Irish Backgrounds Make a Difference: An Interview with Musician John Kelly

This time around, you can find out how musician John Kelly played a prominent role in building the our #WeShallNotBeRemoved movement right from the very beginning. As well that, you can find out how John’s Irish background has helped his career progress as a musician, and how he feels about the changes occurring due to the difficult circumstances that we’ve live in today.


Looking back more than 12 months ago, I wasn’t involved with #WeShallNotBeRemoved right from the start, but from I’ve heard you played an important role in getting it all up and running. Can you tell me how you got involved with it from the start?

Yeah – it was by accident. I hadn’t planned it. I’d been doing some work, some bits and pieces with Graeae Theatre Company, and I got a text from Jenny Sealey saying that Andrew Miller had been in touch to have a conversation. He had been asked a lot of questions about how he was going to respond to what has been going on in his role as Disability Arts Champion.

I was asked if I could join the meeting, and then asked if could edit the meeting into a podcast. I have Logic software, and I’ve done a bit of podcasting, so I said I’d give it a go. I then joined them in the meeting where I think there were four or five of us. There was Jodie [Wilkinson], Jenny, Andrew, Nickie [Miles-Wildin] and myself. Then we just talked about what was then this new, scary experience during lockdown, as we realised so many of our friends were being put into these very isolated situations with little or no support.

In my diary, I was about to go on tour with Extraordinary Bodies – but then everything in my diary was cancelled. It was really weird, and then I had this meeting, and did a little work to edit the podcast that includes Andrew, Jodie, Jenny, Nickie and myself talking about the situation we were in. And what we would also talk about was making sure the voice of disabled people wasn’t missed out – because it was being missed out. We weren’t on the radar. We were sort of all being lumped into the vulnerable category, which is challenging for many of us who don’t see ourselves in that way.

So, how do we creatively make sure we would now support each other, reach out, connect, and make sure that we amplify the experiences of disabled artists in particular? Our natural response to negativity is to use art and think creatively with our response. 

So, it all started there. I didn’t know it was going to lead to this movement of people, aside from knowing we were going to reach out, check in, and make sure people were okay. But I remember we started posting each other rubber gloves, aprons, and all sorts of things people weren’t able to get hold of. It was a human response to what we needed, and we went on to help each other.

I can’t remember exactly how Slack began, but I think Jo Verrent began talking to Andrew. We knew it wouldn’t be ideal, but we needed a platform that would reach out in as many different ways as possible. And then, after the podcast I made was published, Andrew said, “Let’s have another Zoom meeting” a month or two later. I’m not sure where the Podcast was made available, perhaps Graeae’s website and a couple of others too. And then suddenly #WeShallNotBeRemoved took a bit of an identity. People signed up and started saying, “Let’s help each other”, and “I can do that bit”.

People said we need to say something back to the Government about this whole response so disabled people can be considered. And obviously, we were really aware that COVID-19 was hitting disabled people pretty badly. Of course, we weren’t as aware as we are now about just how catastrophic it would be on our community.

But #WeShallNotBeRemoved was not about being an organisation that was going to respond to it. It was just about being “hands on deck”, and everybody throwing everything we could into supporting and looking after each other. It was also about amplifying the voice of the disability arts world – to say, “We’re still here, arts are important to us, and we’re going to use our art to respond, because we believe that’s a really useful way of responding”.

So, that’s what I remember of those early, crazy days. I’d never used Zoom before lockdown, and the #WeShallNotBeRemoved Podcast was the first time I’d used Zoom. I realised I’d got a bit of money from a few gigs before, so I bought the pro account early on, because I thought it might be useful. And so began my entry into the world of streaming! I began learning about webcams, and how to use other tools too.

