Icelandic music scene out of tune for female artists

Topping the charts in gender equality, Iceland is perceived to be the best place in the world to be a woman, however not everything is as it seems in the male dominated music industry.

 The name RuGI was created from the two girls combining letters from their names, Ragnheiður María Benediktsdóttir (left) and Guðlaug Fríða Helgadóttir Folkmann (right). Credit: Miriam Deprez.

The name RuGI was created from the two girls combining letters from their names, Ragnheiður María Benediktsdóttir (left) and Guðlaug Fríða Helgadóttir Folkmann (right). Credit: Miriam Deprez.

By Miriam Deprez & Emily Jarvie

“I know where we can go,” says Guðlaug Fríða Helgadóttir Folkmann after deciding the coffee house is too crowded. Guðlaug looks to her friend Ragnheiður María Benediktsdóttir and they speak quickly in Icelandic to each other. Ragnheiður giggles and agrees. Smiling they head towards the local park around the corner and casually sit on the platform of the flying fox, like sitting on their favourite couch.

As kids play around them, the two 15 year old girls chat about their exams and plans for starting high school later this year. It’s difficult to imagine these two schoolgirls have recently played at Iceland's biggest music festival, Iceland Airwaves (escorted by their parents, of course), within a year of forming their indie folk duo RuGI.

They speak with an optimism about their entrance into the music scene that reflects the feminist utopian image that has been centred on Iceland in recent years.

Waves of globalisation have promoted greater awareness of women’s rights and female empowerment across the world. Iceland has been ranked first in the world for gender equality for the past eight years by the World Economic Forum and is widely regarded as the best place to be a woman. However, despite this title and overall perception of equality, sexism and discrimination still persist in the music industry.

Iceland’s most notable music export, Björk, started her career at the age of 11 and went on to front one of Iceland's first punk bands The Sugarcubes in 1986. Across her four decade career, Björk has lived through the changes that globalisation has brought, but her experiences of sexism in the music industry has remained the same despite the occurrence of feminist movements in this time.

In an interview with Pitchfork in 2015 she stated, “I want to support young girls who are in their 20’s now and tell them, ‘you’re not just imagining things’. It’s tough. Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times.”

“After being the only girl in bands for ten years, I learned the hard way that if I was going to get my ideas through, I was going to have to pretend that they, men, had the ideas.”

Þorbjörg Daphne Hall, Assistant Professor at the Iceland Academy of the Arts and PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool for her research into popular Icelandic music, said Björk’s position as a prominent artist and role model, has contributed to a false sense of gender equality within the industry.

 Björk, cited as one of Iceland’s most famous musicians, performing in Mexico City in 2017. Credit: A. Maldon (Wikimedia Commons).

Björk, cited as one of Iceland’s most famous musicians, performing in Mexico City in 2017. Credit: A. Maldon (Wikimedia Commons).

Professor Hall explained how Björk is often used as a poster-girl for Icelandic music gender equality. When these issues are raised, “you have replies like, ‘Björk is the most famous Icelandic musician, you can’t say there are no role models’, and that Icelandic women shouldn't have any problems.”

Putting on a show  

RuGI talk excitedly about the recording of their first EP and the other opportunities they have received since they made the finals of Músíktilraunir, an Icelandic battle of the bands style competition in April last year.

Guðlaug describes how they began. “We got together because of a singing competition, and I wanted to compete in it so I asked if you wanted to compete in it with me,” she says coyly looking at Ragnheiður. “Then people were saying that we should keep on doing music together, so that’s what we did…”

“And so we signed up for the battle of the bands and we got to the finals, and from that everything happened!” Ragnheiður laughs, finishing Guðlaug’s sentence.

Giggling and shaking her head in disbelief, Ragnheiður continued, “we got a lot of opportunities from that because we are young girls writing songs, it was really nice. It was quite a surprise how well it went.”

Músíktilraunir is an important platform for young Icelandic artists that allows them to take their first steps into the music scene. The event is often attended by label representatives in search of new talent. Running every year since 1982 in Reykjavík, many competitors have achieved international recognition because of this, including winners of the 2010 round Of Monsters and Men.

When asked if they thought Icelandic music plays an important part of the youth scene, Guðlaug pipes up enthusiastically, “yeah, I really think that! This is the creative part of Reykjavík so every child is playing some kind of instrument in music school here. And it’s all different what kind of music people play. But everyone likes it, and everyone is doing it. It’s a part of everyone.”

Professor Hall explained, “music making in Iceland seems to be an accepted thing to do. There is a really strong music school system and a lot of people have a little foundation in music.”

It was easy for the girls to create RuGI due to their pre-existing musical backgrounds and their novel status as schoolgirl singer-songwriters has elevated their prominence in the Icelandic music scene.

