Karri Miettinen, aka Paleface, is without a doubt the most talked about Finnish hip-hop artist of our time. His latest album Helsinki Shangri-La was nominated for the Nordic Music Prize and has been praised amongst domestic and international music critics. He won three Emma awards in the spring: Etno Emma, Male Artist of the Year and Hip-hop/Electronic/Reggae Album of the Year.
On top of being a talented musician, Miettinen has a lot to say. He’s known for sharp and challenging lyrics that point out the defects of society, for standing behind his beliefs and as the man who brought meaning back into Finnish hip-hop.
SixDegrees sat down with Miettinen to talk about his work, politics and human rights.
Let’s start from way back. How did you end up becoming a hip-hop artist?
I found hip-hop at a very young age, at a time when cassettes were the thing! The attitude of rap and the meaningfulness of the lyrics left an impression on me and I started rapping as part of a band in the early 90s. Things started happening in the Finnish hip-hop scene in the late 90s and I got my first record deal. The rest is history.
Helsinki Shangri-La is your fourth album, but the first you made in Finnish. Why the change of language?
All the better to eat you with, like the Big Bad Wolf says to Little Red Riding Hood.
Your lyrics are very much based on current issues. Do you ever worry about your music losing its meaning as time goes by, or is it a way to write down history?
This record was a kind of manifesto. But in a creative field, you can never really know where the creative juices start flowing from. I don’t think I should restrict myself either. But hip-hop is always tied to, not only place and time, but also to the moment at hand. For a while rappers even used to state the year at the beginning of a piece, and in that way froze the song to a certain time.
|Date and place of birth: 21 April 1978, Järvenpää.
Place of residence: Helsinki.
Education: Undergraduate of Philosophy, selftaught
musician, translator and reporter.
Family: Partner and six-month-old daughter.
As a child...I wanted to be either a cook or superman
– I guess a rapper is something in between.
I admire...Gill Scott-Heron who passed just a few weeks ago for
his great line of work and relentless poetry against the machine.
I’m afraid of...losing hope, becoming a cynic.
In the future I hope for...me, my family and
loved ones to maintain good health.
Your music is quite different to how the main stream hip-hop sounds. Can a man and a guitar be called hip-hop?
Of course. Hip-hop should really be a continuous laboratory test. If we return to the end of ‘70s to Grandmaster Flash’s The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel, he mixed Black Sabbath, Blondie, James Brown and the like – electro, rock, Latin music, jazz. That’s the stuff that has just about disappeared from hip-hop, the formula should be continuously reformed and more experiments should be made. It’s almost a recession in hip-hop, where everyone clings to a certain sound. The American R ‘n’ B list’s top songs are just repeated and copied. My attempt on the new record was to make hip-hop with influences from Finnish and world music. Hip-hop is folk music in reality.
In your lyrics you drop a lot single words and names. Is this a deliberate tactic to poke the listener and get them to find out what you are talking about?
Yeah, they are modern spells really. These kinds of concepts or slang words are the lyrical weapons of a rap artist. It’s important to get the listener thinking. I’m happy when even one person Googles the ‘Kepler’s sinusoid’ for example to find out what it’s about.
In the song Helsinki Shangri-La you just about foretell what actually happened in the elections with references to Timo Soini and what will happen to the immigration policy in Finland if ‘his traumas result in heavy voting’. What was your reaction to the election result?
It raised mixed feelings of course. Like a friend of mine said: at least now it’s easier to spot the racists. That’s what I’m talking about on the record – the government has moved further away from the public. People seem to think the parliament is just a place where difficult technocratic jargon is spoken. The government should be a cross-section of the population, which is hasn’t been here for quite some years. Where are the young people and the immigrants? Where are the different layers of the population? If something positive has to be dug out of this, then it’s the fact that hopefully everyone will now realise that people with a very narrow view of the world and hardly any experience can become an MP. That’s what democracy is all about, I suppose.
What are the most concerning issues in the rise of the True Finn party in your opinion?
Typically for a populist party, the issue of most concern is what is called ‘immigration criticism’, when in reality it’s narrow mindedness and racism. That openly xenophobic people such as Jussi Halla-aho are actually voted into government. It’s blatantly cowardly to blame immigrants for the problems in our society. Not one immigrant has taken a job away from a Finn.
