To say in 2014 that hip hop is solely an American art form is a grave misnomer. While the origin and root are indefinitely seated within black urban culture in the United States, to assume this is still its only functional place of residence disembodies the original placement and strength of its very genre. To have voice and identity, to celebrate it, and to articulate your position within your experience authentically are the first and most significant hallmarks of hip-hop.
A veteran of the Icelandic scene, CELL7 (Ragna Kjartansdóttir) does it extraordinarily well and with confidence, understanding of her roots and distinct authenticity. Born in Reykjavík to a Filipino mother and Icelandic father, Ragna was part of the original Icelandic hip hop group Subterranean (1997–99). After moving to New York to study audio engineering and recording, she relocated back to her home city and has been working up to her new record, ‘CELLF,’ after an almost 15-year hiatus.
Hip hop in Iceland may still be a small and young scene, but with this MC there is real soul, strength and identity present. Steeped in infectious groove and a full frontal arsenal of rhymes, Ragna is ready to kick in the doors of any preconceptions of what Icelandic music should sound like. While giving nod to the musicians and sounds that have come before her and opened the doors to international audience, she is ready to add her two cents and wants the world along for the ride. She does this with a fierce flow that is as honest as it is assertive, as authentic as it is aware of its roots, and as willing to break those roots to create a sound that is distinctly CELL7.
Musically speaking this is evident on ‘CELLF.’ It harkens back to the basics of hip hop while simultaneously morphing into distinctly new sounds through the help of Icelandic producers Earmax and Introbeats. She views the vibe of the record as a bit of an education for younger up-and-coming MCs who are removed from some of the origins of hip‐hop and rap. With a massively solid album to stand upon, her attention is now directed at delivering the best performances, being a truly good live entertainer and creating staying power for herself and her genre in Iceland.
An interesting contrast to much of the other Icelandic electronic sound on display at Sónar, CELL7 has more in common with international headliners like Diplo and Major Lazer. This MC is distinctly of Iceland however, and her performance should certainly deliver a new dynamic to the already amazing array of Icelandic music being showcased. In her own words here are some thoughts about this year’s Sónar festival and her role in it.
How do you feel about this festival as a representation of Icelandic electronic music?
The Icelandic music scene is filled with electronic treasures and Sónar is an excellent venue to showcase Iceland’s finest. Both up-and-coming artists, as well as veterans, are playing full sets in the prestigious environment of Harpa. With the harsh weather conditions at this time of year, it’s the perfect venue for working up a sweat while experiencing numerous trending musicians at the same spot.
Your record is one of the most buzzed about leading up to the festival, what should we expect out of your performance?
My goal is to give a dynamic and energetic performance. My music is diverse even though it’s hip hop at its core. You can expect everything from organic hip-hop to dancehall to electronic music. I try to stick to the basic rule: just plain old rockin’ the crowd like an MC does.
How would you describe the Icelandic hip-hop scene and where do you fit in it?
The Icelandic hip hop scene has been low key; even though it has its dedicated followers it hasn’t been one of the mainstream genres in Iceland for years now. If we think of hip- hop in terms of record releases, the genre is one of the smallest ones in Iceland. Yet, Icelandic hip hop musicians are very visible online; they upload videos and songs that are getting thousands of hits and views.
To be honest I don’t know where I fit into it and it has never been a great concern of mine. But I guess being a female MC rapping in English kind of sets me apart from most Icelandic hip-hop artists as the majority rap in Icelandic.
Some have said recently that Icelanders should not try to make music that is not of Iceland, i.e. hip-hop and reggae; do you have any thoughts on what it means to be an MC hailing from Reykjavík?
I don’t know anything else than being an MC from Reykjavík. But I can imagine it might be easier getting overseas exposure if you are an indie rock/pop musician or electronic musician from Reykjavík, as we have so many talented artists such as Sigur Rós, Björk, OMAM, GusGus, who have all paved the way. I am not saying that it’s easy being an indie or electronic musician in Iceland—being a musician in Iceland in general is hard!
Every one of us hip hop artists differs musically even though we do have the MC factor and genre in common. Hip-hop often gets a bad rap because we throw in the attitude with our overblown egos, incorporated with a slight hint of aggression in performance. And listening to a combination of all that in Icelandic while not knowing the language must be hard to relate to.
Furthermore, if people approach Icelandic hip hop music with a preconceived idea that Icelanders have no business in making music of the African diaspora, especially reggae and hip hop, it intercepts their susceptibility. I’m a rapper and when working on my album I wasn’t restricted to the hip hop genre even though it has a tremendous influence on me. I define my music, not the other way around.
Who are you looking forward to seeing most at the festival?
I know that Major Lazer is amazing live. I’m also looking forward to rockin’ out to Diplo’s live DJ set.
Besides your set, who would say is a must-see Icelandic band in this year’s line-up?
The cool cats of Moses Hightower have always been a favourite of mine. Other good bands that are a must-see as well are Kiriyama Family, Hermigervill, Sykur, Berndsen, Introbeats, Sísý Ey, FM Belfast and Ojba Rasta.
Any closing thoughts?
Break boundaries, be unafraid of new sounds and don’t get stuck in what you think music is supposed to be.
To read our live review of Cell7, please have a look here.