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Who would have predicted that a huge part of the mixed-race Irish experience would be best expressed in a rhythm and blues song? The clear and obvious answer is: anybody who has spent the last few years absorbing the sounds of the Dublin underground. Modern issues of race and identity are being aired out in Irish hip-hop, soul and contemporary R&B even as literature and film – art forms more commonly associated with this nation – struggle to keep up. These red-hot forms of musical expression are only getting louder and prouder.

Enter stylish Erica-Cody (sometimes hyphenated, sometimes not), a singer making smooth R&B with a glorious 1990s bent. Her latest single takes just 213 seconds to give a trenchant depiction of very modern issues, sneaking its messages through under the camouflage of velvety grooves and funky orchestration.

The title of the track tells half the story: “Where U Really From”. If you’re an old fashioned paradigm of Irishness – that is, if you’re white, if you’re culturally Christian – this might seem an innocuous query. But, if you’re a person who calls this island your home and falls outside of what have long been considered its core ethnic and social tenets, it’s a question that can etch away at the edges of the soul.

Cody – a 22-year-old Dubliner who, as she reveals on “Where U Really From”, is the child of a white mother and black father – uses this sermon to build her day-to-day experience. She rattles off some of the trite questions and ignorant utterances she regularly faces: “Darling, what’s your race?” “Where’s your hair from?” “That can’t all be yours.” Condemning those who think it’s okay to paw at her crown, Cody quotes the title of Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair”, the singer’s soulful declaration of agency over a feature of black women’s bodies that for generations was devalued and dehumanised (as well as the title of a new Emma Dabiri book that goes deep on these topics).

At best, being constantly quizzed on your background and features is irritating. At worst, it rubs away at your sense of self. It’s tough feeling Irish if the nature of your origins is questioned daily.

Me, I’m an Irish-Vietnamese baby boy Dubliner. Day-to-day, surrounded by a majority-white population, nobody really notices I’m mixed and, so it goes, nobody questions my Irish identity. I know folk from a similar background who, in appearance, lean towards the side of their ethnicity considered non-native. Their experience is frightfully different than mine. This, in my mind, is the definition of white privilege – when the ease of which you navigate through life, and your right to identify as the person you are, is facilitated by white skin and Western features.

Irish music has been on these issues for a few years now. People who never thought much about race and identity had their minds opened by Rusangano Family’s Let The Dead Bury The Dead. To cherry-pick a couple more examples, there’s Rejjie Snow’s “Blakkst Skn”, a commentary on race relations through a depiction of an interracial relationship, and Loah’s track “Keep Your Heart”, where guest rapper and Rusangano member God Knows reveals memories of casual racism with a startling nonchalance that chills the blood.

Now, there’s Erica-Cody, whose indignation crescendos on the bridge of “Where U Really From”: “Don’t come for me and my ethnicity,” she sings with maximum power. It’s a cry for liberation from tired old stereotypes.

Anouska Proetta Brandon

It doesn’t hurt that the singer parades these righteous memorandums with the sweetest blend of sounds. On the purely musical side, Cody’s influence list reads like a who’s who of R&B legends. You sense Jodeci’s urban soul, 3LW’s perky pop and the satin symphonies of producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. Nobody can deny she’s got incredible taste.

But here’s the rub: classic, club-orientated contemporary R&B is some of the hardest music in the world to recreate. Think of genre bigwig Timbaland and his futuristic “dope beats to step to”. It was back in the the 2000s when, as a smackdown to fellow producer Scott Storch, Tim used his hit “Give It To Me” to claim he sold beats for half-a-mil apiece. You don’t pull in those kind of freelance cheques if your style is easily imitated.

It’s no problem for Cody, though. Timbaland might be out of reach right now but her strong new EP Leoness does a pretty good job of assembling a set of lean, bubbly instrumentals, as sleek and sophisticated as high-end interior design. Featuring catchy keyboard riffs, popping drum loops, prominent basslines, these are hits that could easily have slid into MTV Base’s rotation back in the day.

Away from the “Where U Really From”, a thematic palette of boys and crushing on them is what lights Cody’s fire. On “Over and Over”, she compares a potential beau to a melody she can’t shake out of her mind. “Runaway” revels in the age-old dream of escaping normal life in the name of romance. On “Good Intentions”, she straight admits that a dude’s “bad boy persona” is what attracted her interest. “It’s not my fault,” croons Cody, as if anybody would ever judge her for such a thing.

This is Cody’s style, revelling in familiar old-school flavours with no sense of triteness, using her music discuss present-day issues, reinventing rhythm and bounce, bounce, bounce for Ireland’s future.

Dean Van Nguyen

Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth,...

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