Belfast rappers Kneecap accuse UK government of trying to ‘silence’ them by blocking funding

Group at centre of a controversy around freedom of artistic expression and arts funding

The Belfast rap trio Kneecap has accused the UK government of trying to “silence” them after it blocked a British Phonographic Industry (BPI) funding award.

The decision places the group at the centre of a controversy around freedom of artistic expression and arts funding.

A British government spokesperson said it was “hardly surprising” it had stopped the award given the group’s political opposition to the United Kingdom.

The funding, an award under the Music Export Growth Scheme (MEGS) to support the expansion of bands in global markets, had been signed off on by the BPI’s independent selection board.


In a statement posted to social media, Kneecap described the funding as “significant”.

They said that they were informed their application “was independently approved and signed off by [the] selection board. It was then blocked directly by the British government who overruled the independent selection board.”

The band alleges that a provocative 2019 tour poster is to blame, saying, “We’re told that our 2019 Farewell to the Union poster p***ed off the Tories. Once again the British government is trying to silence voices from West Belfast - once again it will fail!”

The band, who sought the support for costs related to touring and live stage production in North America, concluded their statement with the message “fight censorship”, and congratulated the artists who received funding under the scheme.

The scheme is funded by the Department for Business and Trade (DBT), the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), with investment from the UK recorded music industry.

A spokesperson for the UK’s Business and Trade Secretary, Kemi Badenoch, said: “We fully support freedom of speech, but it’s hardly surprising that we don’t want to hand out UK taxpayers’ money to people that oppose the United Kingdom itself.”

The BPI has expressed its “disappointment” at the decision.

BPI represents the UK recorded music industry, organises the BRIT Awards, the Mercury Prize, and co-owns the UK Official Charts. Under its latest Music Export Growth Scheme, 67 artists were awarded funding totalling £1.6 million, the largest annual amount of funding since the scheme launched a decade ago.

In a statement issued to the Irish Times, a spokesperson for the BPI confirmed that the band was selected for funding. “As the delivery partner of MEGS on behalf of the UK music industry, the BPI is disappointed at the government’s decision not to approve a grant to the band Kneecap after our independent selection board had voted for it as part of the latest round of funding applications,” the statement said.

“The public funding element of the scheme makes it appropriate for colleagues in government to have a say on any grants awarded by the MEGS Board, and it has been their decision alone to decline the application made by Kneecap’s representatives.

“While it is for government to speak to its rationale for making this particular decision, we firmly believe in the importance of freedom of expression, including artistic expression, and look forward to discussing further with government how any decisions involving potentially controversial matters will be handled in future.”

The application was assisted by Kneecap’s label, Heavenly Recordings.

Funding for a film project by the group was criticised by former Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers and the DUP’s Ian Paisley in an article in The Times newspaper last month.

The three-piece Kneecap, who primarily rap in the Irish language, have experienced a meteoric rise in recent years. Their debut feature film - a biopic starring Michael Fassbender loosely detailing the group’s rise to fame in tandem with the Irish language rights movement in Northern Ireland - recently won an audience award at the prestigious Sundance independent film festival and was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics.

Next month, the band will embark upon their latest tour of the US and Canada, following a sold out North American tour last autumn.

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Una Mullally

Una Mullally

Una Mullally, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly opinion column