From Iceland — We Own This Town

We Own This Town

Published August 7, 2014

Reykjavíkurdætur's recipe for world domination

We Own This Town
Eli Petzold
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Reykjavíkurdætur's recipe for world domination

It came as a surprise to many when Reykjavíkurdætur appeared on the line-up for this year’s instalment of Eistnaflug—the female rap collective might not have seemed a logical fit for the metal festival, the name of which translates to “Flying Testes.” Unfazed by the testosterone levels implied by the name, or by the genre of metal, the pride of lionesses made their way across the country in a minibus emblazoned with the group’s name. Sceptical long-haired metal heads in Skálmöld t-shirts abandoned their preconceptions and embraced the group. “I think people came to our show just to criticise us, but then they were amazed,” Salka Valsdóttir tells me when I meet up with her and three other “Daughters of Reykjavík.” With no albums and only a handful of recordings, live performances are the primary medium through which this 19-woman outfit reach their audience. Decked in eclectic, flamboyant attire, spewing rhymes over thumping beats, they exude confidence on stage. And confidence is precisely what Reykjavíkurdætur is about.

The group spawned a year ago from a series of “Women’s Rap Nights,” open-mic style events held at Bar 11 and Gaukurinn that provide women the opportunity to rap in a supportive environment. Group members Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir, Kolfinna Nikulásdóttir, Anna Tara Andrésdóttir and Katrín Helga Andrésdóttir had taken to rapping and freestyling together at parties. For them, rapping was not only a fun party game, but also a potent, empowering avenue for self-expression. They wanted to facilitate a low-pressure space for more women to rap to an encouraging audience. Although they had intended it to be small and intimate, the first Women’s Rap Night, held last July, blew up by word of mouth and on social media, drawing almost 200 women. Reeling off the popularity of the inaugural event, another Women’s Rap Night was held in October, again drawing a large crowd. By this time, a consistent crew had coalesced around the event—they weren’t a self-declared band at the time, though, nor did they have a moniker for the project yet. In order to promote the third Women’s Rap Night, the proto-Reykjavíkurdætur made a music video for a song they had collectively written, called “Reykjavíkurdætur.” The women, each in her own unique sartorial hodgepodge, rap their own verses, and come together to sing the chorus: “Daughters of Reykjavík, / On dark nights, / We own this town. / Listen to lioness words.” Online news source Vísir posted the video and, assuming the song to be an anthem of a self-defined “band,” they attributed it to Reykjavíkurdætur. For better or worse, the name stuck. “I almost wanted it to be a bit cooler,” Jóhanna Rakel Jónasdóttir says, “I mean Reykjavíkurdætur is cool, but something weirder.”

Protecting Culture

Reykjavíkurdætur is not quite a band in the typical sense; they are a platform, a clan, a collective. Any woman who wants can join the group, so long as she means it, is up for the responsibility, and performs at a Women’s Rap Night. This policy of openness means that the group is constantly expanding. Just in the last two weeks, the number has increased from 17 to 19. While they are aware that the increase in number may turn into a logistical problem, the format of the group allows for it. Most of their songs are performed by smaller units—duos and trios—within the larger body. The potential configurations and reconfigurations are endless. It’s these smaller raps that Reykjavíkurdætur think are their strongest suit: “The ones with fewer people, with more straight-to-the-point messages—those are the best songs. They’re tighter. The flow is better,” Jóhanna says.

“They exist in their own category and use this fortuitous position to pronounce their gospel of freedom, equality and self-affirmation.” 

Because of the group’s collective nature, they don’t have a consistent, clear-cut agenda or message. Each member brings her own interest to the table. While Reykjavíkurdætur is not explicitly a feminist project, their songs do frequently address women’s issues such as slut-shaming and victim-blaming; but their scope is broad. Anna Tara and Katrín Helga, for instance, focus on sex- and body-positivity in several of their songs. Beyond issues of gender, sex and sexuality, Reykjavíkurdætur also address hot political topics, such as the current boom in tourism and its affect on Icelandic culture. In “Reykjavíkurdætur,” they take a stab at Icelandic politicians for compromising nature and culture for the sake of the market: “Money, money, woohoo! Culture, culture, boohoo!” Their song about the dating app Tinder pokes fun at the banality and perceived high-stakes associated with swiping right: “Like for like, let’s be drastic.” Reykjavíkurdætur is not an explicitly political project, but they admit, politics has a way of rearing its head in unexpected places. “Jóhanna and I wanted to write a party song,” Salka says, “and we ended up writing about how hungover you get from voting right-wing. I thought, ‘Dammit, we can’t write a party song!'”

