silvana imam raps about same-sex desire and does it for her teenage self
"I’m a lesbian, a feminist, and an immigrant." — Sweden’s first openly gay rapper on why society made her political.
Silvana Imam is a rap world anomaly. Not only is she a hugely successful female rapper in her native Sweden, where the scene is dominated by men, but she's a self-declared feminist, a lesbian, and an immigrant, and she makes a point to rap about all three.
Take the track "Imam Cobain," for example, in which she tells Swedish fascists to "go kiss your fucking Swastikas"; or "Zon" where she hails "the new Stonewall Revolution." Then there's "Swear On My Mother" which shouts out the Swedish Feminist Initiative, Gudrun Schyman. Her music almost always has a political message. "I just write about the truth of me," she says. "And as a lesbian immigrant? Everything I do is political."
Silvana's mother is from Lithuania and her father from Syria; she grew up in Stockholm. For that reason, she says she always felt like an outsider in the country. "People saw me as white for my skin, but speaking Arabic and Lithuanian, my language wasn't as good as Swedish peers who talked Swedish at home." Music was her form of escape, she says. She started listening to rap music when she was seven years old — the Fugees, Xzibit, Nas, and later Swedish rappers, like Petter and a rapper called Blues. "It was The Fugees that made me aware of what socially conscious rap was," she says. "When your parents tell you about problems in the world, you're like 'OK, I hear you but I can't relate to you.' The Fugees made me relate."
Silvana rapped and wrote lyrics privately from there on out, but she only starting rapping professionally when she was in her early twenties, while at university doing a psychology degree. "I was just this annoying person rapping all the time for my friends and family. Eventually my sister was like 'shut the fuck up and go to a studio'. I've always written so I think it was a natural step for me." She also jokes that part of the reason was to impress a girl. "I'd just broken up with my second girlfriend, a friend had a club and I was like 'I have to perform at your club!' I'd never performed in my life but I wanted to impress her," she grins, "that's how my first show happened." Did it work? "Not really," she laughs.
At that time, she was still doing a psychology degree, but she put together her first mixtape, Requiem, in her spare time. The first single release from the album, "IMAM," was a big arrival statement. "I think that song earned me a lot of respect from male rappers automatically. It said 'Don't fuck with me'."
Since Requiem, Silvana has risen to become one of Sweden's most well-known rappers. She has won Swedish Grammies for Best Live Act of the Year, Lyricist of The Year, and Artist of the Year 2016 — the first Swedish rapper, male or female, to ever win the latter. She put out her second album, Naturkraft — meaning "Force of Nature" — in March this year. She says the new album is more commercial than Requiem, or at least easier to connect with. "It's more direct. It hits you harder." One reason for that, says Silvana, is that her girlfriend, the Swedish pop star Beatrice Eli, suggested she start coming in on tracks immediately and not "let the beat go on for ages." It's also because, by her own admission, when she put out Requiem, she was more worried what people would think of her.
Silvana's rap almost always has a message. When I ask Silvana if she sets out to write political rap, she shrugs, "I also write songs about taking drugs or doing this or that. I just write about the truth of me. And everything I do is political. Society made me political — I'm a lesbian, a feminist, and an immigrant. We have a saying in Sweden: once you see political structures, you can't un-see them."
Silvana's band start nudging her that they have to go set up for the Airwaves set. Normally her show features lasers but due to some "fucking bureaucracy" they aren't allowed them at the venue without a license. I tell her that, if the show four years ago was anything to go on, she probably doesn't need stage effects. She looks a bit embarrassed at my compliment, so I quickly change the subject and ask her whether she thinks she'll still be rapping in ten years time. "Look around, there aren't women doing this when they're 40. It's bullshit. And it's because women get beaten down," she responds. "I don't know if I'll want to stand there when I'm 40... but I'm definitely going to do this for as long as I think it's fun."
Text Amelia Abraham