Rhetoric of Infestation in Karpe Diem’s «Lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din»

My research into Norwegian hip hop is ever evolving. I keep finding new artists and songs everyday, but the one group that has really caught my attention is Karpe Diem, a group that consists of Magdi (Egyptian/Norwegian) and Chirag (Indian/Norwegian). Their 2015–2016 project Heisann Montebello (Hello Montebello) exists as a political statement on behalf of individuals who ask, as Pumba puts it, «Hvor faen jeg ifra?» Heisann Montebello consists of seven songs, released over the course of two years, with accompanying music videos for each one. In April 2017, the played three sold out shows at the Oslo Spektrum, shows that would make up their concert film Adjø Montebello (Goodbye Montebello), a film that I have not seen yet.

Over the next couple of posts, I want to look at some of the songs and videos on Heisann Montebello. Please keep in my mind I am still learning the contextualization, allusions, and other aspects that provide meaning for these songs and videos. I am extremely grateful to Øyvind Holen, Sindre Bangstad, and Genius.com. Today, I’m going to look at the song and video that drew me in to Karpe Diem’s work, «Lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din» (“Easy to be a rebel in your basement apartment”). I will not have the chance to look at every aspect of this song and video, but I want to pull out some things that I think are extremely important. (Note: This post may become two posts.)

Before I begin looking at «Lett å», I want to give a little background on Karpe Diem. Holen, in Nye Hipopoder (New Hip Hop Heads), points out how the group’s career has run parallel to some of the most heinous and devastating attacks on «norsk ungdom» (Norwegian youth) over the past few years, specifically the racist murder of 15 year old Benjamin Hermansen in 2001 and the July 22, 2011, terrorist attacks of Anders Behring Breivik which killed 69 in Utøya and Olso. Breivik sought, as Holen notes, «et monokulturelt Europa, tuftet på kristne verdier, kjernefamilien, fri markedsøkonomoi og støtte til Israel.» (“a monocultural Europe based on Christian values, the nuclear family, free market economics and support for Israel.”)

Breivik’s attack, and words, have had a wide-ranging impact across the globe. Christopher Hasson, a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard, was planning an attack in the US “modeled in significant part on Breivik’s strategy, and bearing the marks of his belief system.” Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch terrorist, drew inspiration from Breivik and Charleston terroist Dylann Roof, and he even claims to have had contact with Breivik. Heisann Montebello confronts, head on, political and public rhetoric that espouses xenophobia, islamaphobia, and nationalism, and «Lett å», I would argue, serves as a direct statement against the ways that technology and how the dark web, as Jacob Aasland Ravndal notes, provides a space for extremists to connect underneath the radar.

Along with all of this, the very title Heisann Montebello serves as an important signifier to the entire project. Montebello is in west Olso and it is an extremely wealthy and powerful section of the city, and the nation. As Bangstad told me, “Montebello is in the suburb of Ullern, which has the richest and most concentrated number of Conservative Party voters in Oslo and the country.” Holmlia, the neighbourhood where Hermansen lived and artists arose from, is on the east side of Oslo. (Click on link above to see map showing Montebello and Holmlia.) Holmlia is a racial diverse and multicultural section of the city, unlike Montebello. The juxtaposition highlights the ways that wealth and power become situated amongst a select group. Heisann Montebllo serves as a statement from the outside, saying “Hello Montebello, we are here.” It also serves as a greeting to those outside Montebello from those inside saying, “Hello Montebello, this is what we think.” Heisann Montebello contains each of these perspectives, overlapping and speaking back to one another over the course of songs and videos.

«Lett å», like the all of the songs and videos that make up Heisann Montebello, is a complex work that draws upon hip hop’s history of metaphor, allusion, and the embodiment of disparate voices to comment on a variety of societal issues. «Lett å» directly addresses the ways that political rhetoric affects society and the thoughts that people express as a result. The use of «kjellerleiligheten» (basement apartment) in the title places the rhetoric in the dark, underneath the surface, but the song points out that this supposedly hidden rhetoric manifests itself in public.

