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“A year of art born through adversity” – The Last Mixed Tape 2021 Year In Review

The Last Mixed Tape looks back at the year that was 2021.

2021, a year of art born through adversity. During this time, Irish artists have been pushed to their very limits. From the pandemic’s effect on the music industry to the systemic desolation of cultural spaces amid the death rattle of late capitalism, the works created in this period have reflected and raged against the confining environment in which they were conceived.

Indeed, with the continued suffocation of the live music sector, the industry has never before been so aware of the multitudes of cogs that make it tick. From artists to promoters, stage crew to venues, photographers to engineers and beyond, entire livelihoods continue to be attacked. While the latest restrictions and news that the HSE has not been collecting contract tracing information to back them up, adds to the frustration and stress.

So, much like a boxer in the final rounds of an uneven fight, the Irish music industry has been asked to find its feet, answer the bell, and come out swinging, somehow delivering future classic albums, cathartic moments of achievement and an independent grassroots scene that continues to grow towards the light, albeit contorted by pressures of its surroundings.

Cobblestone Protest photo by Stephen White

“Chants of “homes not hotels”, “culture not vultures”, and a coffin with the words “R.I.P Culture” emblazoned on the side conveyed an artistic community no longer willing to be ignored”

Spitting out the line, “Heads are gonna roll soon, no warning. This town’s not dead; it’s just dormant.” Kojaque captured the frustration of Ireland’s génération perdue caught between the machinations of a greed-driven landlord class, gentrification and a government for sale. 

This unrest would spill out onto the streets as hundreds successfully protested the proposed development of a hotel around the legendary Cobblestone pub in Smithfield. Chants of “homes not hotels”, “culture not vultures”, and a coffin with the words “R.I.P Culture” emblazoned on the side conveyed an artistic community no longer willing to be ignored. 

Bookended with the rise of Gemma Dunleavy, one of Ireland’s most striking new artists, and the importance of diverse voices within our music scene is all the more apparent and essential. Culminating in a cathartic sold-out Academy show, brought to a close with Dunleavy surrounded by her local community (a significant theme in her breakthrough E.P. Up De Flats) wearing Sheriff YC football jerseys singing, “we’ll be shouting up de flats from the rooftops.”

“In the past I’ve been very protective of my up bringing because it’s been shown in a bad light. But in reality it’s the best gift I could have ever got. So now I don’t just want to be protective of it, I want to shout it out.”

Gemma Dunleavy – TLMT Interview

However, art is open to all, and this contrast was best found in two albums with polarizing approaches to toxic masculinity. For Those I Love‘s self-titled debut provided an unflinching insight into the claustrophobic nature of the poisonous masculinity when faced with grief. Through poetic and sonic turns of phrase, David Balfe channeled trauma into art via lines like, “You spend your whole life being brave. And you hope things will change. So don’t fucking ask me why I don’t want to age.” 

In direct opposition to this was Fuck Versatile. It is an album that reveled in its own sense of entitlement via classism, racism, and sexism, and one I have already spent enough time in the company of (full review here). But, this divergence in attitudes shows Irish music at its best and worst. What we are capable of, and what lies beneath. As a white man in his mid-thirties, it would be easy to go with the attitude of “ignore it, and the problem will go away”, but these issues are systemic in society and not based on object permanence, they exist regardless of my experience. What is easy for me to ignore is not easy for those who face it every day. For Those I Love, faces this truth. 

This is where the diversity of voices participating in the ongoing conversation about art is essential. From the emergence of Celaviedmai, the continued domination of Denise Chaila & Narolane, and the international acclaim received by Pillow Queens, the internal and external conversation music & art can no longer be dominated in one direction, see also music journalists/podcasters/D.J.s like Andrea Cleary, Kate Brennan Harding, and Tara Kumar.

Photo credit Bekah Molony
Photo credit Bekah Molony

“We need more events and opportunities like this where there isn’t just one black artist or one female to tick the box, there’s people of all kinds there, every time”

Celaviedmai – TLMT interview

And so it goes, art is the fruit on the tree of our society, and what troubles the roots becomes present in the fruit. 2021 saw many great albums (see TLMT’s Top 20) and songs (Top 50). The year also reaffirmed our scene’s sonic, thematic, and cultural diversity whilst introducing new voices, ideas and sounds. All of which was produced in a time of turbulence, stress and uncertainty.

However, génération perdue isn’t the correct term. It implies those creating the art are lost or lacking in direction. Irish artists know precisely who they are, where they are and what they want. Our scene produces work with a defined sense of self, not just musically. With an array of experiences, voices and outlooks all on display, there is still a cohesive message, one that reaches beyond the confines of its own bubble and breaks out into the broader conversation. While there may always be adversity, there will always be art to fight it.

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