Ophelia McCabe, the rapper from Dublin’s East Wall, refuses to be pigeonholed as a ghetto-chic hip-hopper. Her true passions are love, soul and theatricality, she tells Donny Mahoney
short woman with a punky, bleach-blonde hair-do walks onstage in Crawdaddy and introduces herself. “I’m Ophelia.” Behind her a full band begin playing a deep, funky groove. As Ophelia breaks into a wordy skat, some of the audience immediately turn for the bar. A few cautiously dance. Most just stand there, unsure how to react.
Every time Ophelia McCabe steps onstage, there’s another sceptical crowd or wary promoter to convince. Ireland’s female rappers can be counted one hand – probably one finger. Yet she is undaunted. “You can’t let people hold you back. Or a music industry. Or a way of thinking.”
Performing to dubious crowds has hardened Ophelia as a performer, but her music remains pointedly soulful. Ophelia’s live shows with the five-piece band Red Square recall hip-hop’s bygone days, when positivity and even love were valid sentiments to express in song.
Ophelia’s hip-hop roots come from Yo! MTV Raps, Power FM and mix-tapes mailed from the US featuring the likes of Kool Moo Dee, Public Enemy and LL Cool J. But it was her childhood in Dublin’s East Wall that was most essential to her artistic development.
“I was from a very different family for the area,” she says. “My dad’s an actor and my mother’s from Kerry, so we always spoke differently. We were all given nicknames growing up. One brother was The Skateboarder. The other was The Professor. I was always known as Ophelia whah?,” she says, putting on her thickest East Wall accent.
“But, hey”, she says, “we were raised so that it didn’t matter what our accent was
Aas long as we could be understood.”
Perhaps it was this slightly separate existence in one of Dublin’s tighter workingclass communities that drove Ophelia inwards, towards pen and paper, poetry and verse.
“My parents were kind of mixed up when I was growing up, so they just gave myself and my two brothers notebooks. They’d just say ‘write it down’. We generally wouldn’t stay within the notebook. We’d start writing on the wall.
“Town was within walking distance growing up, which was nice. But I’ve had to pay for that walk home a few times. I’ve got a hard head because of it.”
Ophelia’s background does inform some of her lyrics. On Ladylike, she raps: “I cat call/when I knuckle down, I brawl/something to do with the fact that I come from the East Wall.” But she is most interested in exploring the heart and soul. You Attract My Thoughts, a song for a lover who has taught her to feel again, finishes with this urgent couplet: “The soul cannot die but the body can rot/Give love like your last breath is coming or not.” In her own proud femininity, Ophelia sets herself apart.
Her public rap debut came six years ago, during an open-mic night at the Globe, accompanied by Messiah J. Breaking into the Dublin music world can be hard work, but fortune struck last New Year’s Eve, when Ophelia met Red Square drummer Denis Cassidy. The band were interested in playing live hip-hop with an MC, and Ophelia was looking to expand her sound. “Their kind of music is rooted in what I love, which is soul and beats,” she says.
The pairing has created one of the more unique sounds on the current Dublin unde rground: organic hip-hop anchored by her cheeky, impassioned delivery. It’s captured on a self-titled, home-recorded EP of Red Square playing Ophelia-penned tracks.
What’s next? There will always be filler slots opening for touring American rappers, but Ophelia doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as just a hip-hop act.
“I’ve had these crazy opportunities lately, rapping with a swing band, rapping with a hardcore metal band, rapping with a soul band. I want to do it all. I stand out a lot because I’m a female MC. People see it as a commercially viable sound, but they also say I talk a lot in my songs. It’s all a compromise, I guess.”
Her real dream, she reveals, is creating a true musical spectacle, with a large band arrangement, designed stage and a full lighting rig. “If I get theatrical,” Ophelia says, “I’m only following my name.” Ophelia performs on Sunday as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival’s Sunday Roast. www.fringefest.com/shows/102. Listen on www.myspace.com/opheliamc
Different strokes: Dublin rapper Ophelia McCabe. Photograph: Kate Geraghty