17 Women, 17 Voices: An Interview with Reykjavíkurdætur

Interviews, Live Video, Iceland Airwaves
Katy McCourt-Basham
photo by Matthew B. Thompson (view set)

Icelandic hip hop collective Reykjavíkurdætur ("Daughters of Reykjavik") are a force to be reckoned with. A huge group of seventeen women, they work together to create songs about topics ranging from sexual politics to political ones. During KEXP's broadcast at Iceland Airwaves last year, they played to a packed house at Kex Hostel in Reykjavik. Before their show, they sat down to discuss their music, sisterhood, being female rappers in Iceland, and the country's political climate. I spoke with their manager, Alda Karen Hjaltalín, as well as three members of the collective: Vigdís Ósk Howser Harðardóttir, Anna Tara Andrésdóttir, and Steiney Skúladóttir.

KEXP: This is a very different arrangement from other hip hop groups in Iceland, more of a collective than a particularly defined group. How did this group get started?

Alda: This is obviously not your usual hip hop group. It’s a story about courage, about young girls coming together and going way out of their comfort zone. In the beginning of hip hop culture in Iceland, it was a male-dominant world. The small scene our country had was dominated by male rappers, and women couldn’t get in. I can count on one hand the number of female hip hop artists who tried to make it as rappers, and the whole community just made fun of them for wanting to be one. This made young women in Iceland think, “Is this not for us?”. We grew up with our childhood stars like Missy Elliott and all kinds of women around the world who were hip hop artists, and now the whole Icelandic community is telling us that they will never recognize us as rappers. There were these two young schoolgirls, Kolfinna Nikulásdóttir and Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir, who heard all this and they thought, “OK, are we the only ones in the world that are thinking like this?” One of them had a connection to [Reykjavík rock bar] Bar 11 and asked the manager if they could have the basement for a women’s night. Word spread fast, and all of a sudden, girls from all kinds of schools were contacting them asking if they could join in, perform a poem, rap a song, anything they would like and know that no one would judge them, and no one would say they couldn’t do it. They expected like five people to show up, but just based on word-of-mouth about 300 people showed up. It was so packed, people were sitting on each other, people were sitting up the stairs of the bar, and even sitting outside by the windows just to try to listen. Something magical happened that night. So many women took a chance and brought incredible energy to the stage, and that’s what they bring to the stage every time. When Daughters of Reykjavík come on stage, they bring that kind of power to the audience. They’re doing something that everyone told them they couldn’t do. It’s not just a hip hop group, it’s a movement and an inspiration to young girls, young boys, that you can do whatever you want to do.You brought up how male-dominated the Icelandic rap community is. Now that you’re more prominent and established, has there been more support from the male rap community in Iceland?

Vigdís: Not at all, there's actually more hate. I think they kind of support each other more after we... well, before it was kind of separate groups that knew each other, but now they’ve kind of come together to stand for each other because we’re doing this.

Steiney: Sometimes you get the kind of feeling that they’re looking at us like we’re not real rappers. And that’s still going on and we’ve been doing this for two years.

Vigdís: And there are often hip hop nights where we are not included. Yesterday, at Airwaves, there was a hip hop night, and from 8 PM until 2 AM it was just men.

Alda: And it’s funny, because the only Icelandic hip hop group that has performed outside of Iceland is Reykjavíkurdætur. It’s funny how they’re not recognized outside of Iceland, but the moment they go outside of the country, they’re stars.

But it seems like things are catching on here?

Anna: It’s funny, Reykjavíkurdætur played at Lunga festival this year, and a guy came up to us and said, “Thanks, it’s so so cool, but I don’t want to tell my friends!” and that’s often the attitude, among boys, that it’s not cool to like us, and it’s kind of a secret. Like, "Don't tell my friends I like Justin Bieber."

Vigdís: But please, don't compare us to Justin Bieber. (laughs)

I’m curious about the things that you talk about in your songs. I know you talk a lot about feminist politics, and Iceland is widely known and officially named as the most gender-equal society in the world. I’m wondering how much do people here think that’s true, and how does that affect you as a group?

Steiney: We feel like, here in Iceland, there’s such a long way to go to get to equality. This weekend we could see, there was this Icelandic news reporter who interviewed some guys from Austria, asking them how they liked Airwaves, if they were on Tinder, things like that. And it turns out they said something like, “The girls here are a bit fat, they’re eating too much junk food”

Vigdís: He said they “got fatter since last time he came here” like it’s worsened or something for them.

Steiney: That was a bit of a reality check, to read this, like “ok I guess we’ve come a bit further than many other countries, but we have a long way to go.”

Anna: And that’s the problem with saying that we have the “most” gender equality, it doesn’t mean that we have total gender equality.

Vigdís: And we have [sexual] violence here, none of my friends have been apart from that or haven’t noticed it. I think because it’s such a small country people say it’s this feminist paradise because a third of the nation call themselves feminists, which isn’t that many people. Reykjavík is a small town, really.

Steiney: We come across it, gender inequality, every day.

