on silvana imam, sweden’s holy mother of rap
I probably would have stopped studying Swedish if it wasn’t for Silvana Imam. The only reasons I began taking Swedish in the first place were that the guy I dated in senior year spoke it, and that I wanted to teach myself a language that wasn’t offered at school. My efforts to have secret conversations with my boyfriend in the hallway improved, but our relationship did not. When it ended in the middle of college rejection season, I was derailed. But I seized my crumpled ego and dragged it after me on my pursuit of Swedish fluency. He had left; Swedish remained.
As a lifelong language learner, I knew that music was supposed to be the key to fluency. Because singers use language at a rate comparable to regular speech, the listener becomes accustomed to speech patterns that improve their own pronunciation and comprehension. Blindly, I searched “Swedish music,” but a few seconds into the suggested folk songs, boredom was causing my brain to ooze out of my ears. I needed something powerful to stabilize my wavering innards, and I decided there must be one cure: rap. If the Scandinavians were as gory as popular culture made them out to be, they must have music aggressive enough to launch me back into reality.
And then I found her. Under the Wikipedia list of Swedish rappers (the only way I found music pre-Spotify), there was a tiny subcategory of women. The moment I saw her name, something unlocked inside me. Silvana Imam. The video for her hit “Zon” showed Silvana dressed as a devil, hovering behind a woman and sneering with seduction and malice. I clicked and was immediately greeted by thundering electronic dissonance. All of my twisted fears and pains rattled out of my chest and fell to the floor.
For the remaining months of senior year, Silvana drove with me to school, finally allowing me to experience the rush of the bass at maximum. She spat at me while I did my homework, got changed for dance class, and cooked dinner. And when I finally got tired of the anger––and was accepted into Brown after I had braced myself, with no small help from her, for cold rejection––I was ready to explore Silvana’s other sides.
What I love most about Silvana is not that she is angry––Swedish rappers aren’t the only ones who offer that. It’s what she is angry about: racism, xenophobia, patriarchy, capitalism, homophobia. From her earliest songs, she scathingly calls out Swedish neo-Nazis, praises and laments her father’s home country of Syria, and proclaims her love for women as loudly as she can. Silvana hits, hits again, and doesn’t apologize.
When I found her, Silvana was offering me emotional armor as I screeched toward the end of high school, terrified and confused, through humiliating moments like my first attempt to sing solo in front of my peers or my scramble to make last-minute friends to patch my loneliness. When I walked through the hallways or down dark streets, I muttered the lyrics to “Sett Henne” (“Seen Her”), in which Silvana raps to an anonymous woman about how she supports her whether she’s seen her angry, ballin’, crying, naive, or clubbing. The words pushed me forward, encouraging me to be as unflinching as I knew Silvana would be. And when I arrived in Providence and first explored downtown at night, shrinking away from any person––especially any man––who glanced my way, I continued this practice. The adrenaline that surged from Silvana’s lyrics into my stride came from more than just the message: It came from the language itself. No one could understand the furious foreign words even when I stumbled over them, and this realization made me cackle in the streets––which only helped to repel strangers.
But, beyond these moments, the Swedish I was learning from Silvana was offering me more than superficial self-confidence. After obsessively reading and singing along with her lyrics, I discovered that I could understand Swedish news articles and poems. I tried talking to myself in Swedish and realized that I could express much more sophisticated phrases than I had ever learned from my high school boyfriend (with whom my vocabulary was mostly limited to “sweetheart” and “want to go to the museum this weekend?”). This realization motivated me to drop into Ann Weinstein’s Swedish class one damp afternoon during my second week at Brown. I plunged blindly into a room with eight other people—each of whom had their reasons for caring about Swedish—and though I couldn’t articulate why, it was essential for me to stay in that bright living room where Ann held class and connect to the language that had made me a woman.
In the midst of “adjusting” to my first year at Brown, I spent many hours studying, musicless and untethered, surrounded by blank faces. At first, I asked people if they had heard of Silvana, but I quickly gave up. None of my passionate speeches about how she had changed my life compelled any of my new friends to listen to her music. Eventually, I searched for new music and let my dedication to Silvana trail off to sporadic minutes when I needed a boost. That was until sophomore year, when Silvana returned to remind me once again of who I am.
It began when she dropped “4h” (“Four Hours”). The title refers to the amount of time Silvana and her girlfriend have together, and Silvana is quite clear that they will be taking advantage of this time to have sex…because her girlfriend is hot. Simple enough premise when a man tells the story, but layered when the rapper is a woman. I smirked to myself as I sang to it in my parents’ kitchen, where I could tell them as much as I wanted about my love for Silvana without worrying that they would disapprove of my music taste––or my sexuality. The more I listened with delight, the more I wondered whether I had missed something in my life.
I’d known since kindergarten that I liked girls, but I let myself assume that I also liked guys because it was expected of me as a female. It hadn’t occurred to me until college––and Silvana––that I could let go of those expectations and figure out what my head was actually telling me. When I listened to Silvana’s autobiographical song “Hon Va” (“She Was”), I felt the wrenching pain of her father’s rejection of her sexuality. When Silvana rhapsodized about staring at her girlfriend in her dress on “Jag dör för dig” (“I’ll die for you”) and screamed “Tack gud jag är homo!” (“Thank god I’m a homo”) on “För Evigt” (“For Eternity”), she was really saying that she saw me. Not just as a woman, but as a gay woman.
And it wasn’t just that Silvana was yelling at me to love my angry, scared, gay self. She was also teaching me to take pride in my politics and my womanhood. With “Fri” (“Free”), she lets loose her gratitude for being an immigrant to parents from Syria and Lithuania, an identity from which she derives her strength and inspiration. This theme carries into “Simone” (the name of her baby niece, whose Swedish babbling features in this song––one of her softest), which celebrates Simone’s nationalities and Silvana’s love for Simone’s mother. But the pearl of Silvana’s work so far is “Vikken Då” (“Which One”), in which she tears apart patriarchy for suppressing female art and agency. In each of these songs, she reminds those listening to her, especially other women, that they have a place at the table and they need to take up the whole chair. Silvana designed “Vikken Då” to be shouted in dark streets, muttered under one’s breath, slammed seismically through car speakers. So I do. Loudly, och med kärlek.