Over the past two posts, I have started looking at Karpe’s Heisann Montebello (2016). I have discussed «Lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din» (“Easy to be a rebel in your basement light”) and the ways that the song addresses xenophobic, Islamophobic, and racist rhetoric. Today, I want to continue some of that same discussion by looking at another song on the album, «Attitudeproblem» (“Attitude Problem”). This song confronts how we use language and directly points out the metaphorical use of language in hip hop. As well, it addresses the trappings of modern society, trappings that hinder us from ignoring the suffering around us.
An important aspect to remember about Heisann Montebello is that Magdi and Chirag take on distinct personas throughout. Magdi becomes
«Kjetfen» (the mouth) and Chirag becomes «Apen» (the monkey). Holen points out the with the personas, the duo explore “the boundaries between propaganda and politics, art and entertainment, with the mouth as the debater and the monkey as the entertainer.” These roles appear in both the song and the video for «Attitudeproblem».
«Attitudeproblem» begins with Magdi rapping, without any music, «Er det bare jeg som mener statsministeren min har blitt…?» (“Is it only me who believes my prime minister has become . . . ?”) Before we get the rest of the question, a censor signal cuts him off. As an artist, is it his role to speak about politics? This, of course, is the comment that Peter Myhre made about «Lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din». In the next line, Magdi asks, «Er det bare jeg som er artist?» (“Is it me who is just an artist?”) Here, the boundaries between art and entertainment that Holen mentions come into focus, and Magdi continues throughout the first verse teasing out these tensions.
After saying that everyone laughs when he raps on stage, Magdi points out that rap, and art, work in metaphor. He raps,
De skjønner metafor uten Magdi
Du skjønner metafor uten M i
Men rap er kanskje ord uten hemning
Så mord er bare et ord uten M i
They understand metaphor without Magdi
You understand metaphor without M in it
But rap may be words without inhibition
So murder is just a word without M in it
Audiences understand metaphor without Magdi having to tell them that he works in metaphors. The final line above is important, gaining its meaning in Norwegian. Magdi raps, «Så mord er bare et ord uten M i». The play here is that «mord» (“murder”) and «ord» (“word”) are similar. Here, I see connection back to gangsta rap and critics who blasted the genre for its depictions of racism and oppression in a realistic manner. Critics believed that the artists actually partook in criminal activity without realizing that a lot of the lyrics were metaphorical and representations of the environment.
Following this assertion, Magdi moves into what can only be described as an eight bar tour-de-force flow that moves from condemning the Erna Solberg’s government for, at China’s request, not meeting with Dali Lama to pointing out that while people may say, “everyone is the same color,” when issues arise or they feel threatened, they begin to paint people in a negative light. Magdi finishes by rapping,
Shamener, det er’ke kjønn jeg mener
Det er’ke tispe eller pød jeg mener
Eller bikkje eller bøg eller skjøge jeg mener
Eller fitte eller jøde eller kødd jeg mener
Shamener, en vits er en vits, Ariel Sharon
Og dette er bars, bars, bars, ikke en saklig sjargong
Do you understand what I mean? it’s not gender I mean
It’s not bitch or puppy I mean
Or dog or fag or harlot I mean
Or pussy or Jew or dork I mean
Do you understand what I mean? a joke is a joke, Ariel Sharon
And these are bars, bars, bars, not a factual jargon
What Magdi points out is that language can be used metaphorically. The words serve as signfiers, as I have written about multiple times on this blog, and can move, never settling in one specific position. Magdi’s final lines bear this out when he points out that the bars he raps are “not a factual jargon.”
What are they then? This, I argue, is where the tension between art and entertainment comes in full force. In a connotative sense, art serves a higher purpose and works as social commentary. Entertainment, to many, just serves as an escape from the everyday world, a way to forget the issues one faces on a day-to-day basis. Is Magdi just an entertainer? Is he an artist? More to the point, if we go with these definitions, is rap art or mere entertainment? Should it be a political tool?
