In the Icelandic rap scene, there’s Countess Malaise and there’s everyone else. Since the the dark monarch debuted three years ago with her hit “Goth Bitch,” the Countess has been an elusive figure in the community. Rarely dropping tracks or playing live, the rapper, real name Dýrfinna Benita Basalan, has projected an aura of mystery. With the sporadic release of songs that were aggressive, honest, dark, but still turnt as hell, fans have spent the last few years waiting with bated breath for her first release.
This Halloween, she finally dropped her debut effort ‘HYSTERÍA,’ and it quickly took every “goth bitch” in the city by storm. With its rabid release of sex, anger, trauma, and more, it is unlike anything the city has seen. She followed it up with a packed release show at Prikið, where the chanteuse, clad in black vinyl pants, stood on a box and screamed her truth at a fanatical crowd. Now, just one month later, the artist has been nominated for a Kraumur award.
The lucky ones
I meet Dýrfinna in the Kling & Bang gallery at the Marshall House, where she’s hard at work on the joint exhibition ‘Lucky Me?’, which she’s doing in collaboration with fashion designer Darren Mark and visual artist Melanie Ubaldo. The three are all Icelandic artists of Filipino descent, and the exhibit itself dives into the unusual psyche created by straddling those two worlds. They call themselves the Lucky 3 collective.
‘Lucky Me?’ will open in a week and the room is currently in a state of pre-installation chaos. Navigating the gallery, Dýfinna points at the scattered piles of material and explains exactly what everything will be. In one corner the trio will build a makeshift basketball court. In another, they’ll erect a south asian-style bodega. A separate room will house a karaoke parlour—an iconic pastime for those of Filipino origin.
Gangs & rice
“When you grow up mixed, you don’t really feel like you have the right to belong anywhere,” Dýrfinna says calmly, sitting in the back of the gallery. “I grew up in Breiðholt, where there were a lot of immigrants, but I moved around a lot because my father and mother split and my Mom was sick, so we often lived in social housing.”
While immigrants make up 15.6% of the Icelandic population nowadays, that number was significantly smaller during Dýfinna’s childhood. “There were some mixed race kids but there was still a lot of racism. In Breiðholt, there used to be a lot of beef between brown people and white people; gangs, you know,” she explains. “One day there was this big knife fight in a kiosk where a lot of Filipinos and other races were fighting against Icelanders. The next day in school, these older kids—white kids—were like ‘Yeah, we’re gonna beat you up.’”
She was defended by another mixed-race classmate, but the incident was just one of many where Dýrfinna was targeted for being different. “They used to call me names, like monkey, sumo, or rice. They even called me the n-word,” she says, before stopping to pull up her sleeve, revealing a scribble of a tattoo I can’t quite make out. “I got ‘Rice’ tattooed on me, but it’s upside down, so I can see it and no one else.”
She laughs, maybe in discomfort, maybe in pride, but it’s clear that this dissonance created the Countess who now sits in front of me. Talk to Dýrfinna for five minutes and you’ll see what growing up straddling two worlds created in her. She’s tough. Known around town for speaking up about injustice and mental health, she takes up space and is unapologetic about it. At the same time, though, she’s vulnerable, emotional, and honest. She wears her heart on her sleeve and opens up instantly about her difficulties, whether they relate to trauma, pain, or being bullied. She is, without being cheesy, inspirational.
But don’t tell her that; she’ll get embarrassed. The girl can’t take a compliment.
“Wow, tough. It’s my personality, I guess,” she says, shrugging, deflecting the acclaim. “I don’t know, I guess everything that you do is the real you. You show yourself in your actions.” She pauses, and then takes a deep breath. “To be honest, I always wanted to be just tough and not be affected by things, but now I’m like, ‘yeah, I don’t have to be just one thing.’ I feel batshit crazy sometimes but now I’m ok with that. I’m at peace with being both.”
It’s that comfort in her ability to be both a bad bitch and a soft, emotional being that has made Dýrfinna’s fans so dedicated. At the ‘HYSTERÍA’ release concert, the songstress alternated between rapping nasty verses about getting eaten out to pausing and yelling at the crowd, “Let’s give it up for mental illness!” The callout subsequently garnered pounding applause.