“There is a very strong feminist movement going on in Iceland right now, taking girls to the next level within this music scene. So we get a lot of chances because we are girls and we are young - that is new,” Guðlaug says.

A sound check on female representation

Iceland Airwaves festival is another springboard for up and coming female Icelandic artists. The event brands itself as gender equal in terms of chosen performers. The festival’s manager, Grímur Atlason stated at the most recent Airwaves, 40% of the total program and nearly 64% of its headline acts were female artists, or female fronted bands.

However, Professor Hall explained the strong presence of female fronted bands is not an indicator of gender equality, as some instruments are still perceived as typically ‘masculine’. “Women are fronting as the singer and the men are playing the instruments. In general, it’s still men, with only a few female bass players.”

Professor Hall stated it is definitely more difficult for women in an industry that is still male dominated. “It’s men who are programming festivals, men in charge of the radio and men who are making all the playlists.”

“Atlason really emphasised they are aware of this, and they’ve programmed more prominent female musicians in the last few years. He also placed emphasis on how they are great musicians and they are cool, not doing it because they are women - they just happen to be women.”

Although great emphasis is placed on promoting female artists at Airwaves, this attitude is not always adopted within other festivals and music opportunities across Iceland throughout the rest of the year. At the upcoming Summer Solstice festival in June, only 17% of the total performers are female - a stark contrast to the Airwaves image of equality and is reflective of broader disparities.

Ásta Jóhannsdóttir, gender researcher at the Cultural Research Centre at Bifröst University, said that although Iceland has ranked top of the gender gap pay measure for eight years, it’s still not equal.

“We have patriarchal ideas, not just from Vikings, but Hollywood movies and mainstream media. For a long time, the women's movement has been very proactive in advocating for change and we have had gender equality laws since 1976,” she said.  

“I think we have this kind of aura of gender equality because we have had these successes. For the last couple of years, we have had many vibrant young radical feminists,” Professor Jóhannsdóttir said, stressing that in Iceland feminism is not a bad word.

Professor Jóhannsdóttir refers to feminist “rap-clan”, Reykjavíkurdætur (Daughters of Reykjavík), who challenge stereotypes by “performing with visible underarm hair, with no clothes on, bare chested and with dildos.” The group encourages the empowerment of women with songs referring to issues of politics, sexual abuse, rape culture and inequality.

 The 16 piece feminist “rap clan” Reykjavíkurdætur performing at Benicàssim Festival in Spain last year. Credit: Iñaki Espejo-Saavedra (Flickr).

The 16 piece feminist “rap clan” Reykjavíkurdætur performing at Benicàssim Festival in Spain last year. Credit: Iñaki Espejo-Saavedra (Flickr).

In an interview with Noisey Vice in 2016, Reykjavíkurdætur member Salka Valsdóttir acknowledged her own experiences of sexism in the industry, “I don't know about economics, but if this is the best place to be a woman, that's kind of sad.”

“When we put out music videos, Icelandic people will comment on it, 'get back in the kitchen'. It's not the worst country to be a woman, but I think calling it the best belittles the fact that women here experience sexism."

Voices of concern

Awareness of problems within the music industry has improved in recent years. In 2014, only 10% of the Icelandic Music Award nominees were female which was not an accurate representation of the nation’s music community. This imbalance triggered much discussion surrounding the issues of sexism within the industry and led to the formation of Konur í Tónlist, or “Women in Music,” known as KÌTON.

The group is formed of a society of female musicians who promote female artists and campaign against male dominated festival line ups. KÌTON also arrange monthly concerts for female musicians to give them exposure, experience and encourage other women in the music industry.

Lára Rúnarsdóttir, artist and board director of KÌTON, said to the Reykjavík Grapevine in 2016, “this movement is to show people how many women are active in the Icelandic music scene. It’s just not possible to say they’re not as visible or not as willing to play as an excuse for underrepresentation.”

“Things are slowly changing. Here in Iceland, it’s partly because of the all-female rap group Reykjavíkurdætur … showing that women of all sorts can be empowered, regardless of how they’re dressed. But still, I’m not sure that empowerment alone will be enough to tear down the male dominated system.”

Despite having conquered battle of the bands, the battle for recognition as female artists rages on, however young female musicians like RuGI are determined to have their voices heard.

“We want other girls to see us and wanna do the same thing as us, because it shouldn’t be easier to be a boy in the music scene. It shouldn’t matter,” Ragnheiður confidently states.  

RuGI describe how they have inspired more girls to get into music within their own friendship group. “There are many bands starting and we’re leading other people. There were two young girl bands also playing at Iceland Airwaves last year, who are our age and are our friends, and that is really cool.”

“We are really proud of that,” Guðlaug says, grinning with satisfaction.

As the cold Icelandic air begins to settle in, the girls’ attention goes back to their looming exams in the morning. Climbing down from their flying fox platform, they leave the park, holding hands and skipping across the intersection.