Each verse contains an interplay of voices that speak to one another in a call and response manner. In the first verse, after each of Magdi’s lines, another voice enters as asks, “Er det dette skattepenga mine går til?” (“Is this what my tax deduction is going to?”) Magdi’s lines contain islamaphobic and racist statements, beginning with the question, “Apekatter i min blokk og Abu Bakr i min cockpit?” (“Monkeys on my block and Abu Bakr in my cockpit?”) and continuing with questions about children being “anchor babies” and questioning asylum seekers when they say they do not have money. Magdi’s lines, with the immediate questions about state funds funding immigrants and asylum seekers, set the tone for song.

Kavar Singh’s video for the song begins with Magdi riding in the back seat of a car, eyes completely black (as everyone’s eyes are in the video). When Magdi begins the first verse, we see an Indian man marking prices on goods in a grocery store. If you look at the right side of the screen, you will see a entire section of spices, all with the same label. These are Hindu spices. (Click link for some history of the company which started in 1867.) In the store we shop at, all of the spices, except for a few, are Hindu spices, just to give you and idea of the prevalence. The label contains a stereotypical image and the placement of these spices within an opening shot of the video draw attention to the ways that stereotypes become so commonplace and affect individuals’ psyches.

After Magdi’s line “Ankerbarna dine kom, så mokkamenn kan vinne i lotteri?” (“Anchor babies can come, so mocha men can win the lottery?”) we get the responding question about the speaker’s tax deduction. At this moment in the video, a bag of lentils falls off the shelf and bursts open on the floor to reveal a cockroach on its back struggling to right itself. Bugs appear throughout the video, in various ways, symbolising the idea that immigrant and asylum seekers are an infestation, a threat to society. Taken with the lyrics throughout the song, these images link the store clerk and others in the video to animals, to bugs, to invasion.

Magdi concludes the first verse commenting on the ways that immigrants and asylum seekers, in the eyes of the dominant culture, become a monolithic group, all harbouring the same ideas.

Dere er alle av samme ulla
(Alle skal bli knulla)
Mulla, mulla, mulla, mulla, mulla

(Translation)
They are all the same wool
(Everyone should be fucking)
Mulla, mulla, mulla, mulla, mulla

The repetition of “Mulla” is a reference to Mulla Krekar. Krekar, of Iraqi/Kurdish descent, came to Norway in 1991 as a quota refugee. Since 2006, he has been on the UN terrorist watch list as connected with al-Qaeda. In 2012, the court sentenced him to five years for terrorist threats against the government. To the speaker in «Lett å», all immigrant and asylum seekers harbor the same ideas as Krekar.

The video counters this correlation, though, showing men seeing a tree and grabbing fruit from it. The tree itself becomes symbolic because it resides in a yard, behind a small, chainlink fence. The ability to see through and over the fence symbolically shows the tree, or prosperity, is attainable. However, the physical barrier of the fence says otherwise. The men jump the fence and pick fruit from the tree in an act that can be read in multiple ways. On the one hand, it could be read as the men seeking sustenance. On the other hand, it could be read as them reaching for the promises of equality in Norway. When they jump back over the fence, though, they drop the apples in the street, losing anything they may have gained.

Chirag’s refrain takes on the voice of those who the first speaker disparages.

Om du visste hva jeg ville gi for å bli som deg
Bli som deg, baba, bli som deg
Om du visste hva jeg ville gi for å bli som deg, din feiging
Og det er så lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din
Det er så lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din
Det er så lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din, din feiging

(Translation)
If you knew what I would give to be like you
Be like you, baby like you
If you knew what I would give to be like you, you coward
And it is so easy to be a rebel in your basement apartment
It is so easy to be a rebel in your basement apartment
It is so easy to be a rebel in your basement apartment, you coward

The speaker seeks equality, safety, understanding, but the person in the basement apartment denies any of this. As such, Chriag labels that person «en feiging» (“a coward”) for denying access to equality and for hiding in the basement when making and thinking racist and xenophobic comments. In the video, the first refrain ends with a shot of a boy in a drum corp uniform,. In Bergen, there are neighbourhood “Buekorps” that practice throughout the year and march on May 17, Constitution Day. I am not sure about the tradition in Oslo. The uniform appears to be from Bjørndal, an area east of Holmlia. The boy appears to have assimilated into Norwegian culture, even taking on a role in the school drum corp; however, the ending shot zooms in on the head of the drum, showing another cockroach, on its back struggling to right itself.

