Copper Cliff rapper Mickey O'Brien on steelworkers, strikes, and survival
O'Brien reflects on the Steelworkers strike of 2021 through his music
Rapper Mickey O'Brien says his new track – Cap Lamp – is a song that was never meant to be made.
After one of his earlier songs, One Day Longer, became associated with miners' rights after it was played at a workers' general strike in Madison, Wisconsin in 2011, O'Brien said he wanted to avoid any overtly labour-related issues.
"I had just kind of gotten to this phase in my career where I just wanted to stay away from that side of the political spectrum," O'Brien said.
"But with this song, I'm coming back to my roots, where I guess I needed to be."
Cap Lamp is about striking miners – specifically Steelworkers Local 6500 – a group of men and women he marched the picket line with.
The lyrics take aim at his own employer, mining giant Vale. Releasing the track, and possibly raising the ire of the company didn't phase him, O'Brien said.
"I think they sensed it was coming as well, on a local level anyway."
O'Brien said the two months on strike helped focus his creative energies, and despite the confrontational tone of the lyrics – he refers to "white-collar criminals with government funding" – the song is meant to be positive, about collective action.
He even sampled NDP MP Charlie Angus at the beginning of the track. Angus, known for his efforts to bring issues surrounding workers' rights to Parliament Hill, is also a musician with several albums to his credit.
That was the kind of energy O'Brien said he was hoping to tap into.
"Number one, I want people to get a picture of what we do for a living and how dangerous it is," he said. "Number two, how we are the history of our local and in Sudbury we've blazed a lot of trails in collective bargaining."
"And especially with this strike where the company was coming after benefits, these are things that our grandfathers had fought for."
As for the two months spent on the line, O'Brien doesn't shy away from the personal struggles he also faced being away from the mines. O'Brien said he battles addictions, and waking up to a day without heading underground could be a challenge.
"If I wasn't working on the album, I would have been in big trouble," he said. "So I was really go, go, go on the new album."
He also credits the support around him for seeing him through the tougher times.
"It's not my first barbecue, so I know,when to ask for help and people around me can see signs that I'm acting weird or something like that, that I need to go to a meeting or something."