Secret Solstice Festival, Reykjavík Hot Spring Valley, June 17-20 by Tony Mitchell

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‘Delivering Music To A Hip-Hop-Starved Nation’ was how the Reykjavík Grapevine headline described this year’s second Secret Solstice music festival. It’s held from June 17 to 19, in the peak tourist season on a football field and skating rink in Laugardalur, within walking or easy busing distance from Reykjavík’s city centre. They meant the headliners Wu Tang Clan, ‘milkshake’ Kelis and the UK’s Foreign Beggars, but as the festival’s marketing director, Leon Hill, an Iceland-based Brisbane local, founder of Rockpublicity and millionaire social media magnate, stated, ‘Icelanders, as we’ve learned, are extremely serious about their hip-hop’. He was referring to no fewer than an estimated 20 Icelandic hip hop groups and artists, all performing in Icelandic, that were among more than 150 acts, mostly Icelandic, in this year’s lineup. Far more local, and far less crowded, than the now over-established sellout Iceland Airwaves festival in chilly November, which has become dominated by US acts and audiences, this is a far more manageable festival for those who are more interested in local Icelandic music. A guide to the ever-growing number of Icelandic festivals of all kinds from a recent tattoo convention to swamp soccer estimated there were 8,000 people at Solstice last year, including 2,000 foreigners. Hill, who has compared Solstice to Byron Bay’s Splendour in the Grass, admits that last year’s festival was ‘mainly directed at the foreign crowd, especially the British and US market, but according to the response we’ve gotten from Icelanders this year, I think we’ve definitely booked correctly’. The event founder is local seasoned festivalgoer Fred Olafsson, and this year’s festival coincides with an earthquake warning in the capital by the Department for Civil Protection, but it seems to hold off. Hill also manages former Jackass star Bam Margera, who was punched by local rapper Gísli Pálmi and other musicians for harassing female security guards at the entrance while drunk, an apt indication of his moronic personality and the only ugly event that took place over the three days (http://www.visir.is/section/MEDIA99?fileid=CLP37088.)

Last year’s inaugural festival managed to get cited by Time Magazine as one of 17 world festivals to watch, seemingly the kiss of death, but an overwhelming majority of Icelanders were in force amongst this year’s 10,000 or so attendees, including 2,500 foreigners. Hill says they got some things wrong last year, when Massive Attack, Banks, Disclosure, Múm, Icelandic reggae group Hjaltalin and the relatively mainstream Mammút, who started as an all-female rock group but now includes two men and three women, headlined. Random police drug searches were decried by local civil rights group Snarrótin, and organisers had only four months to plan. This year there was much more lead up time, and the police presence was more friendly – I even saw a drunken punter rush up to and kiss a policewoman, before getting held off by her male counterpart. And everything was almost impeccably on time – always a bonus at festivals – with only the occasional act starting late (eg. Busta Rhymes). This year’s lineup even includes a band from Sydney – RÜFÜS, consisting of Jon George, Tyrone Lindqvist and James Hunt, who have a Scandinavian member.

With Iceland becoming Europe’s top tourist destination, its constant summer light, if not sunshine, is a major factor – as local soul singer Június Meyvant, one of the relatively few local acts to sing in English, put it, ‘it’s a beautiful day in Iceland when it’s not raining’. Backed by a brass section including a baritone sax, he also quipped to an audience member wearing ram’s horns – ‘you’re just horny!’ There are still signs of the local dress style known as ‘krútt’ or cute, associated with Sigur Rós, Amiina, Seabear, and others, where animals heads and furs are displayed. English language Icelandic groups included established rockers Agent Fresco and FM Belfast, who had both band and audience jumping joyfully to their summery songs, indie band Dikta, who began their career in Icelandic before switching to English in 2005, and of course Gus Gus, who are basically a DJ and lightshow, with alternating male and female vocalists, but probably the best known internationally of the local acts (no sign of Múm this year). With two stages, the Valhalla and smaller Gimli (the dwarf warrior from Lord of the Rings), three tents, Askur (ash tree), Ragnarök (the doom of the gods) and Fenrir (a wolf-like monster who lives in the fens), and a dance area (appropriately?) called Hel, named after a giantess who presides over Helheim, the underworld, the festival has an Old Norse theme, with a few Norse-inspired sculptures dotted around the place. There is also a jumping castle, a tower with a hot tub, and a terrifying lunapark-like ‘fun’ device which drops punters from a great height with great speed and then stops. There were also ‘secret’ excursions to an ‘icerave’ in a cave under a glacier (for 70 people only at a hefty fee), a boat party, the inevitable blue lagoon trip, and the standard golden circle bus tour to Iceland’s largest waterfall, geysers and the like. A campsite was also provided for those willing to brave the cold. Viking beer is sold by the 10-pack carton, and seems to be the main festival fuel, along with a local lobster stall, the inevitable pizza and hotdogs, as well as a vegan stall. The merch stall sells T shirts, selfie sticks, programs and other essential items.

