INDEPTH: ‘I’m 100% Irish but I’m also 100% Zimbabwean’ – Hip Hop star God Knows reclaims his heritage, says disowning uncle Cde Chinx ‘didn’t sit well’

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“Family” is a word that has defined Munyaradzi God Knows Jonas’s career. The Zimbabwe-born, Shannon-raised, Limerick-based rapper — known as Munya or G to his friends — came to prominence as a member of Rusangano Family, the first hip-hop group to win the Choice Music Prize for Irish Album of the Year in 2017. Having spent the last decade helping to shape, strengthen and galvanise Ireland’s hip-hop scene thanks to his mentoring of artists such as Denise Chaila, now he is taking influence from his African family for the release of his new solo EP We Move the Needle.

In the case of his new single Twelve 61, that is meant in literal terms. A series of fortunate events unfolded after the 32 year old’s interview with the Sunday Times last year, when he spoke for the first time about his uncle Dickson Chinx Chingaira, one of Zimbabwe’s best-known musicians and a war veteran of the country’s fight for independence.

Jonas recalls him visiting their house in Chitungwiza, a city about 25km outside Zimbabwean capital Harare, as a child, when crowds of neighbours would flood the street to catch a glimpse of “Comrade Chinx”.

“It’d be like there was a parade or something; that’s how many people came out of their houses to see him,” he says, laughing. “And that’s how it would be every single time he came to visit; he wore his trademark beret and he would wear African kente, so he was always very noticeable. He was a star and he was on telly all the time, especially in the 90s. I already looked up to him anyway, so it was like ‘Duh! That’s what I wanna do!’”

God Knows Jonas: ‘I’m just making music that I love’

Until last year, however, Jonas had been somewhat reluctant to discuss that branch of the family tree publicly, instead choosing to align himself with Chinx’s son, Lenin, also a musician in Zimbabwean band Slice. The elder Chingaira suffered a fall from grace in the eyes of many, after he used his music to publicly endorse Robert Mugabe’s controversial land reform and government policies. When he died in 2017, there was much debate over whether he should be declared a national hero in the African country.

Jonas, who moved to Shannon via Sheffield with his family at the age of nine while his father worked for Shannon Aerospace, says his change of heart was instigated by a bout of depression that his younger brother experienced in 2017. He realised that he needed to set an example by being honest and real in his own life. “I remember at the time, especially around the Rusangano days, I would avoid anything that was a divider or anything polarising,” he says. “I’d just stay away from it because I didn’t want to cause any hassle. I wanted the music to be at the forefront, and anything that I said, I wanted to leave it within the music for someone to discover — and if it came up, maybe I’d speak about, or say ‘I choose not to speak about it’. But when my brother went through [that], I thought ‘why am I trying to be strong when I can be honest and help others?’ Why not now, as an adult, speak about this nuanced topic? And say ‘Yeah — that was my uncle. He was an incredible musician and he did a lot of positive things for Zimbabwe in general’.”

Disowning his uncle “didn’t sit well” with him, he said, particularly since he was such an influence on his career and decision to pursue music. “Now that I’m in my thirties, I can say, ‘If you wanna have a conversation about it, let’s have a conversation’,” he says. “That’s why I’m saying now, that’s my uncle. He really influenced me, and there would be no God Knows if it wasn’t for Chinx Chingaira. Yeah, that tune about the war on farms? Not my favourite. But that doesn’t take away from his legacy.’ We can look past that moment.”

Munyaradzi God Knows Jonas

Jonas was working with Cork-based producer Ian Ring aka BOKU at the time, and when Ring read the interview, he decided to surprise the rapper with a beat sampling one of Chingaira’s most famous songs, Vanhu VemuAfrica.

“Oh man, I lost my mind,” he laughs, recalling the moment he heard the track. “The studio that we were in felt like it was a stadium at that moment. And he was really nervous, because I can imagine, you don’t wanna desecrate somebody’s legacy. So he just said, ‘lemme give it a shot’ — and he made a really banging tune out of it.”

The story of the song, which eventually became his new single Twelve 61, took another twist when Jonas spotted a Facebook post by another uncle, congratulating a rising star on the zimdancehall (a modern offshoot of dance hall music and the most popular contemporary genre in Zimbabwe) scene on his success. After some digging and questioning, he discovered that Jah Master, aka Rodney Mashandure, was a cousin and had grown up mere streets away from Jonas in Chitungwiza. The title of the track is a reference to Jonas’s grandmother’s house address.

“So we’re all from near the same area, and Jah Master shot the video for his song Unonzani in our local town centre — so we were already big fans of him because he’s one of us,” explains Jonas. “And then to find out that this guy who made Hello Mwari — which is a big tune in Zimbabwe — is related to me, it was just crazy.”

With help from a friend, Jonas got in touch with Jah Master and before long the zimdancehall star was featuring on the single — which also sees Jonas rap in Shona, his second language (although he admits with a chuckle that he has “fifth class-level Shona”, not having been in Zimbabwe since 2007). The track was crafted remotely and the cousins have not yet met, but Jonas plans to work with more zimdancehall artists.

His EP, due for release in July, incorporates his African heritage in other ways, too; his younger brother Godwin produced his recent single Glory. He says much of the EP’s sound was influenced by amapiano, a subgenre of house music that originated in South Africa over the past decade.

“I’m a whole human being,” he says, shrugging as he explains why he chose to integrate his African roots rather than focus on social commentary, which has defined much of his material previously. “I don’t put parts of myself in the corner; I feel like I’m 100 per cent Irish, but I’m also 100 per cent Zimbabwean. When I made music with Rusangano Family, those two sides of myself came together music-wise and intellectually — but thematically, it was for a specific audience at a specific time. To this day, that is an audience that I’m very, very proud and happy to have, but the music I made …” he trails off, trying to figure out how best to explain it. “My family would be like, ‘I hear that’ — but they wouldn’t be like, ‘I FEEL that!,” he says, laughing. “And as a family, if you come to a party in my house, it’s like you’re at a festival or something. We connect through music. I’m also very connected [to] what makes an Irish crowd go mad but I never had tunes for those [family] parties; tunes that resonated with me in that way, that connected to the black youth culture in me.”

For an artist who has become synonymous with the Irish hip-hop scene, it’s certainly a change. However, he points to other mainstream artists, from Stormzy to Ed Sheeran, who have incorporated an Afrobeats sound into their material in recent times; Sheeran’s song with Nigerian artist Fireboy DML saw him sing in Yorùbá, while he and Stormzy collaborated with Burna Boy on UK dance hall hit Own It.

“People just wanna know if your song’s sick [good], or not, rather than ‘they’re speaking in a different language, I don’t connect’,” he says. “If your song is bangin’, that’s all we care about. Afrobeats as a genre is the buzz word in music right now, and this whole EP is Afrobeats. But I didn’t make it thinking in terms of the industry, or ‘this is what we should make because this is what’s selling’. It was like, that’s my uncle, we’re making this song, that’s my little brother, he produced this beat, boom!” He says, giddily. “I’m a businessman as well as a musician, but I’ve given up thinking I want to attract this audience. Now I’m just making music that I love.”

Twelve 61 featuring Jah Master is out now. God Knows EP We Move the Needle is released in July