An Interview with Silvana Imam
Silvana Imam, Swedish-Arab rapper, is shaking Sweden to its roots. She is a member of Swedish hip-hop collective RMH; all the members of the collective have “distinctive sounds” and aim for innovation. According to Imam, RMH “sets the standard” for the rest of hip-hop Sweden at the moment, and the popularity of RMH backs up this view. Still, Imam does not “give a shit” about the business side of music. She started writing when she was seven years old – lyrics, poetry, short stories. Almost only in Swedish – “never say never” she says when I ask her about writing in English. Music became her thing because she can write and speak to music. Ever since then she has been creating from the margins.
Unafraid, strong, blunt – what Imam strives for is “progression”, to constantly create something new. When I met her in Stockholm, she explained that she wants non-Swedish listeners to see that she is a role model, who is “just like any other guy” – expect she is female emphasising the need for “analysis”. By this she means a critical understanding of society today – in terms of politics, racism and sexism. She stands for “solidarity” and is outspokenly left-wing.
In Sweden, Imam is famous for her outspokenness and strong opinions, but according to her, she never makes an effort to make her music political, or to send particular messages. She writes about her life, and since she is “outside the norm”, her music exists outside the norm. This is why she is dubbed as a “political artist”, because her existence is outside the norm and is therefore seen as a political statement. When I ask her about the relationship between art and politics, she replies, “all art is educational”. Meaning, not just art with explicit political messages, but all art which comes from experience. Because of her life experiences with anti-racism, feminism and LBTQ-rights, these feature in her music – it is not intentional, it is existential.
In 2015, she won RFSL’s “rainbow” award, and while she is honoured, she does not want to make her sexual orientation “into a concept”, because that would be “outside her comfort zone”. Although, I can’t help but think of the fact that she and her girlfriend – musician Beatrice Eli – gave a concert together in Gothenburg during the summer. This joint-concert, named “Vierge Moderne”, was solely based on their status as a couple – they made no music together. Isn’t this a way of conceptualising their relationship and their sexuality? To Silvana, the prospect of them making music together is not impossible, but she reserves it for the future. They gave a concert together because they both “love to be on stage” and because they have many shared fans, “despite their different genres and languages”. Another important aspect of the concert was that they wanted to draw attention to the work of the Swedish poetess Edith Södergran: the concert title is taken from a Södergran poem. Imam and Eli wanted to “write themselves into history” and highlight the issues which Södergran lay out in her poem: mainly questions of gender and sexuality.
With all the political angst surrounding her activist limelight how does she stay positive? She surrounds herself with good people with “positive energies”, she believes that “we attract that which we want”. During 2015 alone, she gave 121 live shows. She tries to create something new every time, and says that each show is “special and unique”. What keeps her motivated for live shows is the contact with her fans: “it is amazing to see that the interest is out there”. Having been to her concerts myself, I can say that the excitement and the positive energy that Silvana embodies is mirrored in the audience. Imam is fiercely dedicated to her music, and her fans are just as dedicated to her.
However, her latest single ‘Knark’ (“Drugs”), seems like a break from her past more political lyrics. For her, this is because she is tired of being seen as a “female rapper in a business dominated by men”. She doesn’t want to be singled out because of her gender, but because she wants to be the best of all rappers, not just the best “female rapper”. The message is that she is “the new drug” and that people will be addicted to her. Imam is ambitious and wants to break down the norms in rap music: she wants to beat the guys at their own game. Like one of her greatest inspirations M.I.A., Imam aspires to be “natural” and “self-explanatory” – not to make excuses for herself or try to fit in. She gets her inspiration from many different sources: punk music, classical music, pop music. Artists like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, James Blake, Kent and Håkan Hellström. She is also inspired by the works of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, artists who could “move a lot of people in different ways at the same time”.
In January 2016, Silvana was awarded with the prestigious Swedish P3 Gold award for best live act of the year. “Fuck. I did it. Yes!” She screams into the microphone when she accepts the award. Despite her use of the past tense, I feel like this is only the beginning. Despite her reluctance to label herself as an idealist, it does feel like something is changing in Sweden, and Imam is the embodiment of this revolution.
Words by Maja Helm