My research into Norwegian hip hop is ever evolving. I keep finding new artists and songs everyday, but the one group that has really caught my attention is Karpe Diem, a group that consists of Magdi (Egyptian/Norwegian) and Chirag (Indian/Norwegian). Their 2015-2016 project Heisann Montebello (Hello Montebello) exists as a political statement on behalf of individuals who ask, as Pumba puts it, «Hvor faen jeg ifra?» Heisann Montebello consists of seven songs, released over the course of two years, with accompanying music videos for each one. In April 2017, the played three sold out shows at the Oslo Spektrum, shows that would make up their concert film Adjø Montebello (Goodbye Montebello), a film that I have not seen yet.
Over the next few posts, I want to look at some of the songs and videos on Heisann Montebello. Please keep in my mind I am still learning the contextualisations, allusions, and other aspects that provide meaning for these songs and videos. I am extremely grateful to Øyvind Holen, Sindre Bangstad, and Genius.com. Today, I’m going to look at the song and video that drew me in to Karpe Diem’s work, «Lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din» (“Easy to be a rebel in your basement apartment”). I will not have the chance to look at every aspect of this song and video, but I want to pull out some things that I think are extremely important. (Note: This post may become two posts.)
Before I begin looking at «Lett å», I want to give a little background on Karpe Diem. Holen, in Nye Hipopoder (New Hip Hop Heads), points out how the group’s career has run parallel to some of the most heinous and devastating attacks on «norsk ungdom» (Norwegian youth) over the past few years, specifically the racist murder of 15 year old Benjamin Hermansen in 2001 and the July 22, 2011, terrorist attacks of Anders Behring Breivik which killed 69 in Utøya and Olso. Breivik sought, as Holen notes, «et monokulturelt Europa, tuftet på kristne verdier, kjernefamilien, fri markedsøkonomoi og støtte til Israel.» (“a monocultural Europe based on Christian values, the nuclear family, free market economics and support for Israel.”)
Breivik’s attack, and words, have had a wide-ranging impact across the globe. Christopher Hasson, a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard, was planning an attack in the US “modeled in significant part on Breivik’s strategy, and bearing the marks of his belief system.” Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch terrorist, drew inspiration from Breivik and Charleston terroist Dylann Roof, and he even claims to have had contact with Breivik. Heisann Montebello confronts, head on, political and public rhetoric that espouses xenophobia, islamaphobia, and nationalism, and «Lett å», I would argue, serves as a direct statement against the ways that technology and how the dark web, as Jacob Aasland Ravndal notes, provides a space for extremists to connect underneath the radar.
Along with all of this, the very title Heisann Montebello serves as an important signifier to the entire project. Montebello is in west Olso and it is an extremely wealthy and powerful section of the city, and the nation. As Bangstad told me, “Montebello is in the suburb of Ullern, which has the richest and most concentrated number of Conservative Party voters in Oslo and the country.” Holmlia, the neighbourhood where Hermansen lived and artists arose from, is on the east side of Oslo. (Click on link above to see map showing Montebello and Holmlia.) Holmlia is a racial diverse and multicultural section of the city, unlike Montebello. The juxtaposition highlights the ways that wealth and power become situated amongst a select group. Heisann Montebllo serves as a statement from the outside, saying “Hello Montebello, we are here.” It also serves as a greeting to those outside Montebello from those inside saying, “Hello Montebello, this is what we think.” Heisann Montebello contains each of these perspectives, overlapping and speaking back to one another over the course of songs and videos.
«Lett å», like the all of the songs and videos that make up Heisann Montebello, is a complex work that draws upon hip hop’s history of metaphor, allusion, and the embodiment of disparate voices to comment on a variety of societal issues. «Lett å» directly addresses the ways that political rhetoric affects society and the thoughts that people express as a result. The use of «kjellerleiligheten» (basement apartment) in the title places the rhetoric in the dark, underneath the surface, but the song points out that this supposedly hidden rhetoric manifests itself in public.
Each verse contains an interplay of voices that speak to one another in a call and response manner. In the first verse, after each of Magdi’s lines, another voice enters as asks, “Er det dette skattepenga mine går til?” (“Is this what my tax deduction is going to?”) Magdi’s lines contain islamaphobic and racist statements, beginning with the question, “Apekatter i min blokk og Abu Bakr i min cockpit?” (“Monkeys on my block and Abu Bakr in my cockpit?”) and continuing with questions about children being “anchor babies” and questioning asylum seekers when they say they do not have money. Magdi’s lines, with the immediate questions about state funds funding immigrants and asylum seekers, set the tone for song.
