Bobby Vylan: ‘That’s how I think the English government views the Irish: they’re all right so long as they stay in their place’

The grime-punk duo are a project only post-Brexit Britain could produce. Their sucker-punch lyrics tackle food poverty, empire’s toxic legacy and more


Bobby Vylan’s voice curdles with disdain. “We have kids living in poverty. We have a growing homeless population. We have a growing population using food banks, even though they are working full-time jobs. There are people living in conditions that are not fit for humans to live in. And we’re talking about the colour of a cross on a football shirt?”

Vylan is a rapper, singer and guitarist of singular ferocity and intelligence. He’s also one half of the incendiary grime-punk duo Bob Vylan, alongside the drummer Bobbie Vylan. “Bobby” and “Bobbie” are not their real names, which they would rather keep out of the spotlight, to maintain a distance between their public and private selves.

One subject on which Bobby is happy to hold forth, however, is the recent uproar over the unveiling of a new England soccer shirt with a stylised purple Cross of St George on the collar. The design, by Nike, has been condemned by Rishi Sunak, the UK prime minister, who said the sports company “should not mess” with the flag, and drew a rebuke from Gareth Southgate, the England manager (“It isn’t the St George’s flag”).

Bobby does not hide his exasperation. “It’s absolutely ridiculous. To me that’s just a distraction. Why are we focused on that? Why is this country focused on that? Who cares? Who cares?”

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Bob Vylan, who have this weekend released their new album, Humble as the Sun, are a project that only post-Brexit Britain could produce. Their music is a wonderfully splenetic mash-up of punk, metal and hip hop. Yet the true sucker punch comes via their lyrics, which suggest Ken Loach channelling Banksy, tackling subjects such as food poverty and the toxic legacy of empire. “The killing of kids with £2 chicken and chips/ Is a tactic of war, waged on the poor,” goes a typical line on Health Is Wealth, from their breakthrough 2022 LP, Bob Vylan Presents the Price of Life.

The idea that British elites regard underprivileged people as an inconvenience at best, an exploitable resource at worst, is one they return to on Humble as the Sun. “Election comes and they all pour out,” Bobby proclaims of the political establishment on Hunger Games. “I never seem ’em round here when the poor’s about.”

In other ways, Humble as the Sun marks a departure. The cover depicts Bobby smiling, a cartoon sun sketched around his face. The image isn’t ironic – the two Bobs are genuinely grateful for their success and for accolades such as the Mobo Award for best alternative act, which they won in 2022. While there is still a lot to be anguished about, there is room in their hearts for gratitude, too.

Bobby doesn’t go into specifics but is upfront about having grown up in challenging circumstances in London. Had life taken a different path, he might have ended up in jail or worse. (“Thank God I made it out alive,” he declares on the new record.) Humble as the Sun is, in part, a celebration of how far he has come.

“The environments that we come from, the places that we come from, I’ll speak for myself personally ... It’s been absolutely insane. When I tell people some of the stories, even when I talk to my daughter ... Her living life at 11 years old is so incredibly different to me living my life at 11 years old. When I talk to her she’s, like, ‘That sounds crazy.’”

He and his bandmate started Bob Vylan in 2017, inspired by their love of punk and rappers such as Stormzy and Skepta. (Neither is a Bob Dylan fan – they just like the name.) They released their debut LP, We Live Here, in 2020 – the same year they toured as support to Biffy Clyro and The Offspring. Bob Vylan were acclaimed from the outset: NME heralded We Live Here’s “potent mix of punk and grime”, while Mojo compared The Price of Life to Prodigy and Public Enemy.

That second album also contained some of Bobby’s hardest-hitting lyrics – including an enthusiastic takedown of Winston Churchill. “Is that Churchill washed on the seashore?” he rhymes on Take That. “Yeah, let the bitch drown.”

The UK “has such a strange relationship with its history, right?” says Bobby. “On the one hand, any human being would realise and find it hard to defend certain things Churchill has said or done. On the other hand [the rote response is], ‘Well, it’s part of our history – he was a great man.’ Just because it’s part of your history, people feel they have to revere this person: they can’t admit to any fault. Not all of the history of this country is great. It has a strange relationship with its history and its treatment of people throughout history. It’s like, ‘Yeah, we got some things wrong, but at the end of the day we’re a great country and we’re all a better country for it.’”

Vylan’s grandmother is from Jamaica and was part of the Windrush generation. He sees Irish people as fellow travellers: on Humble as the Sun’s title track he proclaims, “No blacks, no dogs, but the Irish are fine so long as they don’t rise ... Tiocfaidh ár lá, all right ...”

“Our histories are different. But some of the atrocities we faced are similar; that thing of “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish” – and then, as time moves on, things change. The blacks and dogs, let’s them keep out. The Irish, they’re all right – so long as they don’t ask for too much. So long as they’re playing nice, they’re okay. The Irish are fine so long as they don’t rise. That’s how I think the English government views the Irish: they’re all right so long as they stay in their place.”

Aptly, it was in Dublin last year that Bobby spoke about Gaza, criticising artists he felt weren’t sufficiently vocal about Israel’s actions in Palestine. He called out two by name from the stage at Whelan’s: Sleaford Mods and Idles. (Idles would later publicly condemn Israel.)

“It was a day where I was particularly emotional about what was going on,” he says of Gaza. “We were discussing it before going on stage. We were looking at videos and reading things. I felt infuriated that other bands and other artists that make themselves out to be a voice for the oppressed would be so ignorant and so passive in their stance on such an important issue. And at such an important time in history: this will be remembered forever.”

He believes recent events in Palestine will go down in history. The UK “government’s response, the US’s response, but also the people’s response – the people of these countries ... The response will be remembered forever. It will be documented throughout history. If you’re asking yourself, ‘Oh, what would you have done during slavery? What would you have done throughout the Holocaust?’ You’re doing it now – right now. With what it is happening over there in Palestine, you’re doing it.”

He was cheered when Irish bands travelling to Austin for the South By Southwest festival boycotted the event because it was sponsored by the US army. “The thing with the Irish is you’re a lot more aware of your history. No matter what side of the history you stand on you’re aware of it. It’s acknowledged. People have an opinion on it. If you fall in the category of [seeing] the English [as] oppressive colonisers, it’s easier for those Irish bands to take a stance. Whereas, in England, people are not aware of the history.”

As a black British person, he sees himself as in the middle. “It’s a little different for me, because, while I was born here, I’m in it but not of it. How did I come to be here? My dad came over here; his mum came over here. Why did they come over here? Because back home in Jamaica, the country was so destabilised – a postcolonial society – they kind of had to come over.”

He pauses. “Well, how did they get to Jamaica in the first place? Because they’re not Arawak Indians [the indigenous people of the Caribbean]. They’re African – how did they get there? For me it’s easier to see certain things – atrocities that this country continuously commits. Whereas if you’re not looking into the history of your existence and your place within this country, maybe it’s harder for you to find any common ground with anybody or see wrongdoing. Or even take a stand when you see wrongdoing being done.”

Bobby is passionate about these subjects but also measured and thoughtful. He is ultimately an optimist, which is why Humble as the Sun is, at heart, an upbeat record – a point spelled out by the single Dream Big, the chorus of which urges the listener to “Dream big, kid. Kid, dream big.” It’s a catch cry, a mantra – a message that stays with you long afterwards.

“If it gives me hope, I’m assuming it will give other people hope,” he says. “It’s made for myself to give myself some hope.”

Humble as the Sun is released via Ghost Theatre