Words by Stína Satanía
Photo by Arnþór Birkisson
Ragna Kjartansdóttir, who creates music under the name Cell7, is a well-known rapper in her country of Iceland, far away in the windy north. With her sophomore solo album, Is Anybody Listening?, she doesn’t come back from a break. She’s been on this battlefield for 20 years. She owns it, from being in Iceland’s history-changing band Subterranean, to doing her sound engineering job, and last but not least, to being a non-compromising solo artist. Stína talked to her about her Icelandic rap roots and stepping out of her comfort zone in music.
From Kriss Kross to Subterranean
‘I think I was twelve when I started to listen to Michael Jackson. Back then, there was also this band called Kris Kross. Do you remember them?’ she asks. She wanted to be like them, so that’s how she got into rap and hip hop.
‘It was really like an underground culture. Once a week, there was this radio show that you always recorded on your cassette recorder, so you could listen to it again and again for seven days until next week’s show. It was the only hip hop you could get in Iceland – one radio show for one hour per week! Everything else was indie or rock. There’s something about hip hop that spoke to me, that was totally different – the lyrics and the rhymes, the amount of heaviness in the drums. It just stuck to me immediately. So, I religiously listened to the show.’
Ragna would most likely just laugh at the suggestion that it was a life-changing moment for her when, at 16 years old, she showed up with a couple of friends at the youth community centre for a much anticipated and exciting new event called open mic. She just wanted to see a new kid on the block, an Icelander who had moved from Sweden a few weeks before and was supposedly known as a hip hop producer. As she admits, this title didn’t actually exist in the local industry at that time.
‘I really wanted to go to see this guy. I thought he was amazing [on stage]. I couldn’t believe he was an Icelandic guy rapping, ‘cause we’d never seen that before. He played one of the instrumentals of the song that I REALLY knew well, and one of my friends pushed me, then somebody gave me a mic, so I thought, “Ok, we’re doing this now”, and the original lyrics of that song just came out of my mouth.’
Her performance positively shocked that producer, and they have been friends ever since that memorable night in 1996. They started collaborating. Nowadays, he’s known as Gnúsi Yones from AmabAdamA.
How Icelandic hip hop kicked off
Soon after, Gnúsi brought Creation Crew over from Sweden and formed Subterranean. Besides him, there were his pals from Creation Crew, Frew, and his brother Kalli, who was a DJ. Gnúsi took care of producing, and together with Cell7, all four became MCs.
‘We didn’t know what we were doing. We were just kids having fun. Suddenly, hip hop escalated very fast. We learned that there were people like us, in their homes, loving hip hop, but without a medium to connect. There were never such things as hip hop nights. No hip hop was played at the clubs, not until much later on. So, when that finally happened, we all came together, all of us from the little corners of our apartments or mom and dad’s basements. It was amazing to feel it. Before, you felt like you were always alone, but once it happened, it was such a passionate underground community.’
After releasing Central Magnetizm in 1997 and sparking a new music wave in Iceland, Subterranean started to command attention and quickly got to play all the big venues in town. They opened for Fugees at Laugardalshöllin, which was Iceland’s biggest venue at the end of 20th century, and for De La Soul. Ragna remembers that time in her career as ‘never being afraid of having a second thought, ‘cause there was [no hip hop] before us, nothing in Iceland you could compare yourself to. I think we maybe took it for granted. It went really fast. Things have changed, and now it’s a real struggle. There’s a kind of comparison to what you did as a teenager.’
What once was will never be again
I couldn’t stop myself from asking Ragna whether anything from the golden days of the first wave of Icelandic rap has remained the same. ‘Unfortunately, very little is the same, and I mean unfortunately because of the roots’, replies Ragna, who has a lot of respect for the history of hip hop. ‘There are so many people that listen to hip hop because they have a passion for the culture, for the music itself. I think there are a lot of people who have just now started, and they have no association with the culture. Personally, I don’t connect to what is taking place. I connect to the knowledge, the core of what is hip hop. Nowadays, everyone has the possibility to have that, do that, the ability to rap and do their own thing. That’s a change. Everybody has a studio now and can release an album. Back in the day, it was really such a big money issue.’
As we got onto the topic of releasing music, Ragna points out the lack of a critical filter in music production and sums it up with these words: ‘The music industry is too saturated. Some people put a lot of passion into their craft and really take their time to make every little detail sound right. Then on the flip side, you have others who work really fast, make an entire album in one or two months, really creative people who don’t get hung up on the details and the small nuances. At the end of the day, everybody is trying to keep up with the fast pace of the music industry. Most of us do something we really care about, and you always compare yourself to others when you’re not doing well. It’s easy to be in a comparison mode, especially in rap. There’s so much competition, and it’s such a battle game. You’re always comparing. I mean, I have a job and two kids’. She laughs. ‘It’s hard to be on the battlefield, all the time. But at the same time, it is as fun and energising as it is difficult and a struggle. It’s the same pattern – that’s why you can’t ever get out. You need to get back in. Making music gives you something that nothing else can.’
