It’s a very interesting time for gender equality in music. Women’s voices have never been louder, but at the same time the forces working against them have never been stronger.As part of Noisey’s continued effort to support and advance the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women, we are using International Women’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate progress while also addressing the ongoing issues affecting communities across the world. You can follow all of our International Women’s Day content on our hub here, featuring interviews with Peaches, Little Simz, and Robyn, an essay on Sia by Brooke Candy, a look at the Icelandic rap crew Daughters of Reykjavik, life as a female rapper in Guatemala, and a documentary about Zimbabwean rapper AWA, who has forged a career as a hip-hop artist against all odds, in the face of sexual blackmail, domestic violence and industry sexism. Happy International Women’s Day!
- - -They've told the Icelandic Prime Minister to "suck my pussy" live on TV, written songs about anal sex, and last year performed on stage at Iceland Airwaves wearing nude underwear in a bold attempt to champion body positivity. Reykjavíkurdætur (Daughters of Reykjavik) are like a filthier version of Gaggle, without the Rick Wakeman capes and performance art, or The Polyphonic Spree, without the creepy sex cult vibes.Also, they can actually spit really decent bars about really important things, which is pretty impressive, considering none of them had ever rapped before joining the 19-women strong collective in July 2013. And although they rap in their native tongue, thankfully the power of feminism transcends language (while even Google Translate has its limits).While Icelandic culture has historically been defined by its ancient clan societies and, in more recent times, thriving rap game (brought to the fore in 2001 when XXX Rottweiler released the first Icelandic-language hip-hop album) the notion of an all-female, all-feminist rap clan is about as alien to this tiny 328,000-people dwelling island as the idea of joining the EU. Because, as depressing as it sounds, even for an outward-looking country with musical roots in anarcho-punk and an erstwhile mayor with a Crass tattoo, up until 2012 Iceland had only ever nurtured one female rapper, Cell 7, who disappeared shortly after her arrival on the scene in 1998, only to make a comeback and release her debut album in 2013.
That same year, an aspiring emcee called Nadia, along with two other hip-hop enthusiasts - who would later become members of Reykjavíkurdætur – created Reykjavik’s first ever women’s rap night. Nadia agreed to let out the basement bar of the club she was working at, with a stage for female emcees to bring their poems and scribbles to life over beats, and they invited about 30 guests, with hundreds actually turning up. Over the next few fortnights, 14 girls repeatedly stepped up to the mic and soon decided to record a promo track together called Reykjavíkurdætur, and so, the collective was born.“It was something that just had to happen,” declares Salka Valsdóttir over a Skype call from Reykjavik. “We were entering a completely male dominated scene, there was no space for us so we had to create it completely for ourselves. When we started it was like we were taking toys from grown men and playing with them because all the men were like, ‘What are you doing, we’ve had these toys for many many years so this is not something you can do!’” “I have been writing since I was about five but I didn’t have any kind channel or space to bring it out there,” says Tinna Sverrisdóttir, another member. “I read my poetry at the first night. I was terrified as soon as I came to stage but afterwards the crowd were so supportive. It’s not just about being a girl but about being an artist, and having the support of so many others is amazing.”
However, the general response to Reykjavíkurdætur has been anything but favorable. “Fifty percent of the nation are racist, anti-feminist, narrow-minded and living in a box,” states Vigdís Ósk. “People look at us and they wouldn’t even know where to start. They look at us and they can’t say it’s good as it’s not allowed; they don’t think we should have a voice for it. But it’s a very small nation so when there are people who are outspoken and open-minded, they take room and get noticed.”Their male counterparts have been particularly unsupportive. “We felt people were actually scared of helping us at first – it’s like they are scared of helping the enemy or something,” recalls Salka. One member responded to insults from a male MC calling them ‘”bad musicians” by creating a hip-hop alter ego and dissing him in videos. “It gained a lot of attention,” she says. “And I think it was really important to answer him because this kind of thing happens all the time.”Salka continues: “There’s a list of all the things that men say to women who are trying to make a voice for themselves in society. So I think by going down on this level and answering him in the same manner of ridiculousness in which he started this thing on, I think we did a very important thing in doing that, in retrospect, even though it was very hard.”“He thinks he’s the messiah of rap in Iceland,” adds Vigdís Ósk. “He just blurted it out drunkenly on Twitter and some people were very quick to stand behind him… It’s funny though, our friends from the London grime scene came to Iceland Airwaves and told us they didn’t get any of the white male Icelandic rappers, but they did get us. I think this is because we are using hip-hop to try and get our voices heard.”