Things got underway on the Valhalla stage with Axel Flóvent, a rosy-cheeked folk rock singer with his band, who include a female violinist and backing singer, and sound pleasantly similar to an Icelandic language version of Of Monsters and Men. They are followed by Vio, a three piece rock band with some tricky guitar work, also singing in Ielandic, while over on Gimli the first artist is Lára Rúnars, a rather vampy female singer and her band who restricts herself to English although she has releases in Icelandic, and performs to a very small crowd. Ten-piece Icelandic reggae band Hjálmar, Iceland’s first, whose name is Old Norse for ‘helmeted warrior’, draw a much larger crowd on Valhalla, augmented by a brass section which induces a lot of swaying. They recently performed and made an album with Finnish DJ and saxophonist Jimi Tenor, Dub of Doom, have been going for more than ten years, and have released ten albums. Premier Icelandic metal band HAM are hilarious to look at – their lead growler, Óttarr Proppé, is wearing orange trousers, and a cream-coloured British driving cap over shoulder-length blond hair, and has a moustache, while co-growler/guitarist Sigurjón Kjartansson, who is also a prominent writer of local TV series, wears the standard checked shirt and is more of a basso profondo. The bass player, S. Björn Blöndal, looks like an office worker in his waistcoat and tie, but collectively they manage to whip up a storm. HAM, whose heydey was from 1988 to 1994, were once claimed by Björk to be her favourite band, and were involved in the music to the 1992 cult film Sódóma Reykjavík, set in Reykjavik’s main music venue of the time. Their fame has since grown exponetially, and various members are involved in numerous other bands, including the Apparat Organ Quartet. Proppé also fronts Dr Spock, equally hilariously, but even more deafeningly, on Gimli the following day, this time sporting a yellow rubber glove, which he manipulates to a ‘tick tock’ rhythm, and sporting shiny yellow leather trousers. Both bands are supreme entertainers, and wear their metal credentials rather lightly. Gus Gus headlines the Icelandic presence on Valhalla, while Young Karin, a singer who made her name in a high school song contest in 2013, wearing a white fringed jacket, provides poppy hip hop in English on Gimli, along with Logi Pedro, bass guitarist of the band Retro Stefson, an established presence on the Icelandic alt pop scene, with a growing international reputation. They perform later on Gimli, and also feature in the 2010 award-winning cult hour-long documentary film Backyard, made by FM Belfast member Árni Rúnar Hlöðversson, in co-director Árni PlúsEinn’s backyard along with indie groups Reykjavík! – one of whose albums was produced by Australian Reykjavík resident Ben Frost – Skakkamanage, Borkó, Hjaltalín, múm and FM Belfast, some of whom are part of the ‘krútt’ brigade . Gimli headliners are the UK’s Nightmares on Wax, but I’m busy over in the Fenrir tent catching up with the Icelandic hip hop lineup, which features prominently over the three days, with a couple of incursions into Valhalla and Gimli.

Most Icelandic hip hop groups incorporate a great deal of ‘fokking’ into their language, but are otherwise pretty incomprehensible to a non-Icelandic speaker. Even Egill Tiny, late of the most internationally successful Icelandic hip hop group, Qarashi, starts his set by asking ‘Any foreigners here? Learn Icelandic’, before switching to English after his first number, and briefly joining forces with CELL7, a Filippina-Icelandic female rapper who is also part of a local minority of English-language Icelandic rappers. Tiny’s set is very short, but he instigates a lot of audience participation with chants of ‘Fokking Solstice!’ which is taken up by other hip hop performers. He also manages to get the audience jumping and joining in with an old Qarashi number. As he told the Reykjavik Grapevine last year: ‘people are adapting the language, bending it, breaking the rules, and that’s cool. Language evolves, rap evolves, and with the young crowd today, rap has evolved in a very good way in Iceland. Icelandic rappers have their own sense of style, and they talk about things where they’re from. It’s not just a copy-paste of something else. It’s a way to express yourself. Rap is something people have stumbled across, but there’s something universal in it that translates to all of us’.

He is preceded by Þriðja Hæðin (The Third Floor), another long-standing local crew, whose main hit seems to be ‘Scooby Doo’, and who toured Lithuania a couple of years ago. They consist of six MCs – one baldhead, two baseball caps – and a scratch DJ, and a lone woman, who apart from looking decorative, joins in choruses and raps the occasional phrase. Ballistic rapping and a crowded stage make for quite a lively set. They are followed by Sharman Shawarma, one of whose MCs dons a khaki coloured balaclava with sunglasses over the top, and denim overalls, and proceeds to wander round the festival site for a while afterwards. The other MC wears a black hoodie and sunglasses, and they suggest a vaguely Arab-styled attack. Maelginn have a more heavy rock backing, with lots of ‘fokking’, which is pretty constant throughout most of the local hip hop sets. GKR is a 19 year old solo MC whose main outlets are so far YouTube and Soundcloud, like a number of recent local hip hop artists, and some of his tracks feature one Lord Pusswhip, who does a set on Saturday. Shades of Reykjavik are an aggressive bunch, and include a guy in a white mask tied up to a black crucifix with Old Norse designs on it (actually one of the sculptures on display outside the tent that they’ve dragged inside). One of their YouTube clips is called ‘Macaulay Culkin’ featuring skull makeup, but their bark is worse than their bite.

