Community, Collaboration and Freedom: Exploring Reykjavík at Iceland Airwaves
It’s Saturday night in Reykjavík and I’m standing in the middle of Prikið in the heart of downtown. The place is packed. Sunna Ben (one of the 16 members of Reykjavíkurdætur, an all-female rap collective who sing in their native tongue about body positivity, sexual violence, gender politics and feminism) is on the decks, spinning endless hip-hop and R&B classics. There’s a sense of wild abandon in each dancing reveller.
All I had really known about Prikið before this weekend was that the burgers came highly recommended: What I had learnt in the days since 2016’s edition of Iceland Airwaves began was that Prikið is the home of the city’s explosive hip hop, rap and trap scene. The extent to which hip hop has blown up in Iceland over the last 2-3 years is evident upon arrival at Harpa on the very first night of the festival; its prestigious concert halls are dominated by home-grown hip hop heroes like Sturla Atlas, Emmsjé Gauti, Reykjavíkurdætur and GKR.
The flourishing scene is so fresh that it threatens to eclipse everything else that is going on here but Reykjavík is not just about hip hop; walking around the multi-venue sprawl that is Iceland Airwaves you can at any given moment see something wonderful and experimental. The hordes of people diligently queuing in the rain on Thursday night to see local dream pop favourites Vök, and the impassable queue at Gamla Bio for electronic pioneers Gangly on Saturday, speak volumes about the huge appetite for all kinds of music in this city.
Bedroom Community’s Colm O Herlihy reminds us that it’s not just during Airwaves either: “There are so many different little scenes here. There’s a hip hop scene, there is the Paloma Club scene, and then there is the Mengi experimental scene. There is the jazz scene too, and spoken word/poetry nights. I think that’s what makes music so great here – the diversity and that people are willing to love something different.”
Samaris/Gangly member and the sole voice behind JFDR, Jofriður Akadottir agrees that this is what makes Reykjavík beautiful – all these different scenes existing in harmony and, crucially, collaborating with one another. It is Jofriður who points out that Iceland’s biggest “rock band” Agent Fresco are also the house band for the Drake influenced Emmsjé Gauti. “It’s not usual that kind of thing, and it’s really healthy.”
What makes Icelandic music so unique is such a broad question and there is no one answer (though darkness and boredom come up a lot), but speaking to Vök further confirms that this is a key part of the formula: “What defines the Icelandic music scene” says saxophonist Andri Már Enoksson when we catch up after their incredible show, “is collaborations like Emmsjé Gauti and Agent Fresco.”
It is the city’s extensive creative community that so readily facilitates these collaborations. Akadottir is keen to further stress that what makes Reykjavík so special is “100% all about the people. They are really good at what they do and they are really into doing creative things together.” Instrumental hip hop duo sxsxsx also credit the chemistry of such a small community with “keeping things interesting.”
Talking to Árni Einar – who has managed downtown venue Kaffibarinn since 2007, having frequented the place since it opened in 1993 – it seems that the small community means things can happen very quickly, despite the slower pace of life. “Everybody’s multi something – a poet/installation artist, painter/writer etc. – and that’s because a poet can have the idea to do a video project at lunch time and just by making a few calls can have professional equipment borrowed in a few hours and maybe a director as well.” Bedroom Community signed newcomer, and festival highlight, aYia gives credit to such spontaneity. “It makes you feel alive. There is real freedom in it,” she says of this uniquely vibrant scene.
In discussing his own approach GKR (the 22-year-old rapper responsible for the melodic Technicolor hip hop of Morgunmatur) so casually strikes upon another key ingredient in Reykjavík’s unique musical make-up: “If you make something to please others you aren’t doing anything special or new. You should do more you.” Female-fronted punk five-piece Hórmónar express something similar: “The fear of failure in Iceland is so low that nobody is trying to do something just to be successful. You’re doing it for you, because it means something to you.”
Taking a rare moment out his busy schedule BAFTA-award winning, Erased Tapes-mainstay Ólafur Arnalds’ comes to a similar conclusion, though via a slightly different route: “I think market size is a factor: The fact that you can’t really sell many records anyway means people are not trying to follow the mainstream.”
John Rogers, editor of Iceland’s biggest English-language publication The Grapevine, offers further insight. “Iceland was a late musical bloomer. I think that the lack of a huge weight of musical history – of the crooners and The Beatles, of huge labels and a vast media all peeking over their shoulder – allows younger generations to really invent music themselves. It lets creativity flourish in a unique way and encourages this can-do punk attitude. They do it for the enjoyment first and everything else second. That’s a healthy, low-pressure way to work.”
Community, artistic freedom, and collaboration are clearly at the heart of what makes Reykjavík so unique but these elements are only parts of the puzzle. Could it be because the Government here has long placed a high value on culture and, specifically, music? Certainly Iceland Airwaves receives a great deal of credit from President Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, who during a speech on Friday thanks Airwaves boss Grimur Atlason and his team, saying they’ve “done wonders for Iceland, bringing money and tourists here. They have made it the place to be.”
With the popularity and increased tourism though come some serious concerns, some unintentional side-effects of the positive work. Rogers points towards “copycat bands who have a career in mind, rather than finding their artistic potential and the individuality that made people fall in love with Icelandic music in the first place.” Atlason – along with everyone else I speak to this weekend, including the owners and bookers of the still thriving Hurra – highlights the looming gentrification and aggressive hotel expansion as a threat which is pricing artists out of town and closing venues.
As Atlason rightly asserts, these are “problems faced all over the world.” I can only hope Reykjavík clings dearly to all those elusive and previously identified elements that make for such a magical musical equation.