festivals 2016

I Went to Iceland Airwaves in Search of a Feminist Utopia

The World Economic Forum recently named Iceland "the best place in the world to be a woman", but the artists I speak to in Reykjavik have a very different story to tell.

by Amelia Abraham
08 November 2016, 12:32pm

Sometimes it's exhausting being a woman; getting catcalled, sexually assaulted by Presidential candidates and thwacking our heads on a glass ceiling all the time. Which is why, when I heard the recent news that Iceland is some kind of feminist utopia, named by the World Economic Forum as "the best place in the world to be a woman", I knew I had to go there and see for myself. And so I booked a ticket to the country's biggest music festival: Iceland Airwaves.

Taking place at venues across Reykjavik every November, Airwaves envelops most of the city. During the afternoons, bands play free shows "off-venue", which means the drinking starts early and it's easy to meet people. This year, the line-up featured a slew of great female Icelandic acts, like all-girl punk outfit Kælan Mikla, the enchanting East of My Youth, and Icelandic female rap collective Reykjavíkurdætur.
 
All I knew about Reykjavíkurdætur before I saw them was that they were once famously chucked off Icelandic TV for rapping "suck my clitoris" live on air, and on the opening night of Airwaves they seemed to live up to this legend; the 15 strong rap group stormed the stage at Reykjavik's grand concert hall, Harpa, and proceeded to smack each other, rip their clothes off and swear at the crowd. I was left agape. If this was what Icelandic feminism looked like, I was down for another four days of it. 
 
The rest of the line up for the festival had me feeling optimistic too. It genuinely seemed to reflect a culture that puts women centre stage: alongside PJ Harvey and Bjork, headliners this year featured The Internet, Swedish rapper Silvana Imam, Warpaint and 17-year-old British newcomers, Let's Eat Grandma. Rarely do you see so many women top a festival bill, and it was refreshing to see a bunch of these talented artists in the same place for once.

But while Airwaves seemed to have a good gender balance, women I met there were quick to point out that other Icelandic festivals have a much worse reputation for for the way they treat women. Local musician Slugs, in the bands Samaris and Portal 2 Xstasy ( both billed to play at Airwaves) told me about a notorious festival on the East of the island in a place called Vestmanneyjar.
 
"It translates as something like 'National Day Festival', on our August Bank Holiday weekend," she explained. "It's a lot more mainstream in music than Airwaves and everyone gets really fucked up on beer. For years, there have been sexual assaults happening there and the police aren't really doing what's necessary. You can't be like, 'OK girls, you know where to come if something happens..' That's too late, that's after the fact."

Slugs wasn't the only person to bring up Vestmanneyjar festival. On the Friday night of Airwaves, I headed downtown to meet an Icelandic pop star I'd heard about named Hildur, who is part of a collective called KÌTON. With a membership of around 300 female musicians, they make it their job to call bullshit on discrimination in the Icelandic music industry. She said that, not only is the bank holiday festival known for incidents of rape and sexual assault, but it's famously shit at booking women artists.

KÌTON have been trying to do something about this. "We put out one press release about the line-up and they responded by saying that they're just booking the most popular artists – but it's like, OK, where are the women?" says Hildur. "It's the same for Secret Solstice festival which happens in Reykjavik in June," she continues. "If you took their line up, removed the guys' names and looked at how many women were left, there'd basically be nothing."
 
Hildur makes a very palatable, catchy brand of Icelandic pop, and when I ask her how many times she's playing at Airwaves, it's three, plus a few other shows for cash during the weekend. "When I tell people I'm in this group KÌTON they say, 'We don't need people like this.' And I say actually that's where you're wrong: In Iceland, the radio plays more artists that are male, men get booked more and from what I've heard men get paid more too. Women have to work harder"

Keen for one of Reykjavíkurdætur's opinion on all this, and tired of endless crowds and glugging overpriced beer, on the final day of Airwaves festival I invited Salka to meet me at Iceland's famous Phallalogical Museum to talk about feminism in a room full of cocks. At 21, she's been in Reykjavíkurdætur since its conception back in 2012, and is well known in Reykjavik for her other band Cyber.

Salka tells me that Reykjavíkurdætur started when two of the band's core members put on an open mic night for girls who wanted to rap and 200 women turned up. "The thing about those events is that they made a safe environment for girls to perform," she remembers, staring at a pair of testes in a jar. "We were complete amateurs – women doing something they sucked at, but it didn't matter – there were all these girls at the front supporting you."
 
Before Reykjavíkurdætur came along, there were only two well known female rappers in Iceland says Salka; Cell 7 and an emcee called Þórdís Nadia. "When I was growing up Icelandic hip-hop was all male," she remembers. "The songs were always super degrading towards women too. The most famous Icelandic rap song when I was in eighth grade was called 'Tight Pussies' and it was about fucking under age girls." 

Thankfully the cultural effect Reykjavíkurdætur have had over four years has been significant: Now, Salka says the lyrics you get from male Icelandic rappers are different – they're much more aware of gender issues – "Because if you're playing right after 15 women you can't go up there and degrade us. We're on the line up too – it's like they're forced to respect us."

As we left the penis museum to go back to the festival, I asked Salka whether she thought Iceland was the best place in the world to be a woman. "I don't know about economics, but if this is the best place to be a woman, that's kind of sad," she told me, looking genuinely concerned. "When we put out music videos, Icelandic people will comment on it: 'Get back in the kitchen'. It's not the worst country to be a woman, but I think calling it the best belittles the fact that women here experience sexism."

While Iceland isn't exactly a feminist utopia just yet, all the female artists I'd spoken to at Airwaves did at least agree that Icelandic women are really good at organising themselves to do something about the things that upset them, whether that be starting a band with a political message, joining a feminist collective or demanding more pay.  
 
"The thing about Iceland is that a lot of women here are not afraid of saying when something's not right," explained Hildur, pointing out how many Icelandic women got onboard with #freethenipple for example. "We're very aware that things aren't perfect in this country, that this is all still a battle."
 
Slugs agreed: "I guess it's good to be a woman here but there's still loads of things that need to be done," she said, downing her pint. "Of course we are fighting for something different to women in other parts of the world. But as a woman on the music scene here I'd just really like to come on stage and a man not say: 'Do you want me to plug that cable in for you?'"

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All photography by Thomas Rosser