Kavar Singh’s video for the song begins with Magdi riding in the back seat of a car, eyes completely black (as everyone’s eyes are in the video). When Magdi begins the first verse, we see an Indian man marking prices on goods in a grocery store. If you look at the right side of the screen, you will see a entire section of spices, all with the same label. These are Hindu spices. (Click link for some history of the company which started in 1867.) In the store we shop at, all of the spices, except for a few, are Hindu spices, just to give you and idea of the prevalence. The label contains a stereotypical image and the placement of these spices within an opening shot of the video draw attention to the ways that stereotypes become so commonplace and affect individuals’ psyches.
After Magdi’s line “Ankerbarna dine kom, så mokkamenn kan vinne i lotteri?” (“Anchor babies can come, so mocha men can win the lottery?”) we get the responding question about the speaker’s tax deduction. At this moment in the video, a bag of lentils falls off the shelf and bursts open on the floor to reveal a cockroach on its back struggling to right itself. Bugs appear throughout the video, in various ways, symbolising the idea that immigrant and asylum seekers are an infestation, a threat to society. Taken with the lyrics throughout the song, these images link the store clerk and others in the video to animals, to bugs, to invasion.
Magdi concludes the first verse commenting on the ways that immigrants and asylum seekers, in the eyes of the dominant culture, become a monolithic group, all harbouring the same ideas.
Dere er alle av samme ulla
(Alle skal bli knulla)
Mulla, mulla, mulla, mulla, mulla
They are all the same wool
(Everyone should be fucking)
Mulla, mulla, mulla, mulla, mulla
The repetition of “Mulla” is a reference to Mulla Krekar. Krekar, of Iraqi/Kurdish descent, came to Norway in 1991 as a quota refugee. Since 2006, he has been on the UN terrorist watch list as connected with al-Qaeda. In 2012, the court sentenced him to five years for terrorist threats against the government. To the speaker in «Lett å», all immigrant and asylum seekers harbor the same ideas as Krekar.
The video counters this correlation, though, showing men seeing a tree and grabbing fruit from it. The tree itself becomes symbolic because it resides in a yard, behind a small, chainlink fence. The ability to see through and over the fence symbolically shows the tree, or prosperity, is attainable. However, the physical barrier of the fence says otherwise. The men jump the fence and pick fruit from the tree in an act that can be read in multiple ways. On the one hand, it could be read as the men seeking sustenance. On the other hand, it could be read as them reaching for the promises of equality in Norway. When they jump back over the fence, though, they drop the apples in the street, losing anything they may have gained.
Chirag’s refrain takes on the voice of those who the first speaker disparages.
Om du visste hva jeg ville gi for å bli som deg
Bli som deg, baba, bli som deg
Om du visste hva jeg ville gi for å bli som deg, din feiging
Og det er så lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din
Det er så lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din
Det er så lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din, din feiging
If you knew what I would give to be like you
Be like you, baby like you
If you knew what I would give to be like you, you coward
And it is so easy to be a rebel in your basement apartment
It is so easy to be a rebel in your basement apartment
It is so easy to be a rebel in your basement apartment, you coward
The speaker seeks equality, safety, understanding, but the person in the basement apartment denies any of this. As such, Chriag labels that person «en feiging» (“a coward”) for denying access to equality and for hiding in the basement when making and thinking racist and xenophobic comments. In the video, the first refrain ends with a shot of a boy in a drum corp uniform,. In Bergen, there are neighbourhood “Buekorps” that practice throughout the year and march on May 17, Constitution Day. I am not sure about the tradition in Oslo. The uniform appears to be from Bjørndal, an area east of Holmlia. The boy appears to have assimilated into Norwegian culture, even taking on a role in the school drum corp; however, the ending shot zooms in on the head of the drum, showing another cockroach, on its back struggling to right itself.
The next shots before the second verse show a boy playing a handheld video game interspersed with images of worms and bugs in the dirt. Again, the imagery of infestation adds visual cues to the questions that the speaker asks in Magdi’s first verse. The people become equated with insects and apes, becoming nonhuman and a threat. This correlation drives home the ways that political rhetoric can strip individuals of their humanity and drive people to hate.
As I said from the outset, this post would probably go long. I’m going to stop here and pick up with the second verse in the next post. Until then, what are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
If you enjoy what you read here at Interminable Rambling, think about making a contribution on our Patreon page.