How do you see the future of Finland in the next four years?
It’s a short time in the end. I believe that things will move forward when the political broilers that appeared on the map during the last years of Kekkonen, and their little brothers move away and a true change of generations happens in Parliament. At the moment the talk of immigration policy is based on a populist view. This is an issue that should be publicly ripped open – has one united Finland really ever existed? Many academic researchers would say no. The joint patriarchal feeling lifts its head only during the Ice Hockey World Champs or Independents Day, but in reality we are Lappish, Savonians, Carelians – not one unified nation. One researcher at Tampere University has even compared the Finnish nation to indigenous peoples. Our social democracy is manifested by all the problems of indigenous peoples – just as Inuit’s or Native Americans are heavily alcoholisised populations, so do we have the same cross to carry. There’s really a division going on here: one small group of people who attempt to hold on to this idea of Finland for Finns and who are scared of some huge change, then there’s the group who sees that the change has already happened. What should really be done is to look at how the negative affects can be prevented and this is something that urban planning has a lot to do with. We need to prevent ghettoes from forming – it’s not very clever to intentionally build areas for only immigrants to live in.
You won’t run out of material for sure at least in the years to come. Do you already have some topics developed that you want to cover in your next album?
The food industry is one thing I want to write about. If people ate healthier a huge amount of societal problems would go away. What are the effects of plastic wrapped processed food that is sold to us at the supermarket? This is still an undervalued issue that is not talked about enough. It’s heavily influenced by pharmaceutical companies as well – I’m not quite convinced whether they really want to make us better. In the States foods with high vitamin content have been made illegal and who’s to say that wouldn’t happen here?
How much background work do you do for your lyrics?
I read a lot, watch documentaries and immerse myself in new information everyday. I’ve held a few hip-hop workshops for the youth and I always emphasise to them as well that you need to read – that’s where you get your verbal ammo.
You recently produced the Amnesty 50-year celebration album Mitä vapaus on, how did this come about?
Frank Johansson was a guest in my radio show and after it we talked about the album Vapauden kaiho produced for Amnesty by Kimmo Helistö. I suggested that we make another album with the new generation of music makers, and some older ones too of course. He got excited about it and we decided to publish one for the 50-year celebration.
Was it easy to get the artists involved who perform on the album?
It was. I wrote down a list of people I’d like to get involved and the list materialised just about as it was. Amnesty does such important work that everyone found time to take part in it, although it was done pro bono of course with all the return going to the organisation.
All the songs on the album tell a story of real-life activists and prisoners of conscience. How were these people chosen?
Amnesty’s campaign this year introduces 50 people who have been persecuted, jailed and tortured for their opinions or religion. We got a list of about ten people that I gave to the artists to look at. They all found a person with a story that they could relate to and chose to write about. The album is a birthday present to Amnesty from all the artists involved.
You have recently become a father. Has this made you view the world from a different angle?
Maybe in a way, but I’ve always been concerned for people that are somehow forgotten by the society. I believe it’s the job of the society to look after the weak ones, so to speak. Although the principal way of thinking of our time seems to be that the success of a wealthy few somehow guarantees the well being of the entire society. This ‘trickle down effect’ – the idea that the pennies trickle down to the poor ones of the society from the top is delirious! The idea of continuous economic growth is also delusional. We’ve already caused so much havoc to our planet that the big plug needs to be pulled. It looks pretty hopeless to be honest.
What are you currently working on?
I’m just finalising a book at the moment on the history of Finnish rap, called Rappiotaidetta – Suomirapin tekijät. The name is a bit of a nip towards the ‘Peruutuspuolue’ [a play on words of the True Finns party]. I’ve also just completed my very first voice over for a children’s animation Ella ja Aleksi where my voice is that of MC Koppakuoriainen, a rapping beetle. On top of that I’m changing nappies and doing some gigs.
Rappiotaidetta – Suomirapin tekijät is out in August from Like Publishers.
Paleface performs at Ilosaarirock on 16 July at 21:30.
Act Like You Know show hosted by Paleface on Radio Helsinki every Wednesday 18:00-20:00.
Photo: Tuomo Prättälä