The next shots before the second verse show a boy playing a handheld video game interspersed with images of worms and bugs in the dirt. Again, the imagery of infestation adds visual cues to the questions that the speaker asks in Magdi’s first verse. The people become equated with insects and apes, becoming nonhuman and a threat. This correlation drives home the ways that political rhetoric can strip individuals of their humanity and drive people to hate.

«Lett å», and Heisann Montebello as a whole, is a political statement. Multiple things make this song interesting, as I’ve already shown, but one key factor, that I did not know until yesterday, is that the lyrics come from online comments sections. As Øyvind Holen points out, Magdi started following the debates online during the Mediterranean refugee crisis in 2015. Holen writes, «Han blir både skremt og sint av fremmedfrykten, islamofobien og rasismen som gjennomsyrer den offentlige samtalen i folkedypet.» (“[Magdi] becomes frightened and angry at the xenophobia, islamaphobia, and racism that permeates public discourse in the popular genre.”)

During 2015, some migrants and asylum seekers entered Norway via Russia, and this prompted the Norwegian government to erect a wall at the border. The New York Times covered this story, stating that the Nordic countries, for the longest time, have been seen as a safe haven for refugees. However, “the erection of the fence, at a spot where 5,500 migrants mainly from Syria crossed into Norway last year, reflects a wider shift in public attitudes against refugees.” These attitudes appear in the lines that Magdi raps in «Lett å», lines that come from comments that people left online, in public spaces, as they sit behind their keyboards and computer screens, possibly in a basement apartment.

Along with the wall, Norway, defied Amnesty International, sending countless asylum seeks back to Afghanistan. Anna Shea writes about this for Time, and she relates Sadeqa and her husband Hadi’s story.

“If Norway had believed us, my husband would be alive today,” Sadeqa tells me. She had fled to Norway with her family in 2015 after Hadi, her husband, had been kidnapped and beaten, but Norwegian authorities rejected their claim for asylum and returned them and their children to Afghanistan. A few months after their arrival, Hadi was killed. Sadeqa and her three young children are living in constant fear.

All of this informs «Lett å», and we need to consider the song, and the entirety of Heisann Montebello within this context.

Some, though, do not feel that music should have any political message and instead be merely a tool to help people feel better about themselves. Writing about «Lett å», the former mayor of Oslo, Progress Party Peter N. Myhre, put this on Facebook: «Dette er ikke musikk, ikke en gang en låt. Det er et tåpelig og forkvaklet politisk innlegg forkledt som en låt.» (“This is not music, this is not even a song. It is foolish and puzzled political post disguised as a song.”) Myhre continued by quoting Lill Lindfors, «Musik ska byggas utav glådje.» (“Music should be built out of joy.”) These arguments are nothing new, anywhere. One need only look back at critics who misunderstood hip hop and specifically gangsta rap in the US for examples.

Chirag concludes the refrain by stating «Det er så lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din, din feiging» (“It’s so easy to be a rebel in your basement light, you coward”). Ending with, «din feiging», the song calls out those who, under the guise of free speech, express racist, xenophobic, and Islamaphobic sentiments.

The second verse carries on in much the same way as the first. However, the topic shifts to private matters or intimacy, specifically in regard to immigrant men and Norwegian women. The threads of these statements have echoes across the centuries, and they immediately make me think about those who opposed interracial relationships in the US because they feared that these relationships would usurp their power. The same thing is at play in the second verse, specifically with the call back question, «Er det du som skal med dattera mi på kino?» (“Is it you who is taking my daughter to the movies?”) This question, and those throughout the second verse, continue to highlight the ways that these sentiments dehumanize and treat migrants and asylum seekers as an infestation.

