The first time Strange Boy self-harmed was in early 2020. “I started doing it to make myself feel something,” the Limerick rapper tells me. “I was angry and very depressed. I wanted to inflict harm. I wanted to kill myself. I got that low.”
e would sit in silence at home in Caherdavin for long periods and talk to himself. He would pretend to be different people.
“It was very psychotic shit to be honest. Different people inside me – having conversations out loud.”
He lifts the sleeve of his shirt, pulls back the religious bracelets, to show me the marks on his right wrist.
“Thank f**k, there’s no scars. Thank God, I never did it too bad where I’d cut a vein. I would do a load of tiny slits all down my arm.” You can just about make the marks.
That was in late 2020.
But by June 2021, Strange Boy had released one of the greatest Irish hip-hop albums ever recorded, a mix of traditional music and rap, on Holy / Unholy. It documents his painful journey on songs like ‘Sorrow’, ‘Melancholy’, ‘Missing’ and, with singer Moya Brennan, ‘Beginnings’. Last month, he performed ‘Sorrow’ on RTÉ’s Saturday night Tommy Tiernan Show to great applause.
Soon, he’ll be heading off on tour to New York, Boston and Chicago, and there’s a documentary by Dublin-based director David O’Carroll due out. “It is a short film that will encompass many of the songs on the record told through one story,” he says.
Born Jordan Kelly in 1998, he grew up in Caherdavin in Limerick, the youngest of six children. His mother Ruth Kelly, who was originally from Tuam, raised him on her own.
His father Tommy McNally, an antique dealer, also from Tuam, was, he says, “around early on, but then as I got to six years of age, he wasn’t. But it’s not like he was completely absent. There are just parts of my life where there is a gap where he wasn’t there.”
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Himself and his father have a healthy relationship now. “I love my father to death. He is a top man,” says Strange. He passed on to him “a lot of wisdom”.
“He taught me not to trust people at first sight, to be wary of everyone. He hates the ‘shades’ – the gardaí. Whenever I got into trouble with the guards, he would tell me, ‘Listen, son, if you give a shade a chance, you’re a bigger c**t than the shade.’”
He has never talked to his father about why he left the family home.
“I was too young to understand how complex all that stuff with my mother and my father was,” he says. “With hindsight, I see how he came up rough. He was very poor growing up. He was drinking from a young age.”
Strange Boy fell into that trap too. He started drinking at the age of 12. “Cans of shitty, dirt-cheap lager,” he tells me over a cup of tea in a bar in Dublin. He’s wearing his signature flat cap, shorts, and a large Tommy Hilfiger jacket.
“I smoked weed. Weed was obviously very bad at that young age if your brain is still developing. But there was no one there to tell me: ‘You can’t be doing that.’”
What about his mother?
“She meant well – and I love my mother to death – but she was very depressed when I was growing up. So, she couldn’t really be that person for me. She had her own stuff to deal with. She has attempted suicide several times throughout her life. Growing up, I didn’t have someone as a positive influence or someone to stop me from doing things… not that I wasn’t loved by my mother.
“She is a special woman, a really great woman who has always loved and supported me and been there for me. She raised me through what can’t have been the easiest of times for her. She is everything to me, as is my father.”
When he was 12 years of age, Strange started listening to American rappers like 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg and Eminem. He also wrote his first song.
“It was about killing someone. I wrote a fantasy song about stabbing someone to death with a needle. It was an angry rap because I used to get bullied a lot in school.”
He rapped in an American accent. “I was listening to a lot of American hip-hop. Then I started using my own accent.”
At 13, he heard Eminem say in an interview that he reads the dictionary. He started reading the dictionary too. “It benefited me because I taught myself lots of words. I started writing better songs.”
At 14, he rapped in public for the first time at a venue in Limerick. He was also shoplifting around the city centre “almost every day, until the security guards copped on. I went in to rob. I didn’t even want to, but I was angry”.
Eventually he was caught. “I got caught robbing a packet of pens. I needed pens to write. I had gotten away with drink, sweets and when I got caught, it was for a packet of pens. That turned my robbing ways around. I never did it again.
“I was hanging around with a bunch of f**king sausages. They were doing the same shit as me. And they went on to do other, stupider shit as well. It is a cycle. A bad buzz.”
How did he escape ending up in prison? “I suppose through music, if I think about it. I was probably heading down that way. I had no aims or goals in life. I hated school.”
He was finally expelled from St Nessan’s Community College – now named Thomond Community College – for fighting. He says he was fighting for a good reason.
“I was backing someone up who was getting bullied. That was the last straw for them because I was always getting into fights and coming in late.”
He didn’t want to carry on with school, but he was persuaded to do his Junior Cert at Northside Youth Reach in Moyross.
“They helped the kids,” he says, “because they listened. That mainstream system is not for everyone because there are a lot of troubled kids who don’t fit into that.”
He completed his Junior Cert exams – “I think I just about passed” – but dropped out before the Leaving Cert. He wanted to concentrate on music instead.
“I went into this youth programme for kids who were into music called Music Generation in Limerick. That changed my life around to the point where I was going to these rap classes every Saturday. The teachers were such a good influence on me. They taught me how to be more social as well, because I was a very anti-social kid.”
He struggled with events at home. “I didn’t know how to process my mother’s depression. I was a kid.
“Nothing I was going to say was going to change that. She got medication and she was back to normal. But then this kept happening when I was growing up in spurts – where she’d get sick again and very badly depressed and suicidal. And then she’d get better again.”
He began to release tracks of his music. When he was 17, he put together a debut mix tape, ‘Passionate Example’. Then ‘It’s Alright’, a song by Delush (aka Strange’s manager Enda Gallery) featured his rap, and appeared on the hit TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Blindboy Boatclub, of the Rubberbandits, dubbed it the “greatest song ever to come out of Limerick”.
