Though the country is often associated with artists like Björk and Sigur Rós, hip hop is fast becoming its most popular genre – at Iceland Airwaves festival, we meet five female acts who are making that happen
Leather, latex, bubblegum, and nipples: women are now running the Icelandic hip hop scene. While Iceland may not be the most obvious place for a hotbed of rap, it’s a fascinating case study of how far a genre can travel. For years, Björk and Sigur Rós have been seen – in the international mind, at least – as the top tier of Icelandic musicians. But recently, rap has risen from an also-ran to perhaps the most popular style of music in the country.
The first wave of Icelandic rap crested on the island in the late 90s, led in large part by Quarashi. Founding members Sölvi Blöndal and Ómar Örn Hauksson were former punk musicians who took on rap as an element of their sound (much like The Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine) and would influence early acts like Subterranean and Multifunctionals. In the early 00s, the genre began spreading into other styles of hip hop, and standout artists like Móri and Skytturnar began rapping in Icelandic. As it grew in popularity, more and more rappers explored different subgenres and began turning them into a new Icelandic tradition.
Recently, the type of rap that has emerged in Iceland is largely a psychedelic, trap-adjacent, chilled, minimalist sound that leaves plenty of room for individual expression. Like those other Icelandic artists, they speak with a confidence and pour out their full self – political, personal, social, emotional, whatever needs to be said at that moment.
More than that, Iceland is incubating a powerful strain of female rappers, something seen in full force at this year’s Iceland Airwaves festival. These women are standing tall in their own still-developing scene and addressing topics and issues as they arise in a way that few others can. These five acts are the most vital shot in the arm to the Iceland’s musical legacy. They each follow their own path, and it’s enough to galvanise new believers in the hip hop world.
“The personal is political; people want to fight injustice and their inner demons,” says Vigdís Ósk Howser Harðardóttir, who raps under the name Fever Dream. “It’s amazing how many women are making music to open discussions concerning taboos and protest things like rape culture and the government.” A former member of 15-strong rap group Reykjavíkurdætur, Vigdis has since stepped out on her own, developing a take on what she has called ‘horror rap’ – music impinged on all sides by darkness and pain, but not communicating it in the way that, for example, a horrorcore rapper might.
Onstage, Vigdis swaggers and stomps, ready at any minute to strike out. Performing for her festival debut at Iceland Airwaves, she showed no hesitation or anxiety as she ran through songs that openly discuss the terror and oppression of modern society. She raps, in part, in English, due to being a quarter American: “I want to go there one day, but they’ll probably burn me at the stake,” she laughs.
While there has been a huge increase in the number of female rappers in the Icelandic scene, Vigdis sees plenty of room for further growth. “It’s more difficult to be a woman here, but everyone with an Auto-Tune machine is out making music,” she says. “I just hope that everyone isn’t addicted to Xanax by the time they’re 25.” Vigdis is sure to point out that the community is far more diverse than the promoters putting together “women’s night” shows would like you to think. Each is performer her own individual with her own unique perspective. “It’s empowering,” Vigdis says. “Hip hop is such battle music; heavy beats with strong lyrics that make you feel like you could conquer the world. It just makes you feel like a queen.”
“As a human alien, I am powerful,” says Alvia Islandia, the utterly eccentric yet ultimately warm self-proclaimed ‘BubblegumBitch’. “Music is my mojo, a channel to express myself. I create my own reality, a magical world where dreams are alive.”
Islandia sprung forth from the Icelandic rap scene and continues to carve her own space out, informed by her home country but not controlled by it. She just as soon references Cardi B (and her chart victory over “pop-cicle” Taylor Swift) as she does the “inspiring flora” of Icelandic rap, and the thread connecting that, she insists, is the pure expression of self that can come through music.
“Iceland is bipolar in nature,” she says. Considering the winter nights that seem to stretch on for days, and the long string of days in the summer with next to no darkness, it seems tied to the physical existence of the country. The polar opposites that the scene encompasses in genre, topic, and approach fit that bill as well. It makes some sense that Islandia can spot that fact, as she seemed to hover above the scene in the first place. “The extreme ups and downs – when you know this, you can ride the surf of it and experience and experiment,” she says.
Spending an afternoon spent at her cosy studio daubed in every different shade of pink, it becomes clear she connects to the genre as a platform to speak out and stand out. “I want to grow on my own, and I love challenges,” she says. “We have a lot of girls rapping, but while the guys hang out in the same studio and pat each other’s backs, we’re doing our own thing separately.”