But #WeShallNotBeRemoved was really, really important. It just gave a bit of a focus; it felt like the right thing to do. It felt as if we didn’t do it, our voices wouldn’t be heard, and Andrew had a unique position as a Government champion. He wanted to use it effectively and have a conversation with other disabled people to make sure that what we put out there reflected our community. We still know we’re still on that journey; we still don’t fully reflect on our community. We’re still under-represented in so many areas, but we’re all working on that journey to change things.

To me, the main thing to do was listening; listen to what people said and take it on board. And I really valued that about #WeShallNotBeRemoved; that opportunity to listen to different voices and try and decide what my role was within that as a freelance, individual artist.

I appreciate that too. It’s made me more comfortable as a person. It’s been good to communicate with others via Zoom.

Yeah. It was nerve-wracking – don’t get me wrong. The worst thing is making a mistake, or not thinking about someone’s access requirements. It created anxiety because I didn’t want to get it wrong, and I make mistakes all the time – because I’m a human being!

This was something reconfirming that we need to support, look after, and be considerate with each other. I was looking for the bit I can do – what I could do to help our voice be amplified. Sometimes it was as simple as, “shut up, let other voices speak”. That was important, as was holding on to what we value. The thing that made us collective is that we all valued the arts; we all value our creative response to what is going wrong around us. Whatever the experience, our art is often our way of responding to it.

Image Description: John Kelly is a white man with short dark hair curled into a slight quiff at the fringe. He is sat in front of a blurred background in which there are portraits and photos on the wall as well as a computer screen showing some editing software. He is wearing an open red checked shirt, with a white band t-shirt underneath and a heavy silver chain around his neck with a large brass padlock on it. He is facing the camera and smiling.

Well next, I’d just like to ask you a bit about your background, really. How have you been involved with disability arts in the past?

I’ve been a musician pretty much all my life really. I started singing when I was eight: music was really important to my family and my background is Irish; music is a really important part of Irish culture. So, I’ve found music is really good way of connecting, reaching people, breaking the barriers. I’ve always been in bands; right from when I was in school. I’ve had varying degrees of success. I’ve been lucky when it comes to gigging and that’s where my background lies, really.

And, as a youth worker, my background is in youth work because that’s also where I started my professional career. I used to do music there: DJ Workshops back in “the old days”. I explained how to put a gig on, how to DJ, and how to organise events in youth clubs. I also got involved with peer education. That involved young people teaching other young people about issues that effect young people.

Then I got involved in disability movement in the early 90’s, or late 1980’s, where I learned about the social model which was quite new at that point. That changed my perspective on my own experience, and I started to write about my experience as a disabled person. I wrote about everything, such as the protests I was going on, and the experience of that. It was key part of my journey.

And then, about 11 or 12 years ago, I was asked if I’d like to go along and sing a bit for some research and development for a new show which was Reasons to be Cheerful by Graeae Theatre Company. It was just a day’s work, and I couldn’t believe I was being paid to sing Ian Dury songs! I remember going home in cab and saying, ‘I’ve made it! That’s it! I don’t need to do anything else now – I’ve done it – I’ve been paid for singing Ian Dury songs…’

Afterwards though, they invited me back, and said, “Would you do some more research and development with us?” And then, before I knew it, I was told I was the lead vocalist in the show! I always thought they were going to get somebody proper in: a proper vocalist, or a proper actor, to take on what I was doing. I never thought I’d take on the person in the show, but suddenly there I was, on the stage, doing all these Ian Dury songs. I got a lucky break and felt very fortunate.

When working with Graeae, Extraordinary Bodies, and Drake Music, I’ve always been very fortunate. But I’ve always been self-employed as well and have worked with lots of different people. I’m fortunate to be working on things and those organisations that are very important to me. I feel what they have been up to has always been really important, either about the material, or the show, or what they’re trying to do to keep business going.

So, now, I’ve gone back to ‘John Kelly, the Musician’, and I’m working on my new album, which is really scary!

