From Iceland — Eurovisions: Hatari, Israel and Allyship

Eurovisions: Hatari, Israel and Allyship

Published May 10, 2019

Eurovisions: Hatari, Israel and Allyship

Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Baldur Kristjánsson

Since their formation in 2015, Hatari—an anti-capitalist synth-techno band comprising core members Matthías Tryggvi Haraldsson, Klemens Hannigan and Einar Hrafn Stefánsson, alongside numerous contributors—have provoked, excited, and defied expectations. Their live shows come replete with theatrical staging, gothic-industrial aesthetics and BDSM overtones, and their lyrical content is socially and politically critical. Their shrewd interactions with the media have been works of performance art in and of themselves. Receiving wide acclaim and playing on big stages to growing crowds, Hatari have established a popular and fascinating presence in the Icelandic music scene.

Their story took a new twist last January when Hatari threw a new curveball—they entered Söngvakeppnin, the preliminary competition to represent Iceland at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv. Their entry was “Hatrið Mun Sigra,” or “Hate Will Prevail,” in English—a dark, pulsing track that was a stark departure from typical Eurovision fare. Whether by the merit of the song, their arresting stage show, or their stated intent to voice support for Palestinian liberation as Iceland’s representative at the contest, the band quickly went from long-shot spoiler to odds-on favourite.

Their performance was aired on the Icelandic national broadcasting service RÚV, and Hatari—complete with a dance troupe, and dressed in leather harnesses, blank contacts, extravagant makeup, and tall platform boots—blasted through the heats, easily winning the final public vote. They’d succeeded where other outsider Söngvakeppnin contestants had failed, and won over the citizens of Iceland. The die was cast: Hatari would represent Iceland in Tel Aviv.

Onward to Israel

Three months later, on the third of May, the band’s 19-strong party departed for Israel. That same day, Israel began shelling Gaza again. The next day, Gaza responded by firing makeshift Qassam rockets into Israel, claiming one life—their first Israeli casualty by rocket since 2014; the Israeli government responded with airstrikes and heavy shelling, killing seven and wounding dozens of others, including a pregnant woman and an infant. At the time of writing, the Israeli army is poised for a ground invasion of Gaza.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine is one of the most intractable in the world. It has drawn in the involvement, whether militarily or diplomatically, of dozens of countries, many of them in Europe. Amongst people who have an opinion on the conflict, you are unlikely to find anyone with lukewarm feelings. For these reasons, the decision taken by Hatari—a band who normally embrace their ambiguousness of intent—to announce that they intend to use Eurovision as a platform to stick up for Palestine has drawn both strong praise and fierce criticism, from both sides of the conflict, at home and abroad.

The situation has put Hatari in the position of treading into unknown territory for Iceland. While most Icelanders support the liberation of Palestine, no Icelanders have ever publicly voiced unequivocal support for Palestine in Israel and with such a global audience as Eurovision guarantees. The band admits that they are walking into the unknown, and have met with criticism from all sides, recognising the merits of much of it.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but in a frank and lengthy interview on the day before departing for Israel, the Grapevine met with Matthías and Klemens, the band’s two vocalists, to explore Hatari’s current situation and the criticism against them, the role of art in politics, and why Eurovision matters as a platform for raising awareness about the Palestinian cause.

The catalyst

Until last February, Hatari were an up-and-coming industrial techno art band in Iceland. They attracted attention not only for the expressly anti-capitalist messages in their songs, but also for the provocative performance art of their PR.

Most notably, in February 2018 they sent out a press release stating that they had signed a deal with Landsbanki, one of Iceland’s largest banks. The statement was completely false, but the intent of the statement was, as Matthías put it, “to take people down to our level.”

“We totally lied and put words in their mouth,” he says. “If they responded, and quite correctly replied ‘that’s not what we said,’ we’d succeed either way. They’re forced to let it stand or respond. And that’s a win-win for Hatari.”

Such provocations set the scene for their performance at Söngvakeppnin, which—with the band’s distant, robotic interview style and sarcastic product placements—had an air of another prank. Their winning track is a dystopian vision of a possible future Europe, divided and destroyed by hate delivered in a three minute package, complete with a catchy chorus. 

