I’ve just taken up a perch at the bar when rap artist and activist Vigdís Ósk Howser walks through the door. She’s on time, and I’m a bit relieved. Reykjavík’s Culture Night just wrapped, and she’s been partying most of the weekend. Earlier in the day, she overslept and missed our first meeting. I’m not particularly mad about it because Kaffi Vinyl, the spot she originally suggested for our interview, is a cool place and the first good coffee I’ve drank in Reykjavík. Besides, I’ve been there. Sober self overestimates hunger-over self’s ability to get out of bed and through the door in the morning.
Now, we’re sitting in Prikið, billed as Iceland’s oldest bar, and home to breakfasting tourists in the mornings, locals dancing on the bar during punk shows at night, and even the occasional screening of an experimental film. Vigdís is a regular. She carries a card that gets her (and luckily me) a discount. In scenes from Vigdís’ latest music video, “Reyndo Bara,” you can spot Prikið’s hanging pot lights swinging around her head. One of the servers comes over for a quick chat in Icelandic during the course of our interview, stealing a few fries from our plate as she leaves.
Vigdís and I are fast friends. Our interview ends with a hug and a standing offer to swing by Vesturbæjarlaug the next day, the public swimming pool where she works part time. Instead, I spend most of the next afternoon somewhat guiltily lying around my hotel room, then spending my last krónas on a glass of red wine at a swanky French restaurant, but I figure Vigdís understands.
FULL: Walking around Reykjavík, I’m really struck by the presence of art in the city. What has your experience in the music scene been like? Are you from Reykjavík originally?
Vigdís Ósk Howser: I’m actually from Hafnarfjörður, which is the second largest town in Iceland. It’s really close to Reykjavík. A lot of my friends are from here.
In Iceland, everyone’s a musician. I don’t know what it is, maybe the isolation and the environment. We’re not fast-paced, because it’s small. We have a lot of space and opportunity to make music as well, since we don’t have to put too much pressure on it. We can put a lot of pressure on ourselves of course. It can be very competitive.
I got into rap four years ago, mainly because I wanted to work with Reykjavíkurdætur, The Daughters of Reykjavík. I always loved music, and I wanted to make it, but I played guitar barely, kind of just slamming at home, never starting a band. It’s also harder for women. With The Daughters of Reykjavík, the point was to make room for us. Take that space, with force, twenty girls. When I saw them first, I was like, “Oh my God, I have to do this.”
I was in The Daughters of Reykjavík for three years, and then I quit the band. It’s not like I quit, and we never talked again, we’re still friends.
FULL: What made you decide to work on your own?
VOH: I decided to go solo because there was not enough time and space to be writing my own stuff. I was always writing with somebody else. They mainly do group songs, and what they’re doing is really great. The Daughters Reykjavík fast-tracked me into being a pretty good rapper. I had to practice every day. I didn’t have time to have a job last summer, because we were touring, going to Canada, London, our first world tour, and then Iceland.
FULL: What are some things you learned while working with the group?
VOH: It was basically a big therapy session. I didn’t know any of them before we started, so I learned a lot about communication and how to work in a group. We had our fucking drama for a period, but that’s just normal. If you’re four people in a band, it’s hard, if you’re twenty people in a band, it’s going to be hard. Also, touring that much is a lot of pressure. I was their manager for a year. Even after I quit, we learned a lot about each other. We’re better friends now.
I learned so much from them. Just not giving a fuck. Taking space and being loud, jumping on stage and going on live television with a dildo, and being like, whatever, you know? We have a really big reputation in Iceland. More than three times we’ve been a national drama. Iceland’s so small that if something happens, it spreads, and everybody’s talking about it.
FULL: That gets into your head sometime though, hey?
VOH: You have to be really careful. If you were to look at our channel on Youtube and you understood Icelandic, it’s so brutal. “I’m going to rape you.” Fucking disgusting shit. That’s what being a radical feminist is about. You’re putting yourself out there to take the hit. So I’ve been laying low with that this year, just making the album. Last year, I was also protesting with an anti-fascist group. I saw this man holding a sign saying “Away with refugees.” I ran up, took it, ran away from everybody so no one would get splinters, and broke it. There’s a picture of me running with it. I didn’t plan to do it, I just did it, but it was all over the media. The neo-Nazis had this Facebook group. After I broke the sign, I was the main discussion in the group for a week. They reported my profile for being fake. And I’ve been reported for freeing the nipple before, so this was the last straw for Facebook. They closed down my account. I had to send a picture of my ID to prove who I was. I can’t have my real name on Facebook anymore.
This year has been different.
FULL: How so?
VOH: I’m more involved with vegan activism now. I am also a feminist, and my lyrics are very feminist lyrics, so that’s a kind of activism as well. I protested recently with a group; we held up videos from slaughter houses in Iceland and other countries. That kind of activism is calmer, you feel like you can change more. We had people asking questions, and when we talk to them, they hear what we’re saying. With anti-fascism, you have to kick them in the fucking face so they shut up.
When I was butting heads with the Nazis on Facebook, they were sending my mom threatening messages. I was happy that I broke the sign, but sometimes you can only take so much of the hit. One of the main guys who was threatening me was arrested the other day for murder. It was brutal, and it was all over the media. When I saw it, I went, “This is fucked.”
FULL: As you mentioned earlier, your feminist lyrics are a protest too, and rap and hip hop are about protest and challenging the system.