Do you think it’s the kind of thing, and we have this in the States, where a community fancies itself as quite progressive, but once there’s a milestone of some kind people think there’s no work left to do? Like, now we have an African-American president, and people think racism is over... is it kind of like that with women’s representation here?

Anna: Oh yeah, it’s usually at 30% women, in politics or whatever, and people say “that’s enough.” There’s never been 50% women in the congress. When you think about it that way, it’s completely different.

Vigdís: People want change, but they don’t want to change. This country was so ready for us. As soon as we started doing what we were doing, all of these girls everywhere in the country started coming together. We’ve been teaching rap seminars to kids twelve or thirteen years old.

Anna: Yeah, a lot of young kids love us as well.

Alda: All of a sudden there was this group of young women saying they were hip hop artists and nothing could stop them. So this inspired a lot of young women. It went like a wave around Iceland.

Anna: And we didn’t expect this at all. We just made a song for the third Bar 11 night, and it’s the song we have to play all the time now, and the name of the band is actually the name of that song. We never decided “this is going to be the name of the band,” it just became what the movement was called, it became a movement kind of like “Free the Nipple” here in Iceland.

It seems like women in Iceland have in the last few years become very vocally empowered, like with Free the Nipple, or at Druslaganga (Slut Walk), there were something like 15,000 people last year, which is an insane number for such a small city.

Vigdís: This year it was even bigger. I was in the front with a sign and I remember looking back and seeing nothing but people, I couldn’t see the end. It was really amazing, to see all of these people coming together to fight against sexual violence.

Steiney: Iceland has a few kind of Twitter movements like that as well, like Free the Nipple and Slut Walk, but also #6dagsleikinn or “everyday sexism”. With women talking about things like, how the men at the office get called by their names, but women get called “love,” things like that. Just simple things from everyday life. Our voices are being heard, but there are so many people who are just like, “Oh, can you just relax?” No, I’m not going to relax until I have the same rights as you!

Anna: And when we come together, we feel so so strong, and I really feel like we can do anything together. We can just feel our voices heard.

Vigdís: And we are so close, like a family, eating pizza and talking about whatever: anal sex, love, finances, and then we’re playing this big gig in front of a whole crowd and you can feel the power of being in this group. Like, “This is my family, and I can do whatever I want.”

Steiney: and we all do different creative things, and when I have lots of things going on I think maybe I should put a hold on the band, but I just can’t. The feeling of being with these girls is too good, I can’t step away.

I don't speak Icelandic, so I can't understand the lyrics of your songs, but an Icelandic friend was telling me that you’re starting to branch into other political topics, can you tell me a little more about that?

Vigdís: We have had a song about Gaza, and it’s one of the songs that’s had the fewest listens, but it has one of the best messages. It has a really good message, but people just want to have fun, they don't always want to hear about the serious stuff.

Anna: Yeah the song kind of reminds you how powerless you are, like what can you actually do? How you can talk about things on Facebook and avoid buying certain products, but there’s not much you can really do to help a situation like this.

Vigdís: A lot of people in Iceland have very strong opinions about this issue, and we were trying to make a song that helps the message to get through, or maybe opens up a conversation. We released the song this summer, and we kind of wanted to make a point, but it turned into this big cluster of mixed-up things and it was kind of surrealistic. It’s also hard when so many people don’t speak Icelandic, and you kind of have to deliver it with your attitude.

Anna: Everyone always expects us to always have a point, as a group of women making music, and there’s a bit of a double standard there. Men are allowed to have songs about nothing. So we made our last group song just about how cool we are, just to point that out and have a little more fun and more freedom. Rapping about nothing can be feminist too.

Steiney: We’re 17 different girls all doing different things and people expect us all to talk as one voice. To all have the same opinion. I think it’s a bit narrow-minded to think that. We’re all very strong personalities as well. It’s not possible that we could all have the same opinion about everything. So we’re trying to also tell people that. We want all the girls to be able to make any song inside the group, and even though, we have this one song about anal sex, and I’m not a huge fan, I’m still going to support them in making that.

Anna: And it’s not her voice, even though she’s in the band.

I’m just curious, I feel like, with a group this size, it must be kind of hard to get everyone together for more traditional recording. I know you’ve done a couple videos, but are there plans for an album in the works?

Anna: When it’s important, like songs and recording, it’s easy to get people together, it’s when we all need to meet to talk about other things that things get more difficult.

Vigdís: We have loads of songs that we’ve already recorded, so it may be like three discs or something, there are so many songs!

Steiney: because there are so many solos, duos, and trios, as well as a few group songs, there’s a lot. And the lineup [for each song] changes all the time.

Vigdís: Right, we want everyone to participate and have fun, so if one person’s not there, we have another do her chorus, and it gets changed in the way that someone else does it.

Steiney: We always work things out. We don’t vote, as a group. It's not a democracy. We have kind of an anarchist way of doing things.  we always talk it through so everyone’s happy. We don’t want anyone to feel left out and unhappy.

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