“It helps when people talk about mental illness. Then it gets easier for yourself and others to accept it,” she says, referring to that moment. I then tell her that the performance was no doubt the highlight of my Iceland Airwaves experience. She instantly gets (as you’d expect) mortified. “Best? Wow, that’s funny,” she says. “Ok, I’m trying to take the compliment.” She grins. “Alright, I’ll take the compliment.”
Know my name
The title “Countess Malaise” was a play on the comic book character Modesty Blaise. Her longtime friend and collaborator Lord Pusswhip thought of it. “He rhymed back Countess Malaise and I said, what does Malaise mean? Then I looked it up and I was like, yeah, that’s me!” she smirks.
The name fit Dýrfinna, body and soul. “In the beginning, I didn’t have an agenda, I just had a plan to say, ‘Hey, this is me. Know my name,’” she explains, the tough side of her personality coming out in full force. “I always wanted to make music but I was scared and some days I still am. Every artist has doubts about themselves. You wonder, is my stuff worth it? Do I have the right to use my voice? Is this a waste of time? Is this just another struggle that I am putting on of myself? Because art is a struggle.”
And for Dýrfinna, the release of ‘HYSTERIA’ did come with a unique and tragic struggle. The album came out just days after the death of her father. “My father had just died on the 28th and I dropped the album on the 31st. I was just like…” she trails off.
At this moment, I pause the recorder and wait to see if she wants to continue. It’s been just three weeks since his passing when we talk, and to push her to talk about such a tragedy for a magazine article seems insensitive.
While her pause is loaded, she nonetheless has one more thing to say about the event. “I wanted to promote the album more, but it was hard to do when I was planning a funeral,” she explains. “It was hard to find the mental space and time.”
We take a moment to talk about trivial matters before refocusing and returning to the interview.
The positive response she received to the album alleviated many of Dýrfinna’s worries about whether or not she did have a right to use her voice. “A lot of people seem to like it and that was really fun,” she says. “‘HYSTERÍA’ is a story about a person trying to figure shit out. It’s a sad and happy story.”
Dýrfinna shrugs. “It’s funny, when I’m on stage, people say I’m this confident badass bitch that knows what she’s talking about, but inside I am thinking, ‘am I going to fall? Did I forget the lyrics? Do something interesting! Don’t be fucking boring! Do something, I don’t know, inspirational!’” It’s an unexpected burst of silliness from the artist, who has, until now, been pretty serious.
“But at some point, I see a face in the crowd and I just see some sort of love in their face, or an emotion that I relate to, and it gives me strength.”
While Dýrfinna has found her fanbase in the city, in the context of the wider Icelandic hip-hop community, she still feels separate. “I feel like I’m the Björk of hip-hop. I am not really affiliated with them,” she admits. “I have so much love for my friends in the scene, but I still feel like an outsider. If I were vibing with anyone, it would be the underground. There’s a lot of love there, but—and this is going to sound super narcissistic—I feel like something else.”
But then, if not the rappers, who does she feel affiliated with? “It’s all about belonging somewhere. But where do I feel like I belong?” she asks herself. “When I’m in a P.O.C. [people of colour] queer space then I feel like I belong. When I’m with other freaks that are actually freaks. When I’m with actual fashion icons. Then I’m at home,” she says, smiling. “Those are my people, and they aren’t just in the hip-hop scene, they’re from graphic design, DJ-ing, visual art, and more. I like the complexity. The mix. It’s goulash!”
A sense of belonging may have eluded Dýrfinna in her childhood, but it seems she’s found it now.
“The Goth Bitches”
After the exhibit at Kling & Bang, Dýrfinna will start working on a music video for “Tired Of This Shit,” which is, admittedly, my personal favourite song of hers. I joke that I’m just a fangirl, a Malaise-r.
“No, you’re a goth bitch!” she says, laughing. “I was thinking about this the other day. Mariah Carey’s fans are lambs. Did you know this? Megan Thee Stallion has the hotties. So I thought, if my fans are something, I guess they would be goth bitches. But I would really love if a fan could tell me what they would say instead.” She leans into the microphone. “So, if my fans have a name for themselves, let me know.”
Dýrfinna’s got to get back to setting up the exhibition, so I quickly ask her for some last words on the album. “I would say…” she trails off, before a big smirk takes over her place. “Just listen to the album. Put it on repeat. Don’t even read this article, just stream it on repeat because I want to get those plays. I need to get that money. I need validation.” She bursts out laughing. “Ok. No, I don’t. Just kidding.”
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