The video for «Attitudeproblem» begins with Magdi against a black background. As he raps the first line of the song, a wrecking ball nails him in the face and he falls out of frame. He returns as a mouth, with his bandanna still on his head. He doesn’t have any eyes, or the bandanna covers them up. All he can do is speak with his over-sized mouth. While rapping, he appears before a large pig (pigs are a recurring image in the videos) that stares directly down its snout at him. Magdi confronts the pig, and as the verse ends, bananas attack it (bananas are a recurring theme in this video, think of Chirag as the monkey).
For me, Magdi’s confrontation of the pig, while he is only a mouth with no eyes, serves as a metaphor for these tensions I have been talking about. If he should be nothing more than entertainment for his audiences, then he blindfold serves to show that Magdi should just be focused on entertaining them, not confronting the political systems that Karpe Diem do throughout their work. He should just dance for the audience. However, the bars serve as political commentary and while the pig may want Magdi and the audience blindfolded, only hearing and saying things that make them feel good, Magdi cannot do that.
The lines I quote above caused backlash due to the fact that Magdi places
«jøde» (“jew”) amongst a litany of swear words. Elaina Hercz, a fan of Karpe Diem, wrote an op-ed about how she felt when she heard the lyrics. She wrote,
(Translation from Mona Abdel-Fadil)
“Dear Karpe Diem (…) for many months I have been excited about your new song releases, and Thursday’s release of the song Attitude Problem was no exception. But in the middle of the first verse, I was startled by the word ‘Jew’. (….)
You are talking about me
My stomach churned because during my childhood I have experienced having ‘damn Jew’ shouted at me, my stomach churned because I daily during school visits experience that all the children in the classroom raise their hands when we ask ‘how many have heard the word ‘Jew’ used as derogatory word?”
Abdel-Fadil has an excellent piece on this debate, and I encourage you to check it out. In the post, she talks about a lot of the tensions that I have been discussing throughout my previous posts, specifically the issue of art and entertainment. Karpe Diem attack racism, xenophobia, and oppression. However, how do lyrics such as the one quoted above come across, especially when you have audiences rapping it back? This is the same question I brought up with «Lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din».
An artist cannot police an entire audience, nor should the artist have to do that. An artist should be able to use metaphors and language to make his or her point, especially if that point is attacking oppressive and hateful systems. The tension arises, though, when that message gets lost. I do not think, with everything I have seen about Karpe Diem, that the message will get lost. However, it is something that needs to be considered, especially for someone like me working with the music in translation.
As I mention earlier, what I see Magdi doing in this first verse is really playing with the art vs entertainment tension. With the lines quoted above, in particular, he is not just spouting words. He is rapping, at a high technical level, multiple lines with swear words over two bars. For me, this is showing his artistic ability and prowess, exerting his rhymes in an extremely technical manner. I do not think this is done to cover up the words. I think this is done partly for the flow and the rhythm. The effect, though, is that this moment works on the fence between art and entertainment.
When I first started listening to «Attitudeproblem», I became impressed by Magdi’s flow in the first verse, particularly these lines. It wasn’t until I translated the lyrics that I found out what he was rapping. For me, this is partly the point. Magdi’s skill serves as entertainment, and his words serve as art. The two become intermixed. Art and entertainment do not have to be separate. They do not have to exist apart from one another. They exist, I would argue, always in unison. No entertainment can be apolitical. It’s impossible.
Responding to the debate, Magdi stated, “The line is simple: I hit words that are unfortunately being used as words of reproach in society. I mean, I don’t mean ‘gay’ if I’m talking about a guy who’s gay, and I don’t mean ‘Jew’ when I write Ariel Sharon. I mean Ariel Saron. That’s my point. The distinction between politics and religion The distinction between religion and person.” Rap traffics in metaphors, and we need to remember this. As well, we need to remember that once an artistic creation leaves the artist, the audience enters into he equation, and the audience brings their own connotations with them.
Next post, I will finish up looking at “Attitude Problem.” Until then, what are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
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