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Rap’s many tongues

by Tove Djupsjöbacka

Rap music has managed to conquer the world by being simultaneously both extremely local and quite universal. People use it to express themselves in a variety of languages and in places ranging from the Bronx to Gaza and Helsinki to Inari.

Finnish and Swedish are Finland’s official languages. They are both compulsory subjects all through basic education, high school and higher education. Additionally, Sami has official status in the home region of the Sami people in Lapland.

In Finland, Finnish and English are the most common languages for rap, but people use Swedish as well as Inari and Northern Sami. Different Finnish dialects work, too, so a Finnish rapper doesn’t have to rap in the Helsinki vernacular to sound credible. Signmark, the world’s first sign-language rapper deserves a special mention here

The newest generation is growing up in an environment where rapping in Finnish is totally natural. Things were different fifteen years ago.

“The youngest generation of Finnish rappers has grown up listening to Finnish-language rap, whereas for my generation it was all American, pretty much,” Lasse “Redrama” Mellberg, 36, states. “They have more variety to choose from, they can think about whether they like Asa or Cheek… and young rappers are really good nowadays!”

Many still choose English. Redrama mentions young talents like Gracias and Noah Kin, whose roots are in the Congo and Nigeria respectively. Redrama’s own breakthrough was his debut Everyday Soundtrack (2003). Now the man who became known as a rapper is not only a successful artist but also writes music and lyrics for others.

From the complex to the simple

Redrama is used to shuttling from one language to another and he’s released material in English, Finnish and Swedish. Even though Swedish is his mother tongue, he admits it’s not the most natural language for him to use in this context. English was his primary language ever since he started writing songs as a teenager.

“In the beginning I had to study all the time – I’d lie in bed at night reading a dictionary! But the more I worked with the language, the better I got at finding the words. In the beginning I was pretty technical and cryptic. Now I have the courage to be simpler without worrying about whether people are going to think me naive.”

Redrama grew up in a Swedish-speaking home in the Helsinki region and went to a Swedish school. There are more and more young Swedish-speaking Finns who rap in their mother tongue, even though the tradition doesn’t go very far back. When Redrama was young, making music in Swedish felt somehow embarrassing.

“It had such a strong association with the Swedish-speaking Finn identity,” he sighs. “I never hid who I was! But I didn’t emphasise it, either. When it comes to rapping in Swedish, I try to do it without comparing myself to my colleagues in Sweden. They’re so much more advanced when it comes to language.”

Redrama has released two EPs in Swedish, one of which was a collaborative effort with Swedish rapper Jesse P. The record was called Pakkåruåtsi (Mandatory Swedish, 2011) and the name refers to the mandatory status of Swedish language studies in the Finnish school system, which is sometimes criticised with considerable vitriol. Redrama himself is, however, not really interested in making political statements in his music.

“In my own music I try to find a kind of universal state of mind,” he ruminates. “Many people saw the Pakkåruåtsi project as a political statement, though. We toured schools together and did want people to learn Swedish, but without any preaching or coercion.”

The courage to go Finnish

Recently Redrama has tried his hand at rapping in Finnish, too. His first major project is being one of the three rappers in Ricky-Tick Big Band & Julkinen sana, where they perform with a full-fledged big band.

“I always felt I wouldn’t be able to work in Finnish, because I just don’t know the language well enough. But I’ve come to enjoy it and I no longer compare myself to others. And then both the composer and arranger Valtteri Pöyhönen and one of our rapper colleagues Karri “Paleface” Miettinen said that I should do a verse in Swedish, too. So now that we’re making our second album, I should apparently rap more in Swedish – they claim my flow is better then…”

Nowadays Redrama uses Finnish when writing songs for others, too.

“Often people will ask me for a melody, but I don’t like making demos with wordless singing. Words play such an important rhythmic role that I can’t let a song out of my hands without a lyric. So usually I write something up real quick and expect it to never be used, but lately people have come to me asking for those lyrics, which I’ve managed to write without putting any undue pressure on myself – mostly because I thought they won’t be used.”

He immediately points out that he doesn’t see himself as a lyricist of any great depth, like, say, Mariska or Paula Vesala.

“I could never manage that sort of grand, profound Finnish way of writing lyrics. It’d be laughable. And I never listened to music sung in Finnish as a child, so that tradition is not a part of me.”

