Last post I discussed «Lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din» (“Easy to be a rebel in your basement light”) from Karpe’s Heisann Montebello (2016)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 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 his 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. 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.
In juxtaposition to Magdi’s opening verse, Chirag’s verse comments on complacency and material comforts, much in the same way as his bars in«Lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din» when he questions his own desire for comfort and stability in the face of pain and suffering throughout the world. The beginning of Chirag’s verse reads like a litany mundane activities that people engage in to fit into, specifically, upper class society.
Fortell meg mer om at du skal til svigers, på kaffe og kake
Og snakke saklig, i vaffeljakke
Kan’ke du fortelle enda mer om ferien deres?
Om lille Lotte, som pottetrenes
Tell me more about going to the in-laws, over coffee and cake
And talk factually, in the waffle jacket
Can you tell even more about your holiday?
About little Lotte’s potty training
Here, Chirag raps about engaging in small talk, seemingly at some social even. People want to learn more about the in-laws as they drink coffee and eat cake. They want to hear about recent vacations. They want to hear all about little Lotetes’ potty training.
These topics, discussed amid a formal or informal gathering, do not get to the heart of any personal relationship. They exist as mere formalities, social niceties that most people engage in before they leave and go back to their separate homes at the end of the event. Where is the personal connection? Where is the intimacy? It does not appear. Instead, what arises is a superficiality. Keeping in mind that Chirag’s role as the monkey places him as the entertainer, one who plays the part and makes people laugh.
We can see these first few lines in this light. While he is not making people laugh, he is playing the part of a rich white man, the group that his persona criticizes throughout the album. He plays the part and feels the tensions of wanting to be a part of that group but also shunning it. In the middle of the verse, Chirag raps, «Bro, du kunne fulgt din egen drøm, overført din egen lønn» (“Bro, you could follow your dream, transfer your own salary”). Instead of buying into the wealthy life, playing the part to succeed, Chirag could follow his own dreams and pave his own path, living the life that he wants to live.
However, that doesn’t happen. Instead, Chirag continues:
I steden valgte du en sveis som passer inn på Ernst & Young
Det finnes ingen ønskebrønn, hvordan skal vi ikke le av det
At livet ditt går ut på å finne en å gå på IKEA med
Du pleide å ha personlighet, du pleide være kreativ
Instead, you choose a mold that fits in with Ernst and Young
That your life is about a fine one to go to IKEA with
You used to have personality, you used to be creative
Now you have the collar up and ask Raggen to get a life
Chirag points out that choosing to fit in the Ernst and Young crowd while craving a beautiful partner to go to IKEA with hinders ones ability to become artistic. Instead, one acts out a role, entertaining and becoming just like everyone else, adhering to the same standards, partaking of the same trends, living the same lives. This conformity restricts and hinders.
I am not sure what to make of the final lines with reference to Norwegian hip hop artists OnklP and Ståle Stiil. However, the final line appears to be, according to 93Zlaton on Genius.com, a reference to Karpe Diem performing a free concert for fans 18 and under. The concert costs the band over half a million kroner, and as 93Zlaton points out, they chose to do something for the fans rather than using that money to pay off loans or buy a car, thus fit more comfortably within the upper crust.
Chirag’s playing a role and entertaining comes up in the video for «Attitudeproblem» where he appears as an organ grinder’s monkey, attached by a chain to an organ that the grinder controls. The opening shot shows the grinder getting ready to start the show, then the camera moves to Chirag, as a monkey, rubbing his hands together. As the grinder turns the organ, Chirag dances. On the other side of the room, a woman sits in a chair watching the performance. Her hands are ape like, adding into the metaphor that she is not her own, conforming to a society she wants to be incorporated into.
When Chirag raps the line “You used to have personality, you used to be creative,” the grinder pulls on the chain, momentarily yanking Chirag backwards. This motion underscores the ways that the conformity Chirag raps about stifles ones individuality, causing the person to become a uniformed person, indistinguishable from the surrounding herd. At this point, the man and the woman both smile and clap. Chirag entertains them.
After the second chorus, the song ends with Magdi repeatedly saying, «Jeg er ferdig» (“I’m done”). Along with this, RSP interjects near the end,
«kommentarfeltet går bananas» (“the comment field goes bananas”). What does “I’m done” mean? Does it refer to the group being entertainers and becoming artists? Does it refer to Chirag being done with trying to fit in with the elite? Does it refer to Magdi being done with trying to explain himself? What does it mean? It means all of these things. The key here, as I have been arguing, focuses on art and entertainment. Karpe Diem entertain and produce art, but for me, the art trumps the mere entertainment of the spectacle. They have something to say, and this is what I see in this song.
While critics may view the duo as having an attitude problem, they see themselves as voices against a system that while purporting equality still marginalizes individuals. They see themselves as artists speaking truth to power. This arises when Magdi confronts the pig in the first part of the video and bananas fly at the large animal. This occurs during the interlude before the end of the song with Magdi and Chirag buy bananas (weapons) from a store. (I do not totally know what to make of this scene.)
Yet, the video ends with police, in pig masks, arresting the duo. They surround the car, guns drawn, and the duo get out, hands in the air as helicopter search lights illuminate them. The inability to counter and topple the system through art or entertainment becomes manifest here. While the duo speak back to power, they do not have the ability to change the system. Rather, they become viewed as threats to the system, and thus the system tries to silence them. They get arrested, unable to change anything.
Art serves as a catalyst for change. It exists as a voice for the voiceless. It provides beauty to the downtrodden. It speaks truth to power. Yet, it cannot, alone, change the systems it speaks back to. It cannot provide for everyone. It cannot raise the voiceless of the voiceless to the halls of power. It cannot do these things on its own. It serves as a tool to enact change, but it takes more than just art to create change. Art serves as the kindling, but the fire must arise from elsewhere. That is what «Attitudeproblem» highlights.