The Icelander in New York
‘That was a backup plan, basically’. Ragna genuinely laughs about choosing her profession’s path. ‘I didn’t know any instruments. I felt like, “Well, I’m 20 now. I can’t start learning an instrument at 20. That’s too old. I’m not gonna start all over NOW. But how can I be around music?” Starting from scratch and learning an instrument that I wouldn’t even like…? In my head, I didn’t even commit to a certain instrument’. Sound engineering became an obvious choice at that point, which is why Ragna moved to New York City at the age of 20 to study. It was her rap centre of the universe, where she knew a lot of the music that originated there, where everything was happening, and hip hop was all over, unlike Iceland before Subterranean.
Living in the city that reflected the lively hip hop culture gave Ragna a different
perspective. ‘Musically, for me, it was immersing myself into everything that I listened to and loved. It was like coming home. Becoming a sound engineer brought me closer to the culture, but in regard to sound engineering, it’s such a tough business there. I mean, you have to be an unpaid intern for a couple of years. I can’t do that because I have no money for that. I learned the business of sound engineering. You have to take a lot of crap in order to be inside of [the sound engineering business].’
Seeing the beautiful side of the culture also opened her eyes to the bad sides of New York City’s music industry, such as the tough task of struggling to survive financially while gathering unpaid experience for a professional job. Or learning how the projects were funded and how professional networks were shaped, including all the shocking inequality in behaviour between the richer and more successful artists and professionals and the less lucky ones. That was a very precious lesson for a 20-year-old sound engineer from Iceland, where, let’s face it, the music industry simply didn’t exist on a professional level.
I’m independent. I don’t have a crew.
After Subterranean broke up and Ragna finished her studies in the US, she was freelancing in Iceland as a sound engineer. Projects were coming and going, and whenever each of them was done, a wave of doubt would hit her. Who was she? What was she doing? What was her life going to look like?
‘The music was always there to pull me back. Why not go back to it? There were a couple of grants [in Iceland] that were available, in particular, a cultural grant for women. “Let me try”, I thought. “It’s a small grant”. I applied for it and to my surprise, I got the grant, so I felt like ”Oh shit, someone wants to support me. Now there’s no turn back”. That was the biggest thing that surprised me – that somebody wanted to support [my music], so the pressure was on from that day. I got so much support at the [award] ceremony, where all those women had come together. They were saying, “I heard that you’re going to record an album!” It made me realise, “Oh my god! People know about it!”’
That was a huge motivational push for making her first solo album, CellF. Ragna got tremendous support, making her realise how amazing opportunities can offer financial support for creative spirits.
Women in the music industry
‘There are so few women in sound engineering. We always know each other just from the name’, laughs Ragna. She goes on to talk about the music industry education in Iceland: ‘There is this sound engineer school, Sýrland. I had a group of kids from there come to my workplace and learn sound engineering, like 20 of them, amongst them, three women. I really want to see them succeed because there’s nothing such as you have to be a man to make it in the sound engineer business.’
As women get more and more visible in the music industry, they are finding out that it’s not enough to simply do their job well, something that their gentlemen colleagues are not even aware of. ‘Whenever you step into an industry or business where there are not many women, you feel [as a woman] like you need to be so much better than the men. Even though I’ve been working in this industry for 15 years, still, up to this day, I don’t just do my job. I feel like I need to do better than the next man because I need to represent the women that can do the job really well. First of all, women are really tough on themselves, but they don’t know that a lot of men really suck at this job as well. You always have to be a step ahead of everyone else.’
Getting out of her comfort zone
Is Anybody Listening? was Ragna’s first attempt at producing her own music. ‘[It was] very weird. I didn’t know I should do this, and I don’t call myself a producer. I think it takes time to become a producer, to own your skills. I don’t feel like I’m there yet. But then, I felt like, “Ah, fuck it. I’m too old to be doubting like this. Just let it go”. A lot of the times when I started doubting myself, I told myself to stop it, just finish, and let it go. That wasn’t just strictly musical progress but rather personal progress for me, where you need to just do something. It might not be your best stuff, but in order to reach a great spot, you need to go through things. So maybe this was about going through the self-doubts, all the “not good enough” stuff. Let’s just do it. Maybe we’ll just get through it, and in the end, I’ll be as good as I wanna be.’