So, I’ve been on a really long journey, and #WeShallNotBeRemoved has been a part of that journey, but I suppose that’s my background, really. I do use music technology, but I’m not really a technologist. I have worked with Drake Music though and realised the use of technology to make amazing music. For me, it’s always been about making new music – making something that people enjoy or people connect with.

So, that’s what I’m knuckling down to now! I’m trying to write good songs. I know I’m not the best musician in the world. Everybody around me seems to be a better musician than me, so I try and learn from them, and do my own thing really. And I love it! I’ve missed gigging in lockdown, although I’ve done a lot of streaming, and learned a different way of connecting. I do enjoy that: I still get a buzz from streaming. But I miss the banter: I miss playing with an audience, because for me the audience is there when you’re on stage.

Well, that’s quite background you’ve got. It really sounds very interesting.

There’s a lot I’ve missed out! You know how hard it is to get anywhere, and I’ve worked hard. But everyone around me seems to be working just as hard, so I just join in on that.

It sounds like a plan.

I try and make friends rather than enemies! Be honest and go with your gut reaction. If something feels wrong, then something is probably wrong. If injustice exists, and I can only write a song about it, then I know that’s what I’ll do.

However, despite that I am writing songs about shamrocks, about grass, about birds flying in the sky at the moment.

Well, that sounds nice too!

Image Description: John sits in his powered chair, wearing a brightly coloured tie-dye t-shirt. He is leaning on a table and smiling into a microphone. A young man is sat next to him holding up The Kellycaster – a yellow custom-made guitar designed and created with and for John by Drake Music.

Anyway, you’ve spoken about how you’ve performed as Ian Dury, but are there any other particular artists or individuals who have inspired you over the years?

There’s so many! There isn’t one person, there’s so many…I’m into my ska, and my punk, and my reggae, and all those artists that I grew up with. The Selecter, The Pogues, Ian Dury, all those kinds of artists. Storytellers, so people like Christy Moore, and Ian Stanton; the disability campaigner and folk singer. Johnny Crescendo is somebody I’ve always loved, admired, have got to know, and I’ve covered a few of his songs as well. Today, Miss Jacqui, she is inspiring, she is amazing. Steve Varden at Drake does some amazing DJing and tech stuff.

There are so many artists that inspire me. And I’m very eclectic – one thing I did realise after concentrating on my own vocals was that I like vocalists that are authentic with their own voice. If you listen to Christy Moore, you know he’s Irish, you can recognise his accent and he doesn’t sing with an American twang! It was the same with Ian Stanton, it was the same Ian Dury – all their voices show they sing in their own vernacular. I was really into Madness when I was a kid, and Suggs sings in his own accent – and I’ve found I really value that in artists: a heartfelt voice. It obviously was the same with punk. They didn’t sing with an American twang, they just swore using the same words I use, and in the same accent!

Irish bands made a difference, like the Saw Doctors – they use language I grew up with, Irish slang. I’m terrible with my own slang, I make a lot of it up, or I nick it from somewhere else, but I like artists that do all that because it paints a picture in a more authentic way.

Well, you’ve obviously done a lot of work too by getting #WeShallNotBeRemoved up and running, but do you feel it’s in any way brought benefits towards your career? Do you think it’s led to more opportunities?

I really genuinely can’t say benefited in any way from COVID, because it’s a horrendous thing, and something we’ve all lost from it. We’ve lost friends, we’ve lost amazing artists, we’ve lost really good people. And, when you look at what could have been prevented, it’s all down to poverty, and all sorts of lack of thought, lack of consideration, lack of valuing life, so I don’t think any of us have benefited.

Have I learned stuff? I’ve learned loads. I hope to hold on to some of it, and I hope it informs what I do in the future. I think we’ve all learned how to reach to out more. We wouldn’t be having a conversation if it wasn’t via Zoom, and I wouldn’t have come to Manchester, and you probably wouldn’t have come to London. We’ve realised how this can easily be done with Zoom.  We’re having a lovely chat, and I can do it, and you can do it. Of course, there are other barriers in place, and we’ve still got to think about access – we can’t let that one go.