Accidental Stardom

One year after its inception, Reykjavíkurdætur is nearing a crossroads. Although they refuse to compromise the group’s basic format, they have met increasing external pressure to function like a typical music group. They’ve played a number of summer festivals and spend the time in between playing at nightclubs around Reykjavík. Lately, Salka tells me, women have seemed afraid to apply, not only because of the commitment, but also because Reykjavíkurdætur seems like a fixed group. They are still figuring out how to preserve the flexibility and openness of Reykjavíkurdætur, while stepping into their roles as accidental local stars.

At the core of this soul-searching is the question of amateurism. Most of them had little performance experience when they joined the group; even fewer had experience with rap. They’re eager and unabashed to point this out. Jóhanna had just returned from living in Russia when Salka called: “So I know you just came home, but in a week, we’re rapping,” Jóhanna recalls. Although she had never been onstage, she accepted the challenge and the two wrote a song together. After her first performance, she decided, “I never want to not do this.” Several of the women have similar stories, citing the addictive potency of taking the mic in front of an audience. But now they find themselves in an odd situation: although the project has been a labour of love, spawned from risk-taking and drunken freestyling, Reykjavíkurdætur is expected to perform like professionals. They’re eager and willing to step into those shoes, but their origins complicate the matter. They feel dual, perhaps conflicting, responsibilities: on the one hand they need to maintain their fundamental tenets—to encourage women with no rap or musical experience to take the mic and have a go; but on the other hand, they want to improve as rappers and be taken seriously.

Awkwardly occupying this liminal space, they have evaded formal musical critique thus far. Having spoken with several people who have seen them periodically throughout the year, I’ve noticed a common narrative arise: they get better and tighter each time. Some, ignoring their structure and origins, hold them to the standards of other rappers and hip hop artists and find much to criticise. Reykjavíkurdætur’s embrace of amateurism, however, does set them apart. Their very premise—that women should feel empowered to rap, to speak their mind, regardless of musical experience, regardless of the audience—renders critique irrelevant. While Reykjavíkurdætur keep music quality as a primary concern, they get to enforce their own standards. They exist in their own category and use this fortuitous position to pronounce their gospel of freedom, equality and self-affirmation.

Everyone Needs Feminism

Even in Iceland, which consistently clocks in as the best country to be a woman, inequality between the sexes remains marked. Iceland may have the smallest wage gap, but there still is a wage gap. Sexual harassment, rape, slut-shaming and victim-blaming continue. The group’s most recent song and video, “D.R.U.S.L.A.” (“S.L.U.T.”), released as an anthem for the fourth annual Reykjavík SlutWalk, calls out the Supreme Court for its failure to rein in rape culture. Reykjavíkurdætur refuse to be complacent, refuse to buy into the hype of a “feminist utopia.” They’re unsatisfied and want to package their dissatisfaction in consumable metre and verse.

They evidently have a public and prominent platform, but it’s hard to gauge their efficacy. With no unified, clear agenda, determining their efficacy may be beside the point. Perhaps their rise to prominence is enough—people are, indeed, listening. Still, their structure prevents them from being a purely feminist apparatus. Their inspiration comes from personal experiences, not necessarily from universal concerns. This may limit their scope and their audience: while they remember to check their privilege and to acknowledge the intersectionality between feminism and issues of race and class, such areas of critical discussion remain unexplored. The adage, “Write what you know” certainly applies here (we’re talking about a relatively homogenous society with relatively low income inequality) but at the same time, it seems that Reykjavíkurdætur’s audience is largely comprised of middle-class, white Icelanders—albeit, a large demographic but not the entirety of the Icelandic population. Their liberal appropriation of bindis—South Asian forehead decorations that carry religious and cultural significance—for aesthetic purposes is one indicator of their limited scope. While their defence of the ornaments points to a lack of critical discussion on cultural appropriation in Iceland, it also indicates that they’re working within an Icelandic context.

Since they hold no pretensions about being universal feminist paragons, all this may well be moot; but it does demonstrate the in-betweenness of their political project. By eschewing a unified agenda and the explicit label of feminism, they evade the universal scope of the movement; at the same time, their lyrics and concerns about personal matters are in line with feminist thought. This position affords the women a large amount of freedom for expressing and communicating their own experiences which, Anna Tara emphasises, is a primary aim for the group. Liminality, it would seem, is the sweet spot for Reykjavíkurdætur—in between amateur and professional, personal and political. Sitting comfortably in their in-betweenness, Reykjavíkurdætur get to set their own standards and play their own game according to their own rules. With that set-up, it’s little surprise that they’re winning.

See Also:

Track of Issue: Reykjavíkurdætur’s “D.R.U.S.L.A.”

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