VOH: That’s the roots. I listen to so much old school at home. I love it because of the voices and how rap can change and has changed so much. It’s still changing now with women using this channel for their voice.
In Iceland, the rap scene has been going on for about fifteen years. The OGs making their first albums before it was cool, no auto tune, just lyrics, political stuff. I was listening, but I never thought, “Yeah, I’m going to make an EP by the time I’m 24.” It just happened, and I fucking love it, and can’t listen to anything else now. My boyfriend is a country and rock guy, and he does not get my love for rap. That’s the only thing we fight about, what music to listen to.
FULL: Who do you listen to?
VOH: There’s so much, and it’s changed over the years. I listened to a lot of psychedelic music five years ago. I was such a hippie — Pink Floyd, Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors. I started making my own music, and that’s kind of when you stop listening to music, because you’re always listening to your stuff, and you’re always thinking about what you’re going to make next. I’m in this creative set right now where I can’t really listen to anything aside from a few songs on repeat.
FULL: Do you have plans for after you finish the EP?
VOH: I’m moving to Berlin, and I’m excited to move just to get out of this city for awhile. I’m lucky to call this place home, but it’s also good to widen the perspective.
The move isn’t permanent. I’m already booked for two festivals here next summer. I want to be in Iceland in the summer and make music with my friends. But with Iceland, we drink a lot, we party a lot. It’s the end of summer, and I’m kind of done. Yesterday was so many people so drunk. Icelanders cannot behave when they’re drunk. You go to Barcelona, Copenhagen, other places were Icelanders travel, and you meet them because you hear them yelling or singing in the street. It’s so funny. It gets to be a bit much, but I love it too.
The growing tourism has made it expensive to be here. You spend so much on food, clothes, beer, and coffee — coffee goes for the equivalent of six or seven euros at least. It was expensive before, but it was liveable, now it’s getting to be just way too much. We are a rich country, we have good salaries here, but then there are people on disability benefits and what they get is nothing for living here. They can’t live up to this rich standard even though the bankers can. They want the cake, and we only get the crumbles. The financial crash in 2008, they were importing money from fucking everywhere. This island was the richest in the world. And then there were people like my mom, single mother of three, no money, she lost everything. Everybody lost everything. That happened and now we’re headed back again.
FULL: Who have some of your collaborators been on the EP?
VOH: My producers, Marteinn Hjartarson and Krabba Man. Marteinn’s worked with basically everyone, but he only works with people who’s music he believes in. He’s a perfectionist, which is great for me, because I wouldn’t be able to work with somebody who would just publish some shit. He publishes what he believes in and what he thinks is good. I would like to be working with a lot more women, but it’s hard right now, and you can’t be like, “No I’m not going to work with any men! Who are these men? They don’t deserve me!” I’m there all the time and we’re in it together. They're not making the album, we’re making the album. I’m enough woman for now.
I made a song with Dream Wife two years ago when they were coming to Iceland to play Roskilde Festival. Rakel, the lead, who’s Icelandic and my best friend’s sister; we’d never connected at that point, but now she’s one of my best friends. Back then, we met here on a Wednesday, Prikið, tipsy, and she was like, “Hey! I’m playing a concert here tomorrow with my band Dream Wife.” They had just started. They came together because they were in art school in Brighton, and this was their final project, to make a band and tour Canada. Two years later, they’re one of the biggest bands in the UK and they’re so fucking good. They’re making an album right now. At that point they only had a drum hat, a guitar, and a bassist, and just fucking punk. She went, “We’re playing tomorrow. We have a really nice song with a loop, and you could just come and rap on the song.” I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it!” She didn’t tell the rest of the band, and then in the sound check, I show up. She goes, “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you guys, Vigdis is going to perform with us tonight.” They told me afterwards that they were going, “I hope she’s gonna be good.” They were pissed off. I came onstage and I free-styled. I had written a little bit of text in Icelandic. Now we’re recording the song for an album. The song is so good now. Dream Wife played Airwaves last year, and I’m playing Airwaves this November. I’m really happy that I got it.
I performed with Reykjavíkurdætur for Airwaves a few years ago. We wore nude body suits, and people just flipped out. These eighteen girls are out there, rapping, in bodysuits, sweating, their bodies are everywhere — it was so beautiful. We did it because we kept getting asked in interviews about our clothes or our look, never about our music. We went to Airwaves, this is our biggest concert yet, and we decided we were not going to wear anything, just nude bodysuits. That was all over the media. We got two big music festivals the year after that because we stood out so much.
FULL: What are you trying to express with your voice and perspective in this EP?
VOH: I really like the lyrics from this album. It’s called Nom De Guerre, so a lot of it is political.
When I was in The Daughters of Reykjavík, I wrote two songs that made it onto an album that came out last year, and they were about a relationship. But this is different. Every sentence is quite weird. There isn’t a thread that connects them. “Reyndu Bara" had a specific agenda. It was about saying goodbye the the beef. The whole album is like that, “Bye bye, beef. I’m going to make an album. This is me.” But, in the underlying, there is the beef.
Icelandic rap, it’s more teasing while also saying something. I have a lot to say as a feminist. In four or five lines I’ll talk about tourism, mass murder, slaughter houses, and Neo Nazis. I want to hint at things and play. I like to tell a story. I don’t want to go from A to B. I wrote half of the album here, drinking a beer, listening to beats. I like to be an environment that’s inspiring. There are a lot of inspiring rappers who come here.