Icelandic female rap collective will bring zest to Body & Soul
Reykjavíkurdætur reject attempts to pigeon-hole their re-engineering of rap
“When Reykjavíkurdætur started out, it was like an anarchist society. Sometimes we were 26, sometimes we were seven,” says Ragnhildur Jóhannsdóttir.
Festivals are excellent places to be surprised by music you’ve never encountered before and to fall in love with a band you only heard of that weekend. So here’s a heads-up: Reykjavíkurdætur will be one of the highlights of Body & Soul, so go see them on Sunday night on the Midnight Circus stage. Don’t think, just do.
The all-female hip-hop collective has emerged as one of the most exciting live acts in their native country of Iceland in recent years, a place where it often feels every second person is in a band or following some other creative pursuit. For their debut Irish performance, they’ll bring a type of energy that just has to be experienced live. The power of a Reykjavíkurdætur show also resides in a realisation of how bereft female audiences have been of multimember hip-hop acts, while lads have been watching their peers stroll around in packs on stage waving towels for years.
On a hot day in Hoxton, London, two of the group’s members, þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir and Ragnhildur Jónasdóttir, discuss the versatility of the band, which has 12 members but travels with nine, expanding and contracting (“like a vagina,” Jóhannsdóttir offers helpfully) with the demands, practicalities, and financial restraints of touring such a large act. “When it started out, it was like an anarchist society,” Jóhannsdóttir says, “Nobody took decisions. Sometimes we were 26, sometimes we were seven. It was hard to fit that idea into bookings abroad.”
Reykjavíkurdætur rap in Icelandic. You can catch occasional English words thrown in. Lyrics I may or may not have heard at the show in London – “I wish my pussy was my face to make the world a better place”, and the iconic phrase when I caught them a few years ago in Iceland, “two nipples up and I don’t give a f**k”. But the intent needs no translation, a visceral, playful, hilarious, hardcore female energy from a group of incredibly skilled rappers. The band contains actors, musicians, clothing designers, visual artists, graphic designers and more, a bundle of infectious creativity.
Name of feminism
“We’re doing what we want to do,” Jónasdóttir, also an actor, says, “I’m not going to say we’re doing this all in the name of feminism, because that’s just too small. I think it’s extremely empowering to see our live shows. We did a gig yesterday in Cardiff. The smiles on the women and men’s faces – it’s also empowering for men – they came up to us and said ‘I have never seen anything like this.’ That’s what you’re going to get.”
“People say they don’t have a clue what we’re saying, but that they felt it,” concurs Jónasdóttir – a rapper in her own right before she joined the band almost a year ago. “Because we are performing in our language, we express things on stage with an act.”
No one can deny that London audiences can be tough or indifferent. But Reykjavíkurdætur smashed the venue, pulling women on stage, writhing around the floor, interrupting their set for a “party break”, pouring champagne into audience member’s mouths and dancing to a ridiculous remix of Bodak Yellow.
“I’m often at concerts where I’m kind of bored,” Jóhannsdóttir says, “For me, I could just listen to music, I don’t have to watch it. I like concerts when I’m performing! I think Reykjavíkurdætur is a mixture of theatre and a concert. If I wasn’t in the band, I would love to watch that.”
The video for Reppa Heiminn completely skewers the tropes of rap videos, with women’s asses forming a backdrop to a band member holding a baby, a bottle of champagne being passed around, and others making out in a KFC
You’ve got to love that Icelandic self-confidence, a national trait. “It’s so easy to be the best at something in our country,” Jóhannsdóttir says, ”It’s so easy to be famous. It’s easy to have brunch with the president. We’re kind of like children, we don’t have the insecurity of ‘There’s so many people better than me.’ We’re courageous, but we’re also arrogant and cocky. But arrogance helps us. We’re the biggest country in the world!”
Jónasdóttir understands the rest of the world’s obsession with Iceland, but says, in turn, Icelanders are preoccupied with themselves. “We know how much talent we have in our country. We’re aware of the football team, Bjork, Sigur Ros, Of Monsters and Men, all of these elements . . . We also know every proud moment Iceland has! In London, you might have an artist doing a very good job all around the world, but not everyone knows. But in Iceland, if someone makes it, everyone knows about it. ‘This one is getting big, you guys!’”
The video for BO$$Y – a track Jónasdóttir leads on – makes use of the country’s glacial landscape. The video for Reppa Heiminn completely skewers the tropes of rap videos, with women’s asses forming a backdrop to a band member holding a baby, a bottle of champagne being passed around, and others making out in a KFC.
The band started out by organising women’s rap nights at a bar in Reykjavik (the band’s name translates as Daughters Of Reykjavik), which acted as a recruitment ground for the group. “When I went to concerts and I saw guys rapping or playing rock music or whatever, I was always like ‘I want to have sex with this guy’,” Jóhannsdóttir says. “I didn’t realise it wasn’t because I thought he was hot, it was because I wanted a touch of that attention he’s getting. Everybody is looking at him, and I want a piece of that cake, without realising I can be the one on stage. I don’t have to get attention from him. I can just start a band.”
That lust for attention, and their burgeoning success, brought lots of unwanted “advice” – the bane of female artists – until Reykjavíkurdætur realised collectively and as individuals that they were changing the game, and didn’t need to change themselves for it. “When I started rapping five years ago, we had done one song,” Jóhannsdóttir recalls. “I met these two dudes who came up to me and they were like ‘you know what, you’re too much old-school, you need to do new school, let me teach you.’ Then I heard these comments so often; ‘the only way to rap is old school, the only way to rap is this way, that way.’ First, I was like ‘Oh yeah! Teach me!’ Then a few months later I just realised I was so much better. So nobody comes and talks to me anymore. They’re afraid to tell me what to do.”
Jónasdóttir nods along, “I think when it comes to people’s art, you can’t tell them how to do it. When people are trying to ‘advise’ you, they’re not trying to advise you, they’re telling you what to do. When I started, people were saying ‘You shouldn’t join Daughters of Reykjavik. No. That’s bad for you. You’re a good rapper.’ I was thinking ‘What? Good rappers can’t combine? What are you saying?’ They were like ‘You know I’ve never really listened to them, but I just know.’ Dude, stop giving me advice on something you don’t know shit about. Are you in a hip-hop collab doing worldwide stuff? I don’t think so!”
For now, they want to play as many gigs as gigs as possible, and there’s also another ambition they want to achieve before the year is out: “My next goal is to party with Princess Nokia,” Jóhannsdóttir says. The previous night they were at Nadia Rose’s birthday party, another rapper they admire.
Their philosophy is simple, and the simplest ideas are often the smartest. “Just do. Don’t overthink,” Jónasdóttir says. “You will never achieve anything if you overthink. You learn by doing.”