An aboriginal people and global popular music

When it comes to idols and formative influences, Mikkâl “Amoc” Morottaja, 29, is in a very different situation to Redrama – he is the first person to rap in the rare Inari Sami language. He released his debut album Amok-kaččâm in 2007.

“I liked creating something totally new,” Amoc calmly states. “Of course I have a lot of influences from around the world, even if none of my friends rapped using the same language. They used Finnish, mostly. Pretty soon I tried out Inari Sami and it sounded really cool.”

There are nine Sami languages, three of which are spoken in Finland. Of these three, Inari Sami is the smallest and in recent times a great deal of effort has been expended in making sure it survives as a language. The language nest method developed by the Maoris of New Zealand has been used to help children and youth use and revivify the language. In a language nest, language immersion is used to help children acclimatise themselves to a language and culture on the brink of disappearance.

“The Sami rap scene has progressed, albeit slowly. Ailu Valle raps in Northern Sami and recently released his debut. I think this is the cumulative tipping point and a lot more Sami rap will follow. There isn’t a lot of popular music made in Sami – the field is so small that no one can afford to do it in the long term and do it well.”

Mikkâl Morottaja is bilingual and says Finnish is his stronger language. It’s possible to see his choice of language as a political statement.

“Ten years ago things were looking really bad for Inari Sami. I felt one should work to preserve one’s cultural heritage and for me it’s primarily about the language. Otherwise I’m what’s referred to as modern Sami. I live the life of regular Laplander – I don’t work with reindeer or in other traditional Sami things.”

The lure of the exotic

Amoc is not bothered by the fact that very few people understand his lyrics. Approximately 400 people speak Inari Sami in Finnish Lapland, mostly around lake Inarinjärvi.

“I’m very specialised in expressing emotion. Even if people don’t understand the text, the emotion is transmitted. Lately I’ve worked on making my show a little more dynamic. When people don’t understand what you’re saying, they’ll have a harder time listening to a set that doesn’t undergo any dynamic changes.”

People who speak other Sami languages listen to Amoc’s music and partially understand it, too. Internationally, Sami music is seen as interesting and exotic, and rap in Sami is usually classified as ethnic music. How does Amoc feel about that?

“I don’t mind. It’s nice that people are interested in what I do, but at the end of the day, I make it mostly for myself and my friends.”

As a fan of heavier music, Amoc wants to make rap that sounds aggressive and mystical. His influences include old-school rap as well as Rammstein’s German metal. Linguistically he faces a lot of challenges.

“The vocabulary is pretty limited, so there are a lot of things I haven’t been able to talk about using Inari Sami. There are a lot of words related to reindeer and nature, but I don’t usually rap about typical Sami stuff. My subjects are more global by nature.”

You can make up words

Even though Finnish and the Sami languages are related, Amoc assures us that they are totally different. “Finnish has a lot of abstract nouns. Inari Sami has a lot of verbs, but not that many adjectives. Sometimes it feels like using Finnish in a poetic way is much easier and it’s hard to come up with a Sami equivalent for Finnish words that are even slightly out of the ordinary, like ‘latent’.”

New words are being created in the Inari Sami language all the time, but many haven’t taken root yet, Amoc tells us.

“It’s important to me that my lyrics are grammatically correct. I have people, like my father for one, read and listen to my lyrics. He’s been a very active advocate for Inari Sami.”

So freestyling using Inari Sami is not a walk in the park.

“I’ve been experimenting with it for a about a year now,” Amoc says. “It’s hard to do in a way that allows you to stick to themes that make sense in Inari Sami! There are a lot of subjects out there where you just run out of words… Lots of words rhyme, though, so just rhyming for the sake of it is easy.”

Amoc studied audiovisual communication in Helsinki, but moved back to Inari a year ago and is now working on his second album. The subjects are, once again, global, but with some Sami touches thrown in.

“There’s a Grimm-style story about someone who eats children and I’ve added some references to the Sami stories about the Christmas stáálu who attacks children around Christmastime. There’s some caricature-like rap boasting, too, where all the references are from Sami stories.”

Translation: Arttu Tolonen
Featured photo: Amoc by Harri Nurminen