Rapper Nils Rune Utsi, a/k/a SlinCraze, hails from Máze, a near-abandoned village in the Norwegian Arctic. Despite the “nonexistent” hip-hop scene there, he’s trying to make it as a rapper. Utsi is also Sámi, part of the group of indigenous Scandinavians who, throughout the twentieth century, were subject to forced assimilation at the hands of the Norwegian government. Sámi culture barely survived this period, which is referred to as Fornorsking, and Northern Sámi, the language in which Utsi performs, is understood by only 20,000 people.
Utsi is the subject of Arctic Superstar, a documentary directed by Simen Braathen and produced by Indie Film, which will have its U.S. premiere tonight at Scandinavia House. The screening coincides with the U.N Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a gathering of 1,200 indigenous people from around the world. In anticipation of the film’s debut, the Voice spoke to SlinCraze about his music and activism, which he initially didn’t plan on combining.
Village Voice: How did you get started in hip-hop?
SlinCraze: I started to write raps when I was around fourteen. In 2005 there was an audition for artists who wanted to play [the music festival] By:Larm. I didn’t make it, but Erlend Mogård-Larsen (the festival’s producer) called me and invited me to play. It was the first time I ever played outside [my hometown].
It is a challenge for you to reach a wider audience because you are rapping in a language that only 20,000 people speak. So it’s not just that Norwegians don’t speak it, there is also only a small percentage of Sámi people who understand the language?
There’s no numbers on how many Sámi people there are, because of a history of the Norwegian government trying to wipe out the Sámi language. A lot of kids, from at least two generations before me, learned that speaking Sámi is taboo. So they forgot the language. There’s no real numbers on how many people are actually Sámi, because a lot of people work really hard to hide it. And we have several different Sámi languages. I speak the biggest, Northern Sámi, which 20,000 people speak.
Are you seeing that your music is having an influence and helping to revitalize your language?
It’s never been an agenda of mine to try to revitalize the language, but I do always keep in mind when I am writing that I want to use words that young people don’t use anymore. I find a word that I’ve never heard before and put it in a song and try to make it sound cool. Nowadays we mix a lot of Norwegian words into Sámi daily speech, but I’ve seen a lot of kids start to embrace their language more. If they say something and there’s a Norwegian word in it, they’ll correct it and say, “No, it’s this in Sámi.” My agenda was never to do this, but when I have the opportunity and the influence over young people, I should really use it in a good way.
How many of your lyrics are about Sámi issues?
Lately it’s been a lot. I’ve never been really political, but when I did my first record I had one song [“Suhtadit,” or “Fighting”] that was kind of political. I kind of [parodied Sámi culture], then on the second verse I flipped it and made fun of the Norwegians that are racist toward Sámi people. So I take both sides. That song was well received, and after that I started to read more about Sámi politics and issues.
[I write political songs] because of what I feel when I read a news article about a Sámi person and read all the comments from Norwegians that are so racist and scary. It pisses me off. I write these to get my anger out and try to bring some facts in. Even though [Norwegians] will not understand it, the kids that listen to my music will understand it and, instead of listening to these comments people are making about them and their culture, they will actually know the facts for the next time they are in a discussion.
“Suhtadit” was inspired by this article I read about a Sámi girl in Trondheim whose jacket was lit on fire because she was Sámi. I read all these comments saying she deserved it. That motivated me. It’s crazy that I have to educate the Norwegians [on Sámi issues]. We’re only about 5 million people in Norway. We live in the same country.
Where does this prejudice come from?
We fought to get our parliament, to have our own voice within the political system, so a lot of people think that now we are fighting for our own nation, which is not true. Or it’s because the Fornorsking didn’t happen too long ago, so it’s still fresh in the memory of a lot of people, this idea that Sámi people are not Norwegians.
You also incorporate the joik (traditional Sámi song) into your music.
Most of the joiking I did was on my [older] party songs. But in the last few years I’ve started to use it on my more serious songs as well because I feel more proud of it than I did five years ago, when I thought it was cliché that I was leaning on my culture.
You say in the film that you want to reach the Sámi living in the cities.
Yes. You don’t even have to go that far back, maybe just ten years ago, when the Sámi music that came out was clichéd Sámi world music, and kids in cities could not identify with that because they grew up listening to urban music. You had Mari Boine, who has a very indigenous sound; she became a Sámi cultural bearer, but outside of Sámi environments, at world music festivals and such. When I came out doing hip-hop, I had a lot of Sámi kids in the cities writing to me, saying, “Finally, now I have something I can listen to that’s in my language.” Living in cities they don’t practice the language much. It inspired a lot of kids to learn more Sámi.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on two EPs. One will actually be in Norwegian. That will be a test project, really. I’ll be a lot more political, and [Norwegians] will understand what I have to say. It will be controversial, I think. There’s a lot of lyrics in there where I really push the limits in a way. I want to see how people react to that. Norwegians will probably be pissed, but then I can say, “Now you fucking know how it is.”
Arctic Superstar screens tonight at Scandinavia House. Click here for more info and tickets.