine, electric guitar and sampling, the EP leans not just on garage music, but various eras of R&B music, showing Dunleavy’s fundamentals to be flawless.

“Cruisin” is Dunleavy’s ode to driving around in a car with a date which may or may not have borrowed its title and flavour from the old Smokey Robinson joint that D’Angelo resurrected in the 1990s. Though not a powerhouse singer, Dunleavy’s voice is low, breathy, delicate and suited for the song’s fresh, mid-tempo rhythm and blues.

The slightly harsher electronica of “Return” has a more modern R&B flavour; “Setting Son” is a tender ballad, with a strummed electric guitar and nothing else teasing out Dunleavy’s most showy vocal performance. The best song, though, is “Stop The Lights”, which brings back the garage flavours but with more of a late-night tint. Contrasting “Up De Flats,” the atmosphere is bleaker, the lyrics more abstract.

It adds up to an impressive and multi-faceted release. And now with the new video, the Up De Flats EP has a flagship work. It’s the kind of video that makes you sit up and pay attention because Dunleavy is the kind of artist that makes you sit up and pay attention. You don’t need roots in Dublin 1 to appreciate the theme of honouring one’s home soil, nor to have heard the title motto before to understand that the song showcases a rising talent who may start to dream of reaching beyond the streets that have given her so much.

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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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