But despite the initial male backlash, the three members tell me things are changing and Reykjavíkurdætur are becoming more accepted. “People are starting to recognize us as a hip-hop group,” says Salka. “But the most important thing is that now male rappers are seeing women on stage; they may not necessarily like it, but they are getting more used to seeing it. And what I feel has changed most in the Iceland scene is that the male rappers are writing differently.”
Reykjavíkurdætur’s trap beat-strewn missives cover everything from gender politics to hype and fucking. “I am tighter than a motherfucking French braid / cause I am so common on your sheets I am like a period stain,” spits one member on 2015’s “Ógeðslegg”. Then there’s the almost-drill rap of “Hæpið” (below), complete with air raid sirens and an uncompromising political message about “first world privilege and corruption”. “D.R.U.S.L.A (S.L.U.T)” was written especially for the Slut Walk and the video for Latin-flavoured “Fiesta” sees one member brushing her armpit hair while another two launch into a combative verse about kicking down the fence to get under the skin of “big men”.“When we began, we were obsessed with writing in some kind of context of topics that mattered—sexual violence is very important to us, for example—which I think is something that has maybe been imprinted in women in general; if you’re gonna speak you better say something important,” explains Salka. “However, that put us in a small box because then we felt had to be role models for young girls. So now we are focusing on being better musicians and a better band as well as saying important things if we feel the need.”
“We have covered a lot of different things and topics since we started, from sexual violence to girls rapping about their pussies or how cool they are,” adds Tinna. “But we have created a new space and kind of a new genre so that suddenly it is more open than it was; it’s not all about weed and hoes and dicks and bros, it’s more about whatever is burning on you and we have so many things burning on us – we are creating a voice at the same time as we are using it.”The collective are akin to a clan in that they work by splintering off into trios, duos and larger collectives. “We all agree on a lyrical theme—it’s not a rule it’s just something that helps to harmonise all the voices—then we all write lyrics in groups and trios,” explains Salka. Do they have shared principles? “We’re all interested in rap but we are also individuals, I think being a feminist at this point in our bubble is not something you have to declare and until somebody proves otherwise,” says Salka.Cultural appropriation is a contentious issue for many white hip-hop artists, so how do Reykjavíkurdætur reconcile this with what they are doing? “I think we entered the scene in the same way that originally hip hop and also punk emerged – basically people who don’t know how to play an instrument but need to have a voice in society,” offers Salka. “We didn’t know how to rap at all, but we felt that it was needed. But we have been doing it for two years now and of course we’re getting better but at the core of it has been this punch back to something that we have been told to do, break that wall; for me that makes me believe in it as what hip-hop originated as; black males trying to be heard in society.”She continues: “We have something to fight for as women and we are trying to use this platform to fight for that. It’s rapping about our own reality as women, as white women of course, and we’re not trying to speak anyone else’s mind or suffocate any other groups who are trying to fight for their rights. We are just making space for ourselves in a society that doesn’t usually allow us to do.”Think of Iceland and you will no doubt picture steamy geyser sessions and the Blue Lagoon. But how does this sublime geothermal phenomena inspire a caustic group of feminist rappers, if at all? “I grew up to listening to bands like Sigur Rós and, of course, Björk and if you have been around nature a lot as a kid you can definitely hear the country’s nature through those songs,” says Vigdís Ósk. “It is such a small island that you are more isolated here so you spend more time by yourself or with friends. This means that if you have an artistic nature you will probably get bored and write something. We have many artists here and I think it’s because of all this time we have—it just means we can explore so much.”You can follow April on Twitter.