- Words Miriam Balanescu
- Photography Sanna Tairi
As Sweden's Ladieslovehiphop Festival emerges this year, we get to grips with why the country has become a hive for some of hip-hop and R&B’s brightest female talents.
From Titiyo to Mabel, Sweden has become the place to look if you’re hoping to find fresh R&B and hip-hop stars – many of whom just happen to be women. After hip-hop crossed the border in 1984 with the arrival of Per Cussion and Grandmaster Funk, the genre has been sending shockwaves up and down the country ever since.
Breaking after the first and second hip-hop wave in the 80s and 90s, Sweden is currently experiencing a new influx of undeniable talent. R&B Somali-Swedish prodigy Cherrie made headlines around the world in 2017 after “163 För Evigt” went viral. Her single, so named after the postcode of the suburb Rinkeby where she found a multicultural community in Sweden, triggered discussion worldwide about immigration in the Scandinavian country. With the general election ahead, the Sweden Democrats, a party with origins in neo-Nazism, was making headway and has now become the third biggest political party in Sweden. Along with the likes of Swedish R&B legend Neneh Cherry (who is also Mabel’s mother), Cherrie has been a pivotal figure in lending her voice to halt the takeover of the far-right.
The former Stormzy collaborator has been outspoken about racism in Sweden and has gone some way to countering this with her music. Cherrie told Vogue, “I remember being a young girl and having parents of African heritage but living in a Scandinavian white city with almost no black people: You’d be confused ’cause you’re not at home there, but if I went back to Africa, I wouldn’t be 100 percent home there — because I’ve never been there, right? So, the third culture concept comes from creating your own culture of what you do have.”
Like Sweden’s early hip-hop artists who used the “Rinkeby Swedish” language to describe life in the fringes of the “Million Programme” of public housing, Cherrie’s music often deals with issues facing Sweden’s suburban communities. Her 2015 single “Tabanja” took its title from the Swedish slang for gun.
“Historically, several artists from the blue metro line in Stockholm (suburbs like Rinkeby, Tensta, and Husby) have dominated much of the Swedish Hip Hop and R&B scene,” explains Nataša Marijana of Ladieslovehiphop collective. “However, the past couple of years we’ve seen an influx of successful artists from not only every metro line in Stockholm, but also lots of suburbs in different cities like Gothenburg, Malmö, Västerås, and Uppsala. With that in mind, all of the suburban culture in Sweden has played a super important role for the younger generation in terms of representation and role models they can relate to.”
Founded in 2014, the collective Ladieslovehiphop was devised as a way to tackle the lack of female representation across club culture in Sweden. Three best friends, Marijana, Ethiopian-Swedish DJ Rebecca Tegegne, and Cuban-Russian artist Linda Nápoles, pulled together DJ sessions and club nights to book and platform emerging female artists. Now fully fledged, Ladieslovehiphop has programmed their first-ever festival this year, showcasing UK artists Greentea Peng, IAMDDB, Jaz Karis, and Dreya Mac along with locals Zozo & Jad, Adjani Benita, Kenxoslayz, Mona Masrour, Shenie Fogo, and more.
Multi-heritage and second and third-generation immigrant musicians have become crucial in reshaping Sweden’s sense of national identity. “Hip hop now together with pop is the biggest genre in Sweden and that goes to show you that now that music has been democratized there’s no way to stop artists to directly break through to their audiences that historically haven’t been the marketable audience for the record industry.” Marijana, who is of Serbian, Croatian, and Bulgarian heritage, states. “Suddenly hip hop artists with multi-heritage backgrounds are some of the biggest artists period and that definitely means something for young kids looking at themselves in the mirror. We’re cementing our space and now you can no longer turn a blind eye. You have to deal with us and that also causes friction since a lot of the industry and media outlets are not equipped to cover the culture.”
The legacy of The Latin Kings, Infinite Mass, Ken Ring, Ayo, and Petter who were tasked with representing the suburbs in the 90s has carried over into contemporary Swedish hip hop, which feels just as politically charged. “Hip hop artists have always been on the frontier of voicing their opinions and taking stances against injustices and racism. Even before the Sweden Democrats was in the parliament the populist racist party New Democracy made the parliament in the early 90s and acts like Infinite Mass made the classic track “Shoot the Racist”. So naturally, the height of political lyrics within Swedish hip hop was at a peak during the normalization of Sweden Democrats in the political sphere a couple of years ago. Take for instance the demonstrations in Kärrtorp where numerous Swedish hip hop artists took the stage and performed in front of tens of thousands of protestors.”
However, Marijana adds that a feeling of political obligation can be a burden. “Today, the music isn’t as overtly political since the situation has fostered a more nihilistic approach… In a sense, it’s both a gift and a curse since some artists don’t necessarily want to be overtly political, but end up in the predicament where they have the sense of responsibility of speaking about issues such as racism, segregation, and gentrification.”
The uniqueness of the Swedish experience has also moulded the country’s hip hop scene into one that is unparalleled. This, Marijana claims, is because Sweden takes inspiration “from more countries around the world. In the 90s everybody was trying to emulate the States and rapped in English. Now, we’ve created our own soup combining different flavors and doing it in our own language, having more autonomy over our expressions.”
In Vice, seminal artist Titiyo talked about her struggles to shift from the Swedish to the US circuit: “The US is so fixated on everything that speaks about sex. It’s all about judging—is it too sexy? Is it sexy enough? Can we make it more sexy? It’s the same thing with race. I mean, I’m mixed black and white and that was the question I got all the time — ‘are you black? Are you white? Are you pop? Are you soul? Where are you going?’ America is so much about putting things into boxes when it comes to presenting culture and music. In Europe, we’re so much more open to the mix, I feel. You don’t have to think, ‘I’m black, so I’m only going to listen to R&B music.’”
Despite that the Swedish artists making a name for themselves in the UK are mostly female, Marijana explains how difficult it is for women to get off the ground in their home country. “The hip hop scene is really dominated by men, but the growing R&B scene looks bright right now with a lot of new female talents. Unfortunately, it’s still difficult for a female artist to get the same recognition at the moment, but that’s where we come in. That’s what we’re trying to mitigate and change.”
The internet has been a central factor in launching female Swedish hip hop artist’s careers – without it, Cherrie would never have had the global recognition she has received. “Around 2004 or 2005, there was a big boom of females dreaming of their own things and I think that came out of the onset of the Internet,” Titiyo told Vice. “The whole Internet thing has been really good, in that way. It gave a lot of women guts.”
Irremovable titans on the scene like Snoh Aalegra and Neneh Cherry are joined by a new generation of exciting female talent, including Cherry’s daughter Mabel, Seinabo Sey, L1NA, Nápoles, JÁNA, Silvana Imam, Raghd, and Rahwa. Having been handed the mic by their hip hop ancestors, Sweden’s current female hip hop artists are both fighting for industry change and paving the way for future artists. Legendary hip-hopper Neneh Cherry told The Guardian, “music is the only weapon I carry. Sometimes the political begins with self-examination.”
Ladieslovehiphop Festival will take place from 24-27th August in Fåfängan, Sweden.