Meet Silvana Imam, the Queer Feminist Rapper Who's Taking on Sweden's Fascists with Hip-Hop
"I write songs about my life, and since I write through a lesbian-immigrant-woman’s perspective, it's labeled as "political.” I'm letting people know how fucked up the world is through my art."
Imam, a feminist, lesbian, anti-racist rapper who was born in Sweden to a Lithuanian mother and Syrian father, has been making waves there over the past few years for her uncompromising lyrics: “You say my love is breaking the law/I say you have super thin dick/Go kiss your fucking swastika” she raps on “Imam Cobain.” Her most recent EP, När Du Ser Mig • Se Dig quotes Judith Butler’s gender theory (“gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original”); calls out racial discrimination in the labor market (“15 million people in the world are called Mohammed but whose name do they want to see on the CV?”), and more or less calls for a feminist revolution (“the patriarchy must be overthrown”). She also takes a moment to raise a band of freedom fighters (“we are power pussies”) and challenge her rapper peers: “take the cake and throw it back at him, Anna-Mae.”
While outsiders often see Sweden as a kind of utopian ideal, the rise of the Sweden Democrats (who polled third in the 2014 election) and news of Nazi-related violence would suggest otherwise. Imam is at the front of a wave of socially conscious and feminist rap that has risen concurrently with these issues and with the rise of the feminist party, Feministik Initiativ (FI), which, in the 2014 election, received their best-ever share of the vote. Imam has performed at FI events—she says they are “the only political party who wants to change the structures from within”—but does not consider herself a political artist.
“I’m a conscious rapper," she says. “I write songs about my life, and since I write through a lesbian-immigrant-woman’s perspective, it's labeled as "political.” I'm letting people know how fucked up the world is through my art. This is about my life and my own survival in this patriarchal and anti-democratic world. A woman who writes love songs to other women causes immediate chaos in most peoples' minds? That is something you should question. and not whether I'm political or not.”
Noisey got in touch with Imam to learn more.
Noisey: How much power do you think hip-hop has to engage with oppressed and minority groups in Sweden?
Silvana Imam: Rap is a way of expressing. We have been given a platform to express ourselves and raise awareness, so why not do it? To be honest ,I don't find rappers rapping about "heir wild and crazy night outs or those who namedrop different liquors interesting at all. I think those days are over, especially for those in Sweden.
How did you begin rapping?
I've been writing poems since I was a kid, and the first album I bought was Xzibit's At The Speed Of Life. I remember being twelve years old, walking into Virgin Megastore in New York—I was so excited. I wasn't raised in a home where my parents listened to hip-hop or soul, but my father wrote a lot, and my mother told me to start writing a diary after she noticed my admiration for words. I didn't keep a diary, but started just writing random stuff, which turned into poems and eventually into songs. When I was 22, my girlfriend broke up with me and I was devastated, I had to change something in my life. I was doing my Masters in psychology but I wasn't satisfied. I met a guy through a friend who had a studio, and started recording my poems at his place. First time I ever performed was in a bar in Södermalm, where I knew my ex-girlfriend would be. I only did that shit to impress her.
What is your view of Swedish hip-hop?
The hip-hop scene in Sweden varies between being progressive, honest and raw to being rather flat—sonically and emotionally. It's a blessing being part of the Respect My Hustle [management team and label; we are the progressive and raw alternative.
In “Svär på min mama,” you say quite clearly "I am a lesbian:" did you feel the need to make a statement, especially after your partner, Beatrice Eli, was criticized for the percieved ambiguity of her song "Girls"?
First and foremost I would say that nothing and no one can be compared to Beatrice and what she is doing right now to our culture through her music. Sonically, she is a breath of fresh air in this mediocre pops cene in Sweden. There has never been a song like "Girls" and those who question "Girls" for its content are people who don't listen to lyrics. I feel the same way about my music. The line "I am a lesbian" has never been said before in Sweden, and it needed to be said. So, I said it.
You say on “Svär på min mamma,” that "my girls are fucking revolutionaries:" what are your fans like? Do you feel you are inspiring young girls?
My fans are the greatest! They're smart and responsive. When I was like 14, there were no rappers who spoke to me. Everything came from a male-oriented perspective. I yawned so hard at that shit because it was just so heartless and ... boring. They reproduced the image of a woman, and I just felt that that wasn't me. Growing up I was really frustrated because I felt invisible, no one spoke to ME and my thoughts and feelings. I think a lot of my fans feel the same way; that they're being boxed in. So I decided to turn up and do something about it. My fans are devoted and smart and I learn from them, which is a true blessing.
Tell me about the “Go kiss your fucking swastika” lyric:
My producer Nils and I have a theory that men who aren't feminists have got small dicks and a bubbling hate towards themselves and women. They're also racists. Joking apart, me and Nils have a great chemistry, and we call our projects "Laughing Out Classics." That line is hilarious and genius, conscious and funny at the same time.
The last EP sounds a little harder than Rekviem: have you become more political?
Sonically speaking, När Du Ser Mig • Se Dig is much more raw, naked and emotional. I needed to drop raw bars with no filters. Also, I needed to be that person that the fifteen-year-old Silvana would have listened to. It's not about being political for me; it's bigger than that. I'm presenting a story and a world that is unknown for most people. This includes everything; from the way I create music to my live shows to what I write about and how I deliver it. I'm a conscious rapper, rather than political.
What do you hope for Sweden in 2015?
That awareness of the white norm will rise, and that people uncover the true face of fascism. Also, I'd like to hear more progressive music and lyrics that actually say something.
What's next? Will you play abroad? Do you worry that rapping in Swedish might limit your audience?
I'm releasing my second EP called Jag Dör För Dig in early spring. This one is more personal and is all about the passion I have for my art, my girlfriend, my crew, and my fans. My emotions are intense, and this is my gift and my curse. This is real life for me, I don't just rap for rapping's sake. Right now I'm in the studio working on my album. Also, I'm preparing for my summer tour. I'm doing Roskilde, Bråvalla, Trailer Park, and Liseberg, just to name a few. I'm also doing shows in Paris and Belgium. Seventy percent of all plays of "Imam Cobain" were from people in LA—my art doesn't have a language. I’ve been breaking all sorts of barriers since I was six years old, and art is universal. I put on a show and make it interesting.