So, I think we’ve learned a lot from the pandemic. We’ve learned what we value, and hopefully, what we value is each other – we need to connect and be human with each other. We need to not be busy; we need to take time out and listen to each other.

I think Zoom’s given us some of that. It’s not been perfect though: I’m sure we’d have had a lovely coffee, Joe! It would have been lovely to be together, and we could have had a great time together. But with Zoom, I have been to more gigs, and I’ve been to more meetings, because of lockdown – because I haven’t had to worry about getting there.

I have missed loads – the interaction – it’s not replaced it. I don’t want this to be my life. But I’m quite happy with it being a part of it.  It’s got bits that make my life easier, and it’d be silly to let it go.

So, I hope that answers your question. I don’t think we’ve benefited from it – I think it’s wrong to benefit from it. But I do think we’ve learned from it.

Yeah – that’s a great response. I totally agree.

We definitely should be learning from it. Whatever comes from our future, because we don’t know what that’s going to be. I think one other thing we should learn from it is to not plan too far from in advance.

Great. Well, just one more question:

When it’s all over, what is it you look forward to most?

A pint of Guinness! A pint of Guinness! Well, it’s not actually a Guinness, obviously, but it’s just being a room with people and doing something creative. I miss my band, my friends I play with, experimenting, jamming, rehearsing – that’ll be lovely, to do that in a safe way. I know it’s still some way away. Because of my impairment, I need people to help move me, I need you to put my arm in the right position, I need you to be tactile.

Obviously, touch. I miss that – I miss being able to hug someone in a room. I watch videos in concerts and can’t see how we’re ever going to that again. There’s a venue that’s fairly local to me, around the back of a pub, called The Fighting Cocks. I went to see three little bands, but it’s a small little room, and it was jammed packed, boiled hot. They’re really good. There’s no designated wheelchair space, but everyone looks after each other. Even when moshing is going on, even my needs are looked after by the crowd! And crowdsurfing! I can’t see that happening for another two or three years, but that’ll be good in The Fighting Cocks, with a gentle mosh that’s inclusive, that I can join in. Just being in a room like that will be great – and having a Guinness with me will be a bonus.

Okay, well thanks for talking to me. It’s been great.

No worries. I know they’re very much personal answers, and even as you and me are here now, I’m just thinking what could I have said differently. But #WeShallNotBeRemoved has been amazing. The thing I understand about it most is that it’s about a movement, not an organisation. It’s been about sharing a set of values and principles – about connecting, looking out for each other, and looking out for people whose voices aren’t being heard. We want to now amplify the voices that aren’t being heard…even if nobody’s listening to us. But they better be!

Well, people must have heard us by now – I’m sure they have.

Yeah, they have! We know they have! We’ve been talked about in newspapers, we’ve done plenty of good things, and I hope the movement just carries on. #WeShallNotBeRemoved will end whenever it ends, but the idea of the world of art and creativeness, having our voices as equal among others, is really critical.

If they don’t, they’re missing out on some good stuff. The day back in June we trended on social media – the beauty about that was the richness of what’s out there regarding disability art. And nobody can ever say we don’t know what’s out there, because we can point them back and say “well, just go back to 17 June 2020 and you’ll see loads of examples of top-notch disabled people led art.” People can no longer say it doesn’t exist, because we all know it does.

Thanks again, John.


Although he has more barriers ahead of him than many other people, John Kelly continues to be a positive character. He keeps himself creative, and now you know how he’s played one significant role in building up the background of what is now the UK Disability Arts Alliance.

If you’d like to learn more about John and his musical endeavours, I think heading to the Rockinpaddy website is the best option available. It’ll give you further insight into John’s history and show images of him performing in live in bands over the years. You’ll also find access to his blog and YouTube pages from the website as well.