Still, April of that year was the start of a terrible few months. “My mother hit a low spot again. God bless her, she got depressed again. It was the worst I ever seen her get, really.
He reacted badly. “I started cutting myself with a knife. I started relying on drink heavily. I basically became a bit of an alcoholic. When my mother was very suicidal, and it got to the point where I didn’t think it would get better and she would succeed in taking her life.
“I was very lonely, drinking and self-harming. I didn’t think I’d make it out either, to be honest. It was a very low time. You feel shit. You feel spaced out. You’re very sad. You’re angry. I would drink a litre of whiskey and go crazy and start cutting myself with a knife. Not to kill myself. Just to harm myself.
“Funnily enough that’s when I wrote the album,” he says of Holy / Unholy, “when I was like that, which is why it is so authentic. Most of my album is talking about topics like this. This is where it all stems from.”
On ‘Beginnings’, he raps: “Where should I start telling tales from this heavy heart?/Second of November 1998 [the day he was born] or the second time my mother tried to end it/’Cus the pain wouldn’t subside.”
The reaction to the album was almost universally positive. “You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who isn’t captivated by Strange Boy’s stark sincerity,” wrote Hot Press.
“When everyone was ranting and raving, I still thought I was shit,” he smiles. “I thought the album was going to do shit because it was just me talking about my personal problems. Who cares about a lad from Limerick?
“Then I had a lot of people come up to me at gigs crying, saying my music helped them get through very dark times. That’s a lot of responsibility to have for me. But it touches my heart. I try not to think about it too much.
“But the material I pull from for songs is from my own life experiences. Everything on that album comes from a real place of pain.
“Then I met a bird and my mother, thank God, got better over a process of a few months. So, those two things happened that brought me slowly out of that slump.”
The “bird” is Leah O’Sullivan, whom he met in a pub in Limerick in 2020. “I was an alcoholic at the time. I wasn’t even planning on going to the pub. I went for a pint with a few of the boys. We just hit it off.”
He didn’t get better immediately. “It was a slow process. I still have my bad days. I’m still working on myself,” he says, adding, “Leah is a lovely girl. She lives in a flat with her friends in town. I only live 10 minutes away.”
He still lives with his beloved mum in Caherdavin. “I want to move my mother out of her house, or even do it up,” he says.
His father is now sorted with a home of his own. “It is a lovely place as well. My father deserves it.
“I want to help my family and my father and my friends. I want to do as best I can for the people around me.”
What do his parents think of his music? “They love what I’m doing. They support me. As I said, they never showed me a lack of love growing up. It was just that they had their own personal problems.”
Strange Boy isn’t sure yet that he will stay with music. “I don’t think I have decided. I know I am passionate about it, and I want to keep doing it and see how far it takes me, but I am very aware of the fact that I am only 23. I don’t even think I am supposed to know what I want to do with the rest of my life at 23. So, I don’t know about the future.”
Nor does he seem too comfortable with the present.
“I don’t trust my senses. I’m very paranoid. When I got better out of depression, paranoia replaced it, for whatever reason. I got very paranoid about random stuff. That people were watching me. Or I’m going to die on this date. I can’t do this because I’ll drop dead. Crazy shit. It really does affect me, but I try not to let it get to the point where I’m acting on things.”
With that, Strange Boy gets into the car with Enda, his manager, to drive back to Caherdavin. “I feel very positive and almost blessed,” he says from out of the car window, “about what is ahead of me.” And he is not talking about the road to Limerick.
“I’m optimistic about the future in terms of people catching on to what I’m trying to do with traditional music mixed with hip-hop. I think it’s a very important cultural thing for Ireland if I pull it off and if people catch on.
“I hope people will get uplifted by the stuff I’m saying because there’s people out there who think they’re the only ones going through what they’re going through.
“Hopefully, if they listen to my songs, they can get a bit of strength from it.”
Strange Boy plays The Commercial in Limerick, May 6; Doolin Folk Festival, Co Clare, June 10-12; and the Global Roots stage at All Together Now festival, Co Waterford, July 31
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised here, please contact the Samaritans on their 24-hour freephone number 116 123; samaritans.org
On Strange Boy’s playlist: Three Irish rappers
The poet, oral storyteller and rapper starred in his own short film Imbas Forosnai in 2020 and has also performed a 13-minute poem ‘An File’ about Ogma, a mythic god of Irish poetry and verse.
“Dyrt is one of the only other people moulding rap with traditional music and spoken word with Irish folklore,” Strange Boy says. “He performed one of his pieces for President Michael D Higgins. His stuff is being taught in schools in Ireland. He makes art with his work that people will be analysing for years to come.”
The rapper moved to Northern Ireland from the Philippines when she was eight, and cites Roxanne Shante and Queen Latifah as influences. She released her Vortex EP in 2020, ‘Mango Juice’ single in 2021, and recently a new single ‘Smoke’.
“Don Chi is one of the best female artists out of Ireland,” Strange says. “She speaks on heavy topics and is unique and honest in her songs. Her accent goes perfectly over the type of beats she raps on.”
The wordsmith raps on his debut album Is Mise: “F**k stab city, f**k stab city – this is rap city!” The cover features him bare-chested on a horse with a hurley.
“Hazey Haze is the face of the Limerick hip-hop scene and a pioneer of rap in Ireland. He is also unique and world-class and authentic.”
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/music/i-would-drink-a-litre-of-whiskey-and-cut-myself-limerick-rapper-strange-boy-on-life-and-writing-41535262.html ‘I would drink a litre of whiskey and cut myself’ – Limerick rapper Strange Boy on life and writing