Jeg skiter i om du er Tshawe eller Vinz eller Nico
(Er det du som skal med dattera mi på kino?)
Du er kanskje kul i dag, men hun gifter seg med Kygo
(Er det du som skal med dattera mi på kino?)
Har du hijaben i baksetet, skal hun bli muslim nå?
(Er det du som skal med dattera mi på kino?)
Jeg er ikke rasist, men skal liksom liksom-passet ditt bety noe?
(Er det du som skal med dattera mi på kino?)

(Translation)
I shit if you are Tshawe or Vinz or Nico
(Is it you who is taking my daughter to the movies?)
You may be cool today, but she will marry Kygo
(Is it you who is taking my daughter to the movies?)
Do you have a hijab in your backseat, she’ll be a Muslim now?
(Is it you who is taking my daughter to the movies?)
I am not racist, should your passport mean something?
(Is it you who is taking my daughter to the movies?)

I think the lines are pretty self explanatory. I do want to point out one, though. Karpe Diem has had beef with the Fremskrittspartiet (Progress Party) dating back to at least 2012. Sylvi Listhaug, a leading member of the Progress Party, posted on Facebook in 2016 stating, “I think those who come to Norway need to adapt to our society. Here we eat pork, drink alcohol and show our face. You must abide by the values, laws and regulations that are in Norway when you come here.” Later, she even argued for a ban on children wearing hijabs in school. Even though the line “Do you have a hijab in your backseat” comes from online comments, it needs to be considered in relation to not just anonymous users but also to rhetoric from the top, rhetoric that denies individuals their cultural and humanity if they do not assimilate completely into Norwegian society.

In the video, this part of the verse coincides with a scene that shows what appears to be a young woman, dressed in a formal outfit, peeing on the side of the road as a man stands outside the driver’s side door smoking a cigar. He is in a position of power. We see later that the man, dressed formally as well, could be her father. Thus, the image presents him as a protector of the woman’s sexuality and protects her from becoming defiled by Tshawe, Vinz, Nico, or someone else.

The father and daughter becomes juxtaposed at the end of the verse with another couple, this time migrants or asylum seekers. The lines here, which repeat twice, comment on this couple’s inability, due to the rhetoric and system, of ever becoming truly Scandinavian or Norwegian.

Plukker frukt i våre haver
(Du blir aldri skandinaver)
NAVer, NAVer, NAVer, NAVer, NAVer

(Translation)
Pick fruit in our gardens
(You never become Scandinavians)
NAVer, NAVer, NAVer, NAVer, NAVer

Here, the image of migrants and asylum seekers as thieves picking fruit from the gardens, returns. As well, the statement that they will never become Scandinavians is followed by a repetition of «NAVer». The word sounds like “never” and that is important because it reinforces the line before it, claiming that migrants and asylum seekers will never become truly Norwegian.

Within Norway, though, it has another connotation. NAV is the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration, basically unemployment benefits. These lines can be read as migrants and asylum seekers looking to milk the NAV system, thus picking fruit from the garden and not giving anything back. Plus, it must be read as a chanted response to the claim that these individuals will never be Scandinavian.

As the refrain begins, the video shifts from showing the couple approaching a tree to presumably pick fruit to the man pushing the woman around in a shopping cart as she smiles. The correlation of this image with «Om du visste hva jeg ville gi for å bli som deg» (“If you knew what i would give to be like you”) positions the couple not as a threat but as humans, people who just want to live their lives and be happy.

For the end of the refrain, the video shifts back to the image of infestation and insects. A man with a bag of fruit approaches a grocery store and sees cockroaches silhouetted against the windows. He stares at the store and drops his bags. The sequence ends with a little girl playing a claw machine. Inside the machine are plush animals she can win, but inside the plush animals are insects, crawling all over everything. She grabs a prize and as she reaches in the slot to retrieve it, the video shifts to Chirag in a meat locker surrounded by dead pigs.