“The song is a reflection of power and powerlessness; hope and hopelessness,” says Klemens. “That if people don’t unite, or don’t love, then hate will prevail. It’s a state that’s developing around the whole world, and maybe has been brewing for 70 years in Palestine and Israel. So we feel this message speaks strongly on an international scale, but also especially because the competition is held in Israel.”

“We felt that many of the contradictions that Hatari deals with are reflected by Eurovision being hosted in Israel,” adds Matthías. “We talk about living within a system and opposing it at the same time. On a very broad scale, that’s capitalism for us. In this particular field, it’s the Eurovision Song Contest—which is about peace and unity—being held in a country that is marked by conflict and disunity. For us, it’s a paradox that it’s supposed to be an apolitical contest, because it is so politically loaded to host it there. And that’s where we see our voice coming through.”

Zero points

But there was disunity of opinion in Iceland as well. This came not only from pro-Israeli Icelanders, most of them fundamentalist Christians; it also came from Icelanders who believed Iceland should not participate in Eurovision at all, and ought to boycott the event. The hashtag #0stig (“zero points”) began trending heavily on Twitter within minutes of Hatari’s qualification success. 

To this criticism, the band are philosophical.

“For us it’s a paradox that it’s supposed to be an apolitical contest, because it’s so politically loaded to host it in Tel Aviv.”

“For us, the question of boycotting was answered when RÚV decided that someone would indeed be sent,” Matthías points out. ”Because of Eurovision in the way it’s organised, someone was being sent from Iceland, and if we were going to sign up and sign out, it just feels like we shouldn’t have signed up in the first place. That would have been a very clear boycott on our behalf, and [pop singer and Söngvakeppnin runner-up] Friðrik Ómar would have gone, and it would have been business as usual. We believe that by using our agenda-setting power to politicise the event, at least we would have made some use of Iceland’s entry. We’ve already been quite successful in politicising the event, and we want to step it up a notch and speak our minds more freely.”

“We need to promote more love and kindness”

Initially, Hatari hoping to represent Iceland at Eurovision went largely ignored by the rest of the world. All that changed when in February the band issued a statement, in English, in which they challenged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a bout of glíma—that is, a form of traditional Icelandic wrestling.

“It would still mean that the Prime Minister of the country was ‘rassling’ two Icelandic boys.”

In characteristic style, the statement offered high stakes: if the band were to win, “Hatari reserve the right to settle within your borders establishing the first ever Hatari sponsored liberal BDSM colony on the Mediterranean coast.” If Netanyahu were to win, “the Israeli government will be given full political and economic control of South-Icelandic Island municipality Vestmannaeyjar [The Westman Islands]. Members of Hatari will ensure the successful removal of the islands current inhabitants.”

“He hasn’t accepted,” Matthías confirms. “But that’s another example of if he responds, we succeed; if he doesn’t, we let it stand.”

“He’s a bit smarter than Landsbankinn,” adds Klemens.

“I thought about it, too,” adds Matthías. “I thought, ‘God, I hope he responds and actually wrestles us.’ He would beat us easily. But that would still mean that the Prime Minister of the country was ‘rassling’ two Icelandic boys.”

Wildfire breaks out

The band’s challenge made its way to Israeli media, who had a field day with it. Some media outlets in the country incorrectly reported that Hatari’s song was anti-Israel and supported hate. Unsurprisingly, that misunderstanding spread like wildfire; it is, after all, far easier to spread misinformation than it is to correct it. 

Rabbi Avi Feldman, Iceland’s first rabbi, was reluctant to comment at length, but told the Grapevine, “The Eurovision Song Contest was created shortly after the second World War, when Europe was rebuilding itself, with the goal of bringing countries and peoples together in unity and peace. We are very proud of Iceland’s famous music scene and incredible amount of talented musicians. It would be very unfortunate to use a platform of unity and togetherness to promote hate. Now more than ever we need to promote more love and kindness.”

Less measured responses from pro-Israeli voices have been prominent in the ongoing public discussion. The band have received threats and hate mail. In fact, Klemens says, “Eurovision’s organisers had police look into whether there was a higher level of risk regarding our participation than others.”