The following day, things get started with a fat US trio appropriately called ‘Kilo’, but local hip hop is represented by Herra Hnetusmjör, an unlikely-looking white-blonde haired MC. Gísli Pálmi, also a YouTube user, with one of his clips having 200,000 views, recently released his first album, and told Reykjavík Grapevine: ‘I think it’s stupid to say you can’t do something just because you don’t have the roots in it.’ He gives a wild performance on the Valhalla stage on Saturday night, stripped to the waist to show off his tattoos, his pants slung very low, and backed by a lightshow displaying his name. Palmi claims he grew up on the streets of west LA, and has posed with a gun, but returned to Iceland and keeps the language local. His crew is called the Glacier Mafia, who provide non-vocal support wearing masks, and he is apparently the son of one of the richest men in Iceland.

Blaz Roca, who is generally acknowledged as the ‘king’ of Icelandic hip hop, has a spot on Gimli, warming things up for the UK’s Foreign Beggars. Blazroca has stated: ‘Iceland has a poetic culture. Ever since the Sagas we read lots of books and poetry, so the poetic tradition has a lot to do with what we are doing now. Lots of rappers don’t even think about it, but personally I would explain it like this. When I talk about my favourite rappers I also talk about my favourite poets. … I’m really into language, I take it seriously and feel very proud of it. It’s the main thing that makes us Icelandic. It’s not race or religion that makes us Icelandic—it’s the language. We [he, his brother Sesar A and his group XXX Rotweiler] pioneered rapping in the Icelandic language [in 2001, prior to which most people rapped in English]. Me and Sesar A were thinking primarily in Icelandic, and so we rapped in Icelandic’.

Sunday is bright and sunny, and there are more families with young children in evidence, with the kids wearing brightly coloured headphones, although things get off to a slow start. The UK DJ Rob Sheilds entertains a group of five dancing people, one of them a woman, in the Askur tent, before Helgi Björnasson, a rather middle of the road singer with slight reggae inflections, warms the crowd up with a brass ensemble, while a female rock trio Kaelan Mikla, do a short set on Gimli.

Sesar A, Blazroca’s brother and the so-called ‘father’ of Icelandic hip hop, since he dropped his first album a day before his brother, then starts proceedings in Fenrir, accompanied by a male choir of twelve or so members, who sing beautifully in multi harmonies, and are dressed in suits and top hats, but don’t really participate in the rapping. Sesar A is joined briefly by Blazroca, and there’s a lot of talking, but meanwhile they’re getting drowned out by Charles Bradley, a very loud James Brown clone on Valhalla. The same happens briefly to the wonderful 16 member collective Reykjavíkurdætur (Reykjavík Daughters), who more than make up for the lack of women in the Icelandic hip hop lineup, delivering a fiercely fluid and impeccably choreographed performance which moves fluidly from one track into the next, with different women taking the lead. Fresh from a performance headlining a concert on Iceland’s Independence Day, they’re in fantastic form, sharing four microphones among everyone, and belting out Icelandic verse with great brio. One woman briefly exposes her nipple (they have also been involved in the recent Free the Nipple Day on June 14), while another wears a jacket over bare breasts, but they’re not at all salacious, just attractively stylish, feisty and highly impressive. They soon drown out Bradley, and by the time they’ve finished a set which runs longer than most of the male MCs’, they’ve filled the tent with enthusiastic supporters. A real triumph, and the highlight of the festival.

Formed after a series of meetings at Reykjavik’s Bar 11, they’ve posted quite a few YouTube clips up in the past year or so, one of which celebrates the local Slut Walk, and all of which are full of colour, lively movement and very competent rapping. They are followed by the Wailers on Vahalla, who give an impressive coverage of Bob Marley hits, most notably ‘No Woman No Cry’, which has the gathering crowd joining in, before Emmsjé (ie MC) Gauti takes over Gimli, backed by a live band with keyboards, drums, bass and guitar and a black DJ. He even induges in a spot of crowd-surfing, which is rather rock and roll for a rapper.

He is followed by Úlfur Úlfur (Wolf Wolf), who have just released their debut album, although they’ve been around for a couple of years: ‘Rap is most certainly the most direct and on-point music when it comes to painting a realistic picture of what it’s like to be a young Icelander. We’re rapping about what life is really like here, what it’s like to be young in Reykjavík and trying to get it together’. They use the same band and DJ as Gauti, and then it’s time for FKA Twigs on Valhalla, who gives an elegantly choreographed performance akin to vogueing, with her three backing musicians providing crackling percussive beats. By this time I’m worn out after three days of intensive music, and decide I can’t be bothered waiting for the Wu-Tang Clan, who were without Method Man and RZA, despite him having done an interview an a local street paper, as well as a couple of others. But they’re not as bad as Busta Rhymes, who did a half hour performance as a ‘Secret Headliner’, before getting the crowd chanting ‘want more, pay me more’. It’s been a great festival, mostly for the locals, and the crowd is peaking, but I’ve had enough. But with the Guardian recently criticizing the lack of women artists booked at British festivals, Secret Solstice more than makes up for them.

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About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.

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