This new attitude led Ragna to the new waters. ‘I was producing, and then I was singing on this album too, though I hadn’t done that before. I have encouraging friends that are in music as well, so they play a big part in it.’
Is Anybody Listening?
But Cell7 didn’t decide to limit her creativity to producing all the material on her own. On Is Anybody Listening?, she worked with Helgi, known as Fonetik Simbol (also in the band Two Toucans). They also got input from Gnúsi Yones and Addi Intro (Intro Beats). The process of making it was long: ‘I was working full time, and then I needed the evenings and weekends to work on my music. It just took a long time because I was doing it in my spare time, and I had a family too. Also, I needed to know when my producer was free because he also had a family, so [getting together] was not only about my free time but his too. A couple sessions were needed to finish the song. Then, in the meantime, I had a baby girl, and he had his baby boy, so it was just life’. Ragna bursts into laughter.
Besides the alluring heaviness of the drums, the words and rhymes are an important part of rap. The lyrics on Is Anybody Listening? she says, ‘were created while I was making the album. They just reflect the way I felt then. It took me a long time to write them, so one of the hardest things for me is going back and connecting to that feeling I had when I started playing that song. It might take a couple of days or a couple of weeks’. Ragna let herself dream a bit: ‘It would be fun, though, to experience [recording] by going to the studio, living there, and powering through it within just a month or two. I’ve never done that since it always takes a long time.’
Cell7 in Sierra Leone
‘Woman’ was the first collaborative song that documented the Icelandic artists’ sonic adventure in Sierra Leone and was premiered in September 2019. Sierra Leone decided to create a positive outlook for the country by showcasing the vibrant local music scene and reached out to five Icelandic artists, including Cell7.
‘They have such strong musicians, and they make such a different scene there because it’s like a life and death situation, and if you want to be a musician in Sierra Leone… are you kidding me? You see that even the parents of those musicians are not supportive. It’s not socially acceptable to play music for money. So, they have to fight so much, and the musicians we met are so good. They brought us in to collaborate with them for one week. In fact, there were just three days that we sat in on writing sessions with them, and I think we had like 21 songs after those three days.’
Ending up in a group of five musicians, with Hildur Stefánsdóttir, Arnljótur Sigurðsson, Logi Pedro Stefánsson and Samúel Jón Samúelsson, and not being an instrumentalist, Ragna felt way out of her comfort zone as she perceived herself only as a rapper.
‘I had never thought I could do this, but I just wanted to try. That was so out of my comfort zone. But, yeah, I surprised myself. I made three songs with them. They are so creative, and just to feel the music passion was so much fun. Also, we were creating something together. Nobody was coming in with, “This is what I did”. All egos were set aside. So, we got together, did this song, and went through this process of how we wanted to release this song, how we wanted the world to see what we were doing there. We organised the Freetown Music Festival earlier this year. It was crazy! The concerts went on from 11 o’clock at night till 5 am!’
Her enthusiasm is high: ‘I’ve never been at a concert with such energy. 60 to 70-year-old women were bringing plastic chairs and putting them in front of the speakers. They had put their kids to sleep and were ready to be entertained. So different from what we are used to! I was on at 4:45 am. At 2 am, I thought, “This must be a mistake. I’m going on at 5?!”’
Something that was planned as a one-time project started evolving on its own. Cell7 has since been to Africa twice with the project: ‘Then we met again in London in September, since a part of the Aurora Foundation staff was living there. They made their PR circle there and brought in the bands. A lot of the guys got visas for the first time. We did a packed concert there, which was great because Africa has such great support in certain areas of London. It was so much fun just to see them doing the things they never thought they would do because they are super talented. That’s the project – being a part of something that hopefully allows them to be whatever they want to be.’
As to Cell7’s future, Ragna maintains that her prime aim is ‘hopefully a new album. But each time I finish an album, it’s about finding the right producer and the right person, and there are not so many of them in Iceland. It’s like finding a partner. You need to be compatible, share a certain passion and understanding of the music, and then push for the best results. And not everybody likes to be pushed, so a lot of people are going in and out. But the dream scenario would be just to find somebody who is willing to contribute to the whole process.’
‘In December, I’ll finish an Icelandic TV crime series that I’m working on right now. Come January, I know I’ll be craving new music. Let’s hope that the next album won’t take as long as the last one.’ Ragna bursts into laughter over this vision and ends the interview, still jolly but with a hint of irony: ‘Maybe they won’t call it a comeback this time. Maybe they will just call it a normal third album.’