“‘Hatrið Mun Sigra’ is a reflection of power and powerlessness; hope and hopelessness. That if people don’t unite, or don’t love, then hate will prevail.”

“One thing they did do was ask us to collect all the threats that have been issued to us,” adds Matthías. “So we went through some disturbing comments under pieces about us in the Israeli media. The Jerusalem Post—that’s where it gets disturbing. I love Haaretz, though. I bought a subscription from them last month.”

The most notable Jewish response came from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and UK Lawyers for Israel, who issued a statement saying Hatari ought to be banned outright from participating, on the grounds that Rule 2.6 of the Eurovision Song Contest expressly forbids politicising the event. The statement was curious, giving how often Eurovision acts have expressed overtly political themes in their songs without objection; Pollapönk, Iceland’s Eurovision representatives in 2014, performed an expressly anti-racist song, to little objection from anyone.

“We can easily dismiss that criticism, because it’s their views that we want to be criticising and strongly oppose, because they would seek to justify the occupation,” Matthías says. 

Hatari by Art Bicnick

The Palestinian response

If the Jewish response to Hatari’s participation has been mixed, albeit with a much stronger response coming from those calling for them to be banned than from those voicing support, matters were further complicated by responses from Palestinians. Late last month, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, one of the founding members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, issued a statement urging Hatari to voluntarily withdraw.

“Artists who insist on crossing the Palestinian boycott picket line, playing Tel Aviv in defiance of our calls, cannot offset the harm they do to our human rights struggle by ‘balancing’ their complicit act with some project with Palestinians,” their statement read, in part. “Palestinian civil society overwhelmingly rejects this fig-leafing, having learnt from the fight against apartheid in South Africa. While we appreciate gestures of solidarity, we cannot accept them when they come with an act that clearly undermines our nonviolent human rights movement. The most meaningful expression of solidarity is to cancel performances in apartheid Israel.” 

“It would mean that the Prime Minister of the country was ‘rassling’ two Icelandic boys.”

Here at home, Salmann Tamimi, a founding member of the Iceland-Palestine Association, echoed similar sentiments, telling the Grapevine, “Of course no country should give Israel a reward for occupying Palestine. When you take part in their party, you help them to keep oppressing the Palestinians.”

The Eurovision boycott campaign has been gaining ground, with Palestinians and Israeli voices urging artists to withdraw, in addition to hundreds of queer rights groups, former Eurovision artists and thousands of ordinary people. This response, Matthías says, is “worth meditating on and listening to.”

“This criticism, of course, comes from people who are right—they are fighting for a noble cause, speaking on behalf of an oppressed people,” he adds. “So of course this criticism touches us. There’s an obvious difference of approach. Even though the BDS movement would prefer that we don’t attend at all, we still support them and their cause and tactics. They’re a non-violent organisation fighting on behalf of an oppressed nation. For us, if we were going to step aside, we wouldn’t have signed up in the first place.”

Like the Jewish response, reaction from Palestinians has been mixed, with many expressing support and gratitude for what Hatari wants to do at Eurovision. “We have been talking to Palestinian artists about collaborations,” Matthías says. “But we’re not saying their names in this interview, and we’re not going to publish anything that they don’t want to publish, because of the call from the BDS movement. It’s definitely a complicated situation and we understand the tension people might feel in talking to us and working with us.”

“And there are plenty of Palestinian people who just don’t give a fuck about Eurovision,” Klemens adds.

“Maybe it’s a Eurocentric notion that the song contest is a huge deal,” Matthías admits. “Because to them it’s not.”

A thin line to walk

Part of Hatari’s motivation for being as emphatic and as clear as possible about their specific criticism of Israel is that there’s a thin line between being critical of the Israeli government and being anti-Semitic. This is especially relevant today, as there has been a recent spate of deadly attacks on synagogues in the United States. In addition, a recent feature piece in OZY detailed that many of Iceland’s Jews have been reluctant to openly identify as Jewish, due to anti-Semitism in this country. For proof of this, a quick scroll through the comments on Icelandic articles on this topic will remove any doubt.

It’s something Hatari is keenly aware of, and they have taken steps to avoid being lumped in with Iceland’s bigots.

