In the Shona language of Zimbabwe, the word Rusangano means togetherness, and it’s clear that the concept resonates strongly with Rusangano Family’s members – MCs God Knows and MuRli, from Shannon by way of Zimbabwe and Togo respectively, and Ennis producer/turntablist mynameisjOhn.
Perhaps it comes out of the trio’s background in youth work – John was previously music project manager with Clare Youth Service, MuRli and God Knows work with Music Generation in Limerick – or the cohesiveness of the west coast scene that brought them together.
Speaking on the phone, John tells me how he met and immediately clicked with God Knows at a radio showcase on west coast hip-hop – the Irish kind – and recalls the “shivers down the spine,” Ennis street festival performance that convinced John to start working with him.
He’d been thinking of working with an MC, “not a rapper – someone who could hype up the crowd – straight away I knew, that’s the dude I need to start working with.”
God Knows and mynameisjOhn released their first album together, Rusangano/Family, in 2014 – it featured MuRli on two tracks and was named Best Irish Album of 2014 by Nialler9.
In 2015 MuRli came on board full-time and the trio became Rusangano Family. Since then, “we’ve gotten tighter,” John says.
“Sometimes with hip-hop groups, they don’t necessarily see themselves as bands, it’s kind of like well, that guy does the music and that guy does the lyrics.”
It’s not as clear-cut in Rusangano though. “They know their music, they know their production – MuRli has a degree in Music Technology, so he can pick out things for me to work on, and God Knows as well,” John says.
The new fully-fledged Family has had a “crazy” year together so far, says John – they recorded their new album Let The Dead Bury The Dead and played their first smattering of shows abroad – first at the Liverpool Irish festival, then at Eurosonic in The Netherlands and then all the way to Austin, Texas for the world’s biggest music showcase, SXSW.
Now that they’ve gotten a taste, they want more, John says. “Probably until recently, we’ve kind of just been seeing how things were progressing. Now we’re at the stage where we’re like, let’s give this everything that we’ve got.”
Again he emphasises the togetherness ideal, saying: “We feel like there’s thirty or forty people in Rusangano, so we’re doing it for all of them as well,” namechecking not just close friends like Galway producer Naive Ted, but the whole country too.
“We’re doing it for Ireland… We think we’re a good band, but we also know bands that are absolutely incredible – and if we get some attention, they’ll probably get some attention after.”
Rusangano Family and the Irish Hip-Hop scene got this attention in a recent Pitchfork feature, From the Outside In – something John was delighted with.
“It’s really good that an Irish writer (like Dean Van Ngueyn, author of the feature) can pitch an article to Pitchfork, who will actually go, you know what, the music featured in this article is of a high enough quality to get printed in what’s essentially the biggest music website in the world.”
John cites the feature as proof that Irish hip-hop has matured into its own thing. “Ten years ago, hip-hop was seen as the awkward cousin at the disco who couldn’t dance… people here didn’t consider it as a real form of music.”
“We’re just like U2,” John says. “We’re certainly not as successful but the sentiment is the exact same – we’re trying to make music that represents our homeland.”
Is that sentiment found on Let The Dead Bury the Dead?
“Hmmm,” John says. “I think so. The album is actually quite introspective. I don’t know if it’s what everyone is going to expect. It’s a very personal record… we basically want to tell you what happened to us over the last year – everything that’s been going on in the background, our feeling towards music, how attitudes towards us have been changing – positively, negatively – relationships with our families, we wanted to cover all of that.”
They didn’t want to make “a load of bangers,” John says. “That’s not where we are as people – I don’t want to say that we’re serious people but when we make music we take it very seriously.”
Rusangano Family release their new album Let The Dead Bury The Dead on Friday, April 8th. They play The Sugar Club on Saturday April 9th.