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A photo provided by Sunna Ben shows the Icelandic feminist rap collective Daughters of Reykjavik. Last year the group changed its name to Daughters of Reykjavik and cut its ranks to nine rappers. Image Credit: NYT

On a recent afternoon, the nine faces of the Icelandic feminist rap collective Daughters of Reykjavik were arranged in a grid on Zoom for a group interview. One of the rappers nursed a 15-day-old baby. The band’s founder stood up to show her pregnancy bump. Another member sat in the home of her 82-year-old grandmother, who wandered into view now and then.

The rappers had gotten used to this scenario in lockdown. After the pandemic pressed pause on promoting their second album, ‘Soft Spot’, they boosted their morale by making a video for the single ‘Thirsty’, featuring a synchronised routine recorded by each rapper in her bedroom. As it plays out in another Zoom-like grid, raucousness occasionally erupts: one member dances on her bed; a man writhes around; a third swigs from a bottle.

Yet while such scripted organised chaos, which mirrors the choreography of the group’s live shows, has won over audiences around Europe, the group has been divisive at home.

“We’ve been a big controversy in Iceland, basically,” said Thuridur Blaer Valsdottir, the group’s founder, who directed the video — which, as the group member Ragnhildur Holm said, is their first “that doesn’t have any negative comments on YouTube.”

So it’s not surprising that the band now has aspirations beyond Iceland’s tiny hip-hop scene.

The rappers met in the early 2010s at a women-only open-mic night that one of the members, Thura Stina Johannsdottir, had helped put on. And when they got together as a group, “there was a lot of ugly sexism,” Johannsdottir said.

Critics said they looked good but trashed their music.

One of the rappers, Steiney Skuladottir, acknowledged that in the group’s early days, when everyone was welcome and the group had an unruly 21 members, they weren’t very good. But even now that the collective is more professional, the idea that they are “bad musicians” still haunts them, she said. “That’s just our brand in Iceland.”

At the time of their founding, in 2013, home-grown hip hop was becoming popular in Iceland. Many young, mostly male MCs were emerging, adopting the distinctive hi-hat percussion and skittering snares of the popular American trap sound but rapping in Icelandic.

The arrival of an all-woman troupe with a clear feminist agenda stirred things up.

The group — then called Reykjavikurdaetur — immediately gained its reputation for scandal when it landed a spot on a national TV show and Johannsdottir performed a profanity-laden rap about Iceland’s prime minister at the time.

It wasn’t her negative attitude toward him that viewers found shocking, she said, but rather that a woman was being vulgar. People said of the group, “They’re much ruder than all the boy rappers,” Johannsdottir said.

“But we are not,” she added. “We’re exactly as rude as them.”

It wasn’t just the news media that made disparaging comments about the group. Other Icelandic musicians joined in on social media.

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Ragna Kjartansdottir from Daughters of Reykjavik Image Credit: NYT

Emmsje Gauti, a prominent male rapper, said on Twitter that he thought they lacked talent: “This is not a matter of gender,” he wrote. “Bad music is bad music.”

His comments, said Salka Valsdottir, the producer of the group’s beats, “got so many retweets that it became kind of acceptable to be very negative and disrespectful towards us.”

Iceland is a small nation of just over 350,000 people, and its music industry is close knit. So Gauti’s comments were wounding — especially because, for someone in the group, he’s family.

“He’s my step-cousin,” Johannsdottir said. “We’ve spent Christmas together — it’s really awkward.”

But she said she didn’t let it get her down for long. “I gave him a Reykjavikurdaetur T-shirt with my signature on it as a present.”

One of the few other women in Icelandic rap is Ragna Kjartansdottir, who performs as Cell7 and has been active since the ‘90s. She said in an interview that the local rap scene was split over the collective, which last year changed its name to Daughters of Reykjavik — something easier for foreigners to say — and cut its numbers to the current nine.

“Some people think it’s great,” Kjartansdottir said of the group, but others think they’re less about the music and more about creating a spectacle.

Events came to a head when the group performed its song ‘Disgusting’ on a talk show in 2016. Skuladottir said in the interview that there was nothing extraordinary about the performance that night.

Another guest on the programme, singer Agusta Eva Erlendsdottir, was appalled and walked offset. Afterward, in an interview with the website Nutiminn, Erlendsdottir likened the experience of sharing a stage with the collective to being “raped on live television.”

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Daughters of Reykjavik Image Credit: NYT

The internet was soon ablaze with hate for the group, Skuladottir said. “When I got home and I looked on the computer, people were like, ‘Oh my God, they are disgusting! They are the worst thing that’s happened to Iceland.’”

It was then, she said, that they decided to concentrate on breaking through abroad.

“We’d been scared of making music because anything we’d do, we would get so much hate,” Skuladottir said. “But after we shifted our focus, we’ve been a lot more free.”

Katrin Helga Andresdottir, another member, said that now, outside Iceland, the band was “way bigger than any of the male rappers.”

Valsdottir has since moved to Berlin, and the other Daughters travelled there last year to record ‘Soft Spot’ over 10 days.

Working in such a large group can be challenging, Johannsdottir said. When Daughters of Reykjavik had more than 20 members, they would all would write their own verses separately. Now, with fewer, it’s a more collaborative process.

“At one point we were anarchic — every voice had to be heard, and everybody had very strong opinions about everything,” said Steinunn Jonsdottir, a member. Now, she said, “We know who is the strongest in one aspect of their work and who is the strongest in another, so we don’t fight each other.”

To promote the album, the band recorded a podcast that explores themes from the album, such as online abuse, toxic masculinity and body image.

“It’s important that women perceive us as lifting each other up,” Valsdottir said, and to see that amateurs just having a go can find success.

They all started rapping “to have fun,” Skuladottir said. After all that they’ve been through, she added, that’s still what drives them.