Icelandic rappers had been dotting my Spotify for some time, but until Airwaves 2015, I didn’t get what a socialist-leaning, generally-doing-alright country could rap about. But before you grab your rosaries or voodoo dolls or whatever, know that I’m a changed woman now. Or, at the very least, I’m paying more attention to Icelandic rap.
Some of this ‘impiety’ may have stemmed from a language barrier. Due to my fairly subpar grasp of the language, I have trouble deciphering Icelandic words as they’re stretched and contracted over background beats. It was easy to appreciate the sounds and even some of the wordplay going on in Icelandic rap songs, but it was hard to recognise the uniqueness and innovation running through the Icelandic scene. I needed to swim in the energy of various concert halls during Airwaves 2015 rap acts, to acknowledge what the language barrier can add to the genre before I could really get it all.
As I watched Icelandic rap groups perform one after another at Airwaves 2015, I was slammed with the reality of the intricate, powerful ways Icelandic rap interacts with listeners who don’t understand Icelandic svo vel.
Case in point: while I waited to see Gísli Pálmi perform at NASA on Thursday night, I chatted with an American guy name Hunter. He was there because he had already seen one of his music videos. He called it ‘ridiculous’.
Hunter explained his general opinion of Icelandic rap to me with a story: “Last night, a girl turns to me and says, ‘My ex-boyfriend is the Icelandic Drake’. I was like, ‘Is that supposed to be a threat? Why would you make Drake even less dangerous by calling him Icelandic?’”
It’s some degree American and British snobbery, some degree a suspicion of cultural appropriation. Admittedly, this topic deserves way more attention than I can give it at this time. Icelandic rap is certainly influenced by American and British rap, and it often doesn’t give fair credit to the genre’s origins. At the same time, Icelandic rap still has its own unique characteristics and potentialities.
At the end of the day, Gísli Pálmi is a solid rapper, and even better performer. He’s carved out a unique niche in Iceland, and brings his own twist into both the Icelandic and the grime rap worlds. Some of what I had been missing in the language barrier came into focus as I witnessed the energy and skill with which he performs. A lot of non-Icelandic people saw this energy and skill during his performances at Airwaves 2015, too.
Reykjavíkurdætur are also doing some pretty interesting stuff. They’ve been on my radar ever since I saw a bunch of them destroy a karaoke night at Dolly last fall. About a month later, I watched them perform at Eymundsson during Airwaves 2014, crammed so far in the back that I could barely see them. While a lyrically and musically killer performance, it still didn’t completely win me over. After seeing their entire show from a more convenient vantage point this year, I believe even more vehemently that what Reykjavíkurdætur is doing is important, albeit controversial (and in a lot of ways, troubling).
I can’t think of another all-female rap group doing what they’re doing to the extent that they’re doing it. It’s art, however contentious (or maybe it’s art because it’s contentious?). From the nude bodysuits they donned during their Airwaves 2015 performance at NASA, to the amount of different personalities onstage, to the way individuals washed in and out of the spotlight. But especially to the buttons they push lyrically and choreographically (shout out to that one girl who really enjoyed holding a microphone to her nether region).
What really got me during their Airwaves performances was the way they rapped mostly in Icelandic, but then suddenly switched to English for a song about anal action. This switch was nothing if not startling. They opened this song to the non-Icelandic-speaking public, making a strong statement about who they were as a group and how they intended to interact with both the Icelandic-speaking and non-Icelandic-speaking populaces.
At this moment, I finally understood the power inherent in the language barrier. The Icelandic rap scene is certainly pulling from English-language rap, but it’s also closed off to the scene in a lot of ways. It’s a complex and porous boundary, leaving a lot of potential in the switch between the two. I’m excited to see what happens in the future.
The play between Icelandic and English is going to be key in coming seasons. Icelandic-language rap will always mingle with English-language rap. There’s no denying this. While non-Icelandic fans of Icelandic rap may be limited in some cases, they’re still there. And Airwaves is a key time for the liaison of these languages. Hunter the American, for example, had heard of both Gísli Pálmi and Úlfur Úlfur, even before he decided to come to Iceland for Airwaves 2015. During the festival, he also planned to catch Emmsjé Gauti and had already seen Reykjavíkurdætur. I steered him towards GKR, and I sincerely hope he saw him as well. They’re good performers. People should listen to them.
These are just a few examples of Icelandic rap groups. Kött Grá Pje joined Úlfur Úlfur onstage at the Art Museum and also performed his own solo shows. Shades of Reykjavík and Herra Hnetusmjör also made Airwaves 2015 appearances. And there’s even more Icelandic rap groups out there, even more to come.
It’s an exciting time for you, Icelandic rap. I can’t wait to keep paying attention.
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