“It’s a very thin line to tread, and you can’t reiterate it often enough that we are opposed to all forms of bigotry, whether Islamophobia, anti-Semitism or anti-Arab racism,” Matthías says. “We support everyone’s human rights. I don’t find it frustrating to have to emphasise this. There are fucking racists out there. On this point, it’s easy to be clear and explain your art: ‘Don’t use it to empower your racist views.’ So I’m happy to reiterate that. The question of not just anti-Semitism but racism in general in Iceland is a difficult one. As a society, we are in many ways naive to the complexities of racial politics.”

“Icelandic racism is subtle,” says Klemens. “It’s under the surface. The racism that is surfacing here in Iceland is something that I’m not very connected to, because it’s not around me in my kind of echo chamber—but you can see it with the refugee crisis that’s happening now, and how that is being dealt with. It’s absurd and brutal how the police reacted to refugee protesters here.”

The venue is itself political

The overarching question in this entire affair, apart from the varied responses from Jewish and Palestinian voices alike, can be condensed simply: why did Hatari choose Eurovision—a cheesy song contest best known for over-the-top glitz and glamour—as a platform for voicing support for Palestine? 

To Klemens’s mind, this year’s Eurovision is already a political event by virtue of the venue itself.

“The competition becomes political by the location where it’s held,” he says, “and all artists and performers that come to compete are making a political statement whether they’re aware of it or not.”

Furthermore, they believe that being able to reach so many people around the world—an audience who are perhaps usually apolitical—also makes Eurovision a useful platform.

“If we manage to overthrow capitalism, that would be a measure of success. Preferably selling some branded merchandise along the way.”

“Bringing the media attention that would otherwise be focused on fluff to pressing concerns would also be a measure of success,” says Matthías. “If anyone reads this interview and then Googles ‘the right to return’ and ‘ending the occupation’ and the demand for equal citizenship in their own country—which are the three pillars of the Palestinian struggle—that’s a measure of success. Because these are such obvious demands, and we want to discuss them.”

“We’re getting an important message to the 200- or 300-million viewers that decide to sit down on a Saturday night to watch an entertainment show,” Klemens adds. “If we manage to get them to think about our message, that would be a huge achievement.”

What would success mean?

No one operates under the delusion that Hatari could single-handedly “solve” the Israel-Palestine conflict with their Eurovision performance, and many have speculated whether it would make any material difference one way or the other. For Hatari, there are other parameters for what would constitute a success. Victory at Eurovision, they agree, would be an obvious indication of success, but there are other factors to consider as well.

“It’s hard to say what would count as ‘success’ in our Eurovision performance, because we’re stepping into the abyss,” Klemens tells the Grapevine. “We have no clue what is going to happen.”

“Will we be banned from performing? Will we get through the final?”

“Will we be banned from performing? Will we get through the final? How will we be received by Israelis and other contestants? How will our politics play out in the media?” Matthías wonders. “There are so many unknown unknowns. But what we said about getting uncomfortable, difficult questions into the heads of people who wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to tackle them—that’s a measure of success.”

“A change of mindset is what we need to end conflicts in the Middle East, Europe and the world—to survive as a species,” Klemens adds.

“If we manage to overthrow capitalism, that would also be a measure of success. Preferably selling some branded merchandise along the way,” says Matthías. “So that’s a few things: victory at Eurovision, politicising the masses, discussing the demands of the Palestinian people. To use the scale of popularity of the Eurovision Song Contest to draw attention to the oppression of the Palestinian people, and also to shed light on the abundance of contemporary Palestinian art and music.”

The Eurovision final will be broadcast live on May 18th, and some of these unknown unknowns may have been answered by the time you read this. Whatever happened before, during or after the song contest, Hatari have undoubtedly added to the many voices drawing attention to the Palestinian cause. They have forced us to consider not only the role of Eurovision, but also to question what it means when artists willingly perform in Israel in the midst of this brutal conflict. How they will fare at Eurovision remains to be seen, but in these senses, Hatari have already won.

Follow Hatari on Facebook. Read more of our coverage of the band here. Buy a physical copy of this issue, posted worldwide, here.

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