Throughout the final verse, Chirag calls out people sitting in their basement apartments, and he also draws links between the anonymous statements made online and public statements and positions from the political parties. He puns on “ape” when he raps, «Til noen sier hver regjering trenger sin ape» (“Some say every government needs its monkey”). Here, the “monkey” refers to migrants and asylum seekers, the dehumanized others who come looking for opportunities. «Ape» also plays upon the abbreviation for the Labour Party (AP). Along with this pun, Chirag also references Anders Anundsen who was justice minister at the time. I do not totally know what to make of these connections since I do not know Norwegian politics very well at this point, so any help would be greatly appreciated.

Chirag concludes the verse with two important moves. First, he switches the perspective, positioning the hateful and xenophobic rhetoric in the light and then asking himself, now in the basement apartment, what he will do to fight these policies. Is he willing to give up everything he has achieved? He tells Holen, «Jeg stiller spørsmål om jeg er villig til å oppgi min drøm om bil og båt for en fyr fra Syria jeg ikke kjenner, det er kvalmende ukontroversielt.» (“I ask if I am willing to give up my dream of a car and boat for a Syrian guy I do not know, it is nauseating uncontroversially.”) This is a question we all need to ask ourselves. What are we willing to do for others? What are we willing to give up? This is something I constantly think about as well.

Chirag’s final lines serve as a plea, almost a confession, addressing this quandary. He raps,

Oh lord, oh lord, kan du tilgi Lillelord
For å ville ha bil og båt nei

(Translation)
Oh lord, oh lord, can you forgive little lord
To have a car and a boat, no

Again, these are lines that we can take in multiple ways. For one, we can see it as Chirag asking forgiveness for wanting a car and a boat. On other other hand, we can see it in relation to the third line from the first verse when Magdi asks, “They say they come from poverty, but could afford a boat here.” In this reading, the migrant and asylum seeker becomes the little lord asking the lord (upper class, Montebello) if it is beyond reason to want a car and a boat like everyone else, to just live, be happy, be human. Each of these readings calls upon the listener to act and think about his or her position within society.

The end of the video shows various people. The first scene shows a pair of men in a car laughing as a police car pulls up and possibly arrests them. The next shows a pregnant woman at a bus stop. She rubbing her belly, and the camera zooms in on the suitcase, showing a cockroach scurrying around on the top. This, again, plays into the symbolism of the insects and also calls back to the second line in the first verse that asks, “Anchor babies can come, so mocha men can win the lottery?” Other shots show migrants and asylum seekers, and one shows Magdi in the back seat of the car he has been rapping from, as smoke circles around him.

The final scene is perhaps the most poignant of the entire video. It begins with the image of someone’s hand holding a rock. The viewer may ask, “Will the rock be used as a weapon to cause destruction?” In the next shot, we see that the person holding the rock is a young girl in a hijab. She twirls the rock in her hand, looks up, then throws in underhand. Next, we see over her shoulder as lights begin to light up on the ground. The scene moves to an aerial shot, and we see that the illumination is a large hopscotch grid.

This moment presents the young girl not as a threat or as an infestation. It presents her, like the couple at the end of the second refrain, as a person wanting to merely exist, to live, to be seen as a human being. The use of young girl getting ready to play a schoolyard game as the culminating shot serves as a powerful reminder of the girl’s desire to be seen as human but the rhetoric that has been spewed denies her that humanity, that childhood, that existence. She wants to be a child.

I know there is so much more I could say. For example, I did not even mention the fact that the majority of the video, apart from Chirag’s verse, takes place in the dark. As well, every person has his or her eyes blacked out, symbolically showing their dehuminization. Along with all of this, I did not even dive into live performances of songs like «Lett å», something I am working through. Watching a live performance, I became intrigued by the lines the mostly phenotypically homogenous audience sang back, typically the repeated questions in the first and second verses. This work warrants more understanding of identity politics in neighborhoods such as Holmlia, something that Sindre Bangstad is working on and has given me some insight into. Perhaps when I get a firmer grip on these aspects I will write something about them.

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