Thanks to world-famous acts like Björk and Sigur Rós, most listeners expect Icelandic music to be as lush and ephemeral as the Nordic country’s volcan-dotted landscape.
Now, a 15-woman rap collective is breaking this mould and onto the international festival circuit with raps ranging from feminist anthems and condemnations of rape culture to tongue-in-cheek rhymes about anal sex and body hair.
Reykjavíkurdætur (Daughters of Reykjavík) have already lined up a summer European tour before they’ve even released a debut album. But while the group’s success in a male-dominated genre has garnered international kudos, they’re sometimes dismissed as uncool back home in Iceland, especially by male rappers and male rap fans.
“Lots of male rappers don’t really like us. Some male artists say, ‘I can make a beat for you guys, but I don’t want my name on it,'” says Bergþóra Einarsdóttir, one of the 15 members of Reykjavíkdætur, who goes by the stage name MC Bein.
“Or, guys show up to our concerts and say, ‘I think you guys are really cool, but I can’t tell my friends that I listen to you!'”
I’m speaking with Einarsdóttir over a pixelated video call. She’s sandwiched between the group’s manager Alda Karen Hjaltalín and fellow rapper Anna Tara Andrésdóttir, who nods fervently in agreement.
“The rap world is probably more sexist than other genres,” adds Andrésdóttir. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”
From three to fifteen
Andrésdóttir, who is one of Reykjavíkdætur’s founding members, couldn’t have imagined how big the group would get – both in size and profile. Two and a half years ago, she was part of a rap trio and organising women’s rap nights. Before long, more women were stepping up to the stage, and the collective was born – some had never rapped before.
Andrésdóttir says the creative process is fluid. Sometimes songs are written as a whole group, with each member allocated a verse, while the lyrics of other songs are created by just two or three members.
“It was never planned. That’s why it’s so magical. It feels like fourth-wave feminism,” says the self-described “rappette”.
“The crowds were obviously hungry for women rapping.”
Although rap has been thriving in Iceland since the 1990s, the two performers say women rappers have traditionally been sidelined to the fringes of the genre, struggling for the attention granted to their male counterparts.
As the first all-female rap collective, Andrésdóttir says the group has renegotiated the genre’s boundaries, creating more space for both women rappers and rap fans. In the group’s early days, fans would flock to rap events to see Reykjavíkurdætur perform, despite other audience members who scoffed at them.
“It was a big deal for these fans to get up front and show they were excited about us, despite the fact that the tough-guy crowd were calling us out for not being hardcore enough, or accusing us of attention-seeking.”
Sexism on show
As women performers, both Einarsdóttir and Andrésdóttir report being offered less money than their male peers for performances, despite being among the country’s most internationally-renowned rap outfits. The sexism has also been outwardly hostile – on one occasion, male rappers booed the group. Another time, a male MC tweeted that Reykjavíkurdætur were a mere fad, only popular because of their all-girl gimmick. One year later, he took it back.
Rejkjavíkurdætur’s international success has also forced other critics to backtrack. In June, the group will perform at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival, the largest music festival in Northern Europe. At Spanish festival FIB, they will perform on the same stage as big-name acts like Muse and Massive Attack.
“Now these same male rappers are turning around and saying ‘okay, maybe they’re talented,'” says Hjaltalín.
Rhyming in Icelandic
Although Reykjavíkurdætur primarily perform in Icelandic, both rappettes agree that the language barrier hasn’t stopped international fans from connecting with their music and message.
“We have been told that even when people can’t understand the Icelandic, the meaning still comes across. There’s something special about girl power,” says Einarsdóttir.
In response to fan requests for an English-language track, the group recorded a song in English for their upcoming album and will consider recording more if their international appeal grows.
“We’re more practiced at Icelandic, but English can be easier for rap because it has more words to choose from, and smaller words,” says Andrésdóttir.
In Icelandic, noun endings change depending on grammatical context, making it more difficult to form rhymes and put them to a beat. However, Einarsdóttir says she wants to continue creating songs in her native tongue.
“It’s important to preserve the Icelandic language. We’re a small country and so few people in the world speak the language – there’s so much culture and beauty embedded in Icelandic. It’s great that rap has generated more interest in it.”
More than role models
Many of Reykjavíkurdætur’s songs touch on feminist themes, but the two performers are quick to say that they don’t restrict themselves to rapping about one issue. They point to a recent track in which they take an unconventional approach to rapping about Icelandic politics.
“It’s about looking at the politicians with compassion, instead of hate – and asking what is wrong with them, and whether they need help,” says Einarsdóttir.
As women performers, however, both rappettes assert that they’re often expected to act as a mouthpiece for women’s issues.
“Here in Iceland, one male rapper actually made a song called ‘I am not a role model’. I think all acts face that pressure to an extent, but we have more pressure on us to be role models, because we are women,” says Einarsdóttir.
“But our songs don’t always need to have explicitly feminist or political messages.”
Andrésdóttir agrees. “That’s why we also try to release songs which have no meaning and are open to interpretation. People are always asking us what the songs mean. I’m sure guy rappers don’t get asked that.”
Irrespective of what they rap about, Hjaltalín says that the collective is committed to raising the profile of women in rap.
“We’re the first all-women rap group in Iceland, and every day we are proving ourselves.” M