As she works on upcoming release Pistol Pony, the final chapter of “the matrix of Bubblegum Bitch,” that extreme individuation becomes all the more powerful. “I just write about how I want my life to be,” she says at the interview’s conclusion – handing over a wad of Hubba Bubba as the most appropriate goodbye.
There’s no one in the Icelandic rap scene quite like Cell7. While other artists pair up with DJs and favour trap-adjacent beats, the Filipino-Icelandic rhymer fronts a funk band. While she doesn’t shy away from the political statements of some of her contemporaries, she also seems unbelievably casual and comfy, ready to go wild. “We gonna party tonight!” she shouts, a toothy smile beaming from her face and a hop in her step, during her Iceland Airwaves set. And though she might stick out from the crowd, the crowd still shows her plenty of love; Fever Dream and members of Reykjavíkurdætur dance in the front row just as excitedly as Cell7 on the stage. “Damn, you guys are nice,” Cell7 exclaims, the whole club bouncing to her high-energy set.
The reason she stands out seems to tie to her perception of the scene at large: “The Icelandic rap scene is composed of several crews, each in their own corner,” she explains. “Some of them interlink, but rarely do they cross over. It’s very competitive, like the genre tends to be.” That doesn’t, however, mean that Cell7 is trying to push others out of her way. Instead, she’s a vocal champion for women both in the scene and in music more generally. “Women in music need to take up more space,” she says. “They need to be more prominent to be able to compete in a male dominant industry.”
In a scene where waves of new, young rappers come to the fore regularly, Cell7 explains, the artists influence each other, creating a unique offshoot of the genre that has simultaneously become more and more accessible to the people of Iceland. “Almost everyone has access to a studio or has one at home,” she says. “I’m happiest on-stage when I can feel the crowd interact because it’s all about us having an experience together. When the crowd is having a good time, I’ve successfully done my job.”
The Reykjavíkurdætur’s first leotard-wearing rapper clawed her way onstage at the Reykjavik Art Museum, it sent a jolt of energy through the crowd. When a handful more similarly-attired rhymers followed, that excitement grew to a fervour. Rap troupes are a lost art, but Reykjavíkurdætur bring a cadre of powerful women together to make even more powerful statements and ask the big questions.
The “Daughters of Reykjavik” have always been a fascinating amalgam of individual performers and sub-groups, the alchemy of their existence a powerful statement of purpose. The diversity of the Icelandic rap scene is mirrored in the outfit itself, the group moving nimbly between twitchy party rap to their own take on “Bodak Yellow”. They’re absolutely unafraid of anything, challenging the status quo of the Icelandic rap scene and the nation’s government in equal measure; they speak out as ambassadors of feminism in their rhymes and even reportedly once took to TV to tell the Prime Minister to “suck my pussy.”
“We can actually change society through our music,” they noted in a statement last year. “Our muse is our message about rape culture, white male privilege, the first world, the feminist battles we face everyday, our right to dress ourselves as we want, and everything in between.” Given the size of those issues, they have the number of women powerful enough to cover that fertile ground.
For Cyber, rap is as much about connecting to others around the world as it is a battleground in Iceland. “Rap is the new pop, and a lot of the hip hop here is obviously inspired by the main players in the US,” says the band’s Salka Valsdóttir. “It makes people in Iceland feel bigger, like they’re a part of a bigger world around them by creating music that we generally associate with wealth and fame.” At the same time, the fact that so many have flooded the market has introduced a lot of challenges. “It’s a very competitive market and there are often hostile vibes. But it can create a really strong sense of community and the feeling that you are a part of something great.”
Live, Cyber have an incredible sense of the theatrical – leather and latex reveal a lot of their interest in power dynamics and cultural taboos – but with their machine-gun verses, they’re incredibly talented rappers at their core. Suffice to say, the crowds have proven just as eager to hear what they have to say as they do to watch the show unfold. “People in Iceland seem to be really good at listening at shows,” Valsdóttir says. “I watch a lot of horror films, and we drive to this drive-thru restaurant called Aktu Taktu and grab coffee and vegan hamburgers and listen to beats. Most musicians talk about their reality to some extent, and that binds us together.”
Lead photo by Hrefna Björg Gylfadóttir