Introducing Hip Hop Artist Jun Tzu

Belfast-born poet on rapping for change, relocating to Manchester and his debut album The Troubles

Jun Tzu is an unusual name for a rapper from Belfast. What is the derivation?

When I was a young teen growing up in Manchester I got expelled from school for fighting, so I used to spend a lot of my time in the local library. While there I came across an ancient book entitled The Art of War by Sun Tzu.

I read the book from cover to cover many times and because I loved it so much I just changed the S to a J and I started calling myself Jun Tzu. A few years later I discovered that in Chinese, Jun Tzu actually means to be a role model or an upright citizen. So I'm glad it didn't mean a sausage supper with chips and gravy.

It's safe to say that rappers are not two a penny in Belfast. Is that why you moved to Manchester?

No, not at all. We originally moved because my father was setting up a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts and alcoholics in the centre of Manchester. However, I moved back to Belfast when I was 16 for just over a year.

How were you introduced to hip hop?

It was my big brother who first introduced me to hip hop when I was about nine or ten, but I truly fell in love with it when I started high school in the Moss Side area of Manchester in 1998. At that time Moss Side was known as the Bronx of the UK, yet I always felt a lot safer hanging around with the black kids because they said they had a connection with Irish people, whereas the white kids would always try to bully me because I was Irish. I felt accepted in the black community and so I naturally embraced their music.

Did your environment have an impact on your listening habits, or do you think you would have gravitated towards hip hop regardless?

Living in inner city Manchester obviously shaped my musical influences, although I definitely believe I would of been a poet of some description no matter where I grew up.

Which were the formative albums that got you hooked on hip hop, and that you find yourself returning to now as an artist?

The first hip hop album I ever bought was Wu-Tang Clan's 36 Chambers on cassette tape. I listened to it everyday for at least a year. Then I discovered 2pac and his music changed my life forever. I remember when I was 13 I copied out all the lyrics to his song 'Brenda's Got a Baby' and tried to pretend it was my song. The only problem was all my mates knew it too, so they just laughed at me. That's when I realised I had to start writing my own music.

Some would argue that hip hop died sometime after the year 2000, when producers and stars became consumed by consumerism – now the form has been diluted by pop beyond all recognition. Would you agree or disagree?

I would agree wholeheartedly, even to the point where I sometimes find myself trying to swerve away from the word hip hop when describing my music. The hip hop culture has been infiltrated so much by the mainstream that it has become hip pop. Most artists these days are so concerned with fitting into this industry image, they talk complete nonsense in their songs, and it is very sad to see.

Are there any true, old school hip hop artists still out there?

Yes, phenomenal independent artists such as Immortal Technique from the US, and The People's Army from the UK, amongst others. They are going against the grain and standing out as revolutionary artists.

When did you start recording and gigging?

I started writing poetry at the age of 12, and recorded my first song when I was 13. When I was 16 I started gigging in churches around the UK and Europe, and just progressed from there really.

What was the reaction to your music from Northern Irish audiences?

Initially I think a lot of Northern Irish listeners were not sure how to take me. Some moaned and said I wasn't really from Belfast because I had moved away, but since appearing on BBC Radio 1's Fire in the Booth with Charlie Sloth, the amount of support I have received from all over Ireland has been overwhelming. For example, just last week one man from Omagh told me my music saved his life. It is a real blessing to see the impact it is having.

Was it difficult to establish yourself as a white hip hop artist from Belfast in Manchester?

At times living in Manchester was hard for me as an artist. For example, one of the local radio stations has only ever played my music on a St Patrick's Day special, like I'm some sort of leprechaun. So even though I can't deny the fact that the sheer amount of talent and competitiveness in Manchester is one of the reasons I have developed and progressed so far, I am very seriously contemplating moving back to Belfast.

I believe I now have a responsibility to help build the hip hop scene in Northern Ireland, as well as teach our youth about the power and importance of poetry and self expression.

You launched your debut album, The Troubles, in Crumlin Road Gaol on August 30. How would you describe it?

I am a prolific writer – my mission is to document my entire life in musical form – so I inject all my different emotions, feelings and temperaments into my music. The Troubles took me seven years to complete and every song has its own unique style, mood and flow. It is a blend of traditional Irish folk music, deeply personal poetry and hard-hitting hip hop.

You write a lot about the Troubles, which are now ostensibly at an end. What other subjects are there for hip hop artists in Northern Ireland to write about?

I talk about the Troubles because of my roots. Like so many others from Northern Ireland, I grew up in a family very much affected by the conflict, and I explain that thoroughly in my album without taking sides or showing bias. My album is very much about people rather than politics, and experiences rather than beliefs.

The youth in Northern Ireland need to unite together. They need to grasp the seriousness of where we as a nation have come from, and more importantly where we are heading. I don't believe true peace will be found by sweeping our differences under the carpet and pretending they don't exist.

Some of the youth in Northern Ireland are still holding on to traditions that are steeped in bigotry simply because they have been passed down through the generations. I want us all to take a step back and critically analyse the facts. This is 2014, the past is history and the future beckons us all towards love, peace and unity. So there are a lot more issues to address – music should be a reflection of life.

Jun Tzu performs at Voodoo, Belfast on September 11 and at the Garfield Street Stage at 8pm as part of Culture Night Belfast, on September 19. The Troubles is out now.