Iceland’s hip-hop scene, much like elsewhere in the world, is predominantly a boy’s club. Even though rappers like Cell7 – arguably one of the best MCs in the country – have been around for years, women in Icelandic rap have been primarily the subject of lyrical content, or props for music videos. So that’s why there’s something so refreshing about the concept of a group of female Icelandic MCs, fourteen to be exact, subverting the whole thing by turning the male gaze against itself, rapping about feminism and sex positivity, and giving exactly zero fucks in the process.
When I went to see Reykjavíkurdætur last night at NASA, I admit that my expectations were decidedly low. There’s a thin line between honouring the musical tradition of another culture and caricaturizing it, and I often found it difficult to tell where Reykjavíkurdætur fell on that scale. Were they using an often times ultra-masculinist genre ironically, as a means of underscoring their feminism? Or was this a sincere effort to carve out a place for themselves in hip-hop’s canon? It turns out, it’s both.
As I stood by the side of the stage and looked at the crowd, it was clear to see who was most captivated by the performance, or at least who was most determined to get close to the stage. In a sea of faces, it was almost entirely young men pressed forward in rapt attention. That’s not a point against Reykjavíkurdætur, mind you. But as I watched these guys mesmerised by the sight of fourteen young Icelandic women in beige, form-fitting body suits hit the stage, all I could of was Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill telling crowds at her shows: “Girls to the front!”
Any rap outfit is only as good as its DJ, and fortunately, Sunna Ben happens to be a great one. Simplistic hooks, solid beats, and heavy helpings of bass would have fit in with any classic hip-hop outfit from the ’80s, while still sounding fresh and relevant.
But where performance is concerned, it was a mixed bag. The problem with having a large group of MCs on stage is that it’s essentially a bunch of people holding microphones. Wu Tang had this problem in their live shows. Goldie Lookin’ Chain (who I saw at the same venue in 2006) solved this problem by constantly rotating position, and ceaselessly, ridiculously, hilariously “dancing” throughout their set. Reykjavíkurdætur seem to still be struggling with how to manage their numbers on stage: they simply split into two groups, standing awkwardly on the sidelines while the MCs for a particular song did their thing front and centre. They would occasionally lip sync, bop their heads, sometimes writhe on the floor, but for the most part they appeared to not really know what to do with the limited space they had.
Similarly, some MCs were better than others. That’s to be expected, of course, but the difference in skill was sometimes very striking. Quite a number had an indistinguishable delivery between them that, despite some excellent lyrical content, could at times fall flat and wasn’t particularly inspiring; it could sometimes sound like rap was being mocked rather than celebrated. However, when the delivery was good, it was very, very good: aggressively, unapologetically feminist, served up confidently and deftly. I have to say that Jóhanna Rakel caught my breath. For most of the set, she was on the sidelines, decidedly low-key in her presence. Once she got the mic in her hand, though, it was like she had been possessed by the disembodied spirit of BO$$. Her rapid-fire flow was sharp as a knife, on point, and positively breath-taking. I sincerely hope she pursues rap further, because hers is a talent that could really go places.
The down point, for me, was the performance of their only English-language song of the night, a song about anal sex. I’m all for pro-kink feminist lyrical content – goodness knows it’s in damn short supply – but the song itself was dead boring, almost embarrassingly so. Tossing in jokes about incest and AIDS in the very first verse didn’t help, either. It’s unfortunate that it was likely the only song the foreign audience was able to understand the words to.
The set concluded with a stage dive and one of their hits, Ógeðsleg. Catchy as hell, it still left me wanting to hear more from Jóhanna Rakel. When it was over, they were played off to thunderous applause from the crowd.
Reykjavíkurdætur is one of those groups whose concept comes off far better than its realization. I wanted to love them, and at times I was greatly impressed with individual MCs (and continuously impressed with the DJ), but the final result was mixed. If they had developed an actual stage presence, and had maybe half the MCs they actually have, it would have been phenomenal. They still defiantly refuse to make it clear if this is all a joke on hip-hop or a sincere attempt to subvert it and make it their own, and that might be their intent. But that lack of clarity also made it difficult for me to fully engage, especially as this group is still struggling to define its voice and tighten its style. Hopefully, with time, they will refine themselves into a force to be reckoned with in a genre dominated by men.
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Posted November 5, 2015