Nils Rune Utsi raps in Sami, an indigenous language spoken in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
Fewer than 25,000 people speak and understand his Northern Sami dialect.
That presents Utsi, who performs under the name "SlinCraze," with a big challenge — how does he connect with a worldwide audience which often doesn't understand what he's saying?
"It's really tough," Utsi conceded. "Of course, when you have the language spoken by 20,000, only a few thousand are into hip-hop. Your audience is really narrow when it comes to people who understand the lyrics. One of my strengths is how I flow, how I make the beats melodic. It's not the typical hip-hop sounds. That's been my biggest strength in trying to break out to non-Sami-speaking people. It is really difficult. I've been doing it for over 15 years now. I've seen other Sami artists growing bigger. They're doing their music in Norwegian or English."
"Arctic Superstar" chronicles Utsi's struggle to gain a wider audience while staying true to himself and trying to help rescue a culture and language from slowly disappearing into extinction.
ARCTIC SUPERSTAR (2016) – Official trailer from Indie Film on Vimeo.
The film, which debuted in early 2016, will be shown at the Anchorage International Film Festival on Saturday with a Q&A with SlinCraze to follow.
He will also be featured in a panel discussion Friday at the Anchorage Museum and will perform alongside Alaska rappers Tayy Tarantino and Bishop Slice at Koot's.
Simen Braathen directed "Arctic Superstar." Braathen had initially met Utsi in 2009 while working on a photo exhibition of Viking rappers. When the project started generating buzz, Braathen decided to expand.
"He told me New Yorkers were shocked hip-hop was being performed (in Nordic countries)," Utsi said. "They associated (the region) with 'Game of Thrones' types of things. It was initially supposed to be a photo shoot but he found my story interesting, so he made a short, seven- or eight-minute documentary. Then he decided he wanted to make a full documentary and followed me for four years. The fifth year went to editing. It's been a long project."
SlinCraze will also be part of the Anchorage Museum's "We Up" upcoming documentary project, which features indigenous hip-hop artists. So far, crews have filmed in Alaska, Norway, Greenland and SlinCraze's home country of Norway, including his village, Maze.
Utsi was able to meet some Alaska artists last summer at Riddu Riddu, a Sami music and cultural festival.
"Every year the (festival) has a focus, and this year it was on Alaska Natives," Utsi said.
Utsi's interest in hip-hop was, in part, a turn inward and a response to bullying he experienced growing up.
His first major influence was American hip-hop icon Eminem. His name SlinCraze is a play on Eminem's Slim Shady, with his first name Nils spelled backward.
"Eminem. when he does serious songs, they're really good," Utsi said. "I can relate to that a lot even though we have different backgrounds. The lyrics and the stories you can tell, that's how I got into it."
While Eminem was an early idol, Utsi developed a unique style using the intricacies and internal rhymes of his native language.
"I would say certain songs I have to take liberty with the language," he said. "It's not going to be 100 percent grammatically correct. I have to adapt language to the rhythm."
And SlinCraze has tried to turn the language barrier into more of a bridge, connecting with audiences on an emotional level.
"The feedback I have gotten from non-Sami-speaking people is good," he said. "A lot of people tell me they understand even though they don't understand (the words). That's why a lot of people, even though they don't understand a word, they can feel the pain or happiness."
The attention he has received through his music and the film has allowed SlinCraze to work as both an ambassador for Sami language and culture as well as a local advocate for the importance of keeping it alive.
"The mainstream success doesn't matter to me," he said. "To me the most important thing is to keep the language alive.
"With doing the rap with Sami, it tells Sami kids it's OK to be Sami. There's a lot of shame from people who are Sami because of the assimilation politics of Norway in the past. A lot of people have lost language. A lot of kids are relearning the language and trying to get back to their roots. I'm trying to get across that you can still be cool and speak Sami and do great things even though it's a language very few people understand."
SlinCraze in Anchorage
Slincraze and Alaska's Phillip Blanchett of Pamyua will discuss indigenous northern languages in popular music forms. Following the discussion, Nils will demonstrate improvised freestyle rapping in the Northern Sami language. 6:30 p.m. Friday, Anchorage Museum, in the Chugach Gallery on the fourth floor. Free. (anchoragemuseum.org)
The documentary "Arctic Superstar," will show at Bear Tooth Theatrepub with Q&A to follow the screening. 6 p.m. Saturday at Bear Tooth Theatre. $10. (beartooththeatre.net)
Arctic Hip-Hop Showcase: Featuring Slincraze, Tayy Tarantino and Bishop Slice. 10 p.m. Saturday at Koot's. Tickets: $8 at the door, $5 for film festival passholders. (koots.com; 2435 Spenard Road)...Read more