“My ambition isn’t necessarily to be the best, but I want to at least be the person to inspire the next best thing,” said Noah Kin. Kin, a 22-year-old producer, DJ, and rapper from Finland, has major ambitions for his music career. But first he has to work against the temperament of his homeland.
Although Kin was born and raised in Finland, he’s very much not a traditional Finnish artist. Kin is half Nigerian and half Finnish and grew up in an eclectic home. He began making music at age 12, years before most musicians even attempt to pick up their first instrument. And he’s not afraid to experiment in different genres. His music, which straddles the line between hip-hop and EDM, sounds unlike anything else coming out of the Scandinavian country. If anything, Kin’s music sounds more in line with the sonic experiments of his global peers, artists like Twenty One Pilots or Logic, who are not afraid to throw any and everything at the wall until something sticks. That’s not to say his music is bad or unfocused. In fact, it is Kin’s singular creative vision and aversion to Finnish cultural norms that make him a compelling artist.
Before I arrived in Helsinki for a creative residency, I was warned about those cultural norms through extensive research. Finns are regularly described as reserved or unapproachable. They’re self-deprecating, possibly to a fault. One popular Finnish joke: “An introverted Finn looks at his shoes when talking to you; an extroverted Finn looks at your shoes.” As a black American traveling to the country for the first time, I anticipated the worst but was pleasantly surprised by my experience. I didn’t feel particularly welcome or unwelcome in the country. In fact, my biggest compliment in the days after I returned to Chicago was how easy it was to disappear in Finland. This was a country where, despite my race and gender, I felt unburdened by the metaphorical weight of my body, perhaps because it meant something completely different to be a black foreigner than a black woman in a city as hypersegregated as Chicago.
But I was merely visiting Finland. For someone like Kin, who grew up in the country, the racial experience is much more nuanced and complicated. “I don’t really feel like it’s a factor, but I guess to other people, my skin tone and just being from an immigrant background changes things for me,” Kin said.
Kin is unique, physically and culturally bucking the notion of what it means to be a Finnish artist. As a musician, Kin aims to fight against the Finnish tradition that says he can’t or shouldn’t pursue something. “We have this word — nöyrä. I can’t think of a word in English, but it’s below humble. It’s sort of like being sorry for existing,” Kin said. “Every time someone is like, ‘Hey, I like your music,’ you’re not supposed to say you think it’s good. You can’t say that. You have to act like you can’t believe anyone is listening to your music and stuff like that.”
Nöyrä is in complete opposition to America’s hip-hop culture, where the traditional rap battle requires confidence, ego boosting, and lyrical posturing. Finnish-to-English online dictionaries often use the word “flunky” as an English equivalent, which doesn’t bode well for a musician looking to grow outside Finnish borders.
If asked, would you be able to name five Finnish artists off the top of your head? Probably not. But most people wouldn’t have trouble naming artists from other Scandinavian countries. In Iceland, there are artists who’ve had massive global success, like Björk or Sigur Rós. And from Sweden, there are pop superstars like ABBA and Robyn, and producers like Max Martin and Denniz PoP. But who are the Finnish superstars? Kin cites the Finnish nöyrä as a musical hindrance. “I think that’s one problem — people don’t necessarily think that you can send [music] to someone outside of Finland,” Kin said. “A lot of artists don’t even start making music in English, because they think they’re not going to make it outside because no artist from Finland have done that.”
Unlike its Scandinavian neighbors, Finland is a relatively new country, first establishing its independence following the 1917 Russian Revolution. Before then, Finland was a part of Sweden as far back as the 12th century and became a part of the Russian Empire in 1809. Though Sweden became an independent country in the Middle Ages, its influence in Finland — the Swedish language was one of the country’s official languages — continues to shape its modern identity. It comes as little surprise that Finland’s musical identity is equally in flux. The “shy Finn” stereotype extends to the outside world’s impression of the country. How can Finland compete on the global music scale when it has, for so long, been under the control of and shaped by other countries?
As a musician, Kin has fought against nöyrä. Many people told him that, while his music was “cool,” he should make it in Finnish, because no one would listen to English-language music in his country. Although Finnish should be his native tongue, the musician says he thinks and dreams in English. Kin speaks with a difficult-to-place accent that sounds vaguely American or Canadian. “I have this super-hybrid accent because my dad is Nigerian and my mom is Finnish,” Kin said. He attended a school that taught the students British English, but that “didn’t stick.” “It’s not strictly American, either. It’s just a hybrid of everything,” he said.
What might be construed as a disadvantage for a Finnish artist making music in Finland is an advantage for a Finnish artist trying to break through to global audiences. Very few Finnish artists have crossed over on a global scale, and the language barrier is a major component. But English is a global language, allowing artists of various cultural backgrounds to connect with the broader world, especially countries like Britain or the United States.
In an increasingly connected and globalized world, the next generation of music superstars will embrace the sounds and instincts of what works best for their artistry, regardless of their background. Artists are able to traverse global boundaries through an increasingly open music industry. Rather than be tied to predetermined styles and sounds, many artists have instead utilized sonic aesthetics, producers, and languages from outside their home countries. These artists are, in a sense, leaning into their individual instincts as artists, which allows them to reach beyond the previously inhibiting cultural boundaries.
“Artistic integrity, I think, is really important, for all artists in general who want to make a career that’s long-lasting and impactful for the scene or country or the time that it’s happening in,” Kin offered. “You can’t just cater to the time. You have to shape the time instead.” Kin’s English experiments might not make sense for other Finns, but they fall in line with his musical contemporaries, musicians like Justin Bieber or Drake, who experiment across genres and languages to massive global success.
Finland doesn’t lack a cultural identity. Anyone visiting Finland for the first time will likely be enamored by its beauty and design. Every thing has its place. The streets are clean and sharply drawn. Public transportation runs right on time and offers a bounty of options. It’s a country with a smart major city and an abundance of natural beauty (Finland is the least densely populated country in Europe), making it an ideal place to live. It is the country’s one-of-a-kind design sense — precise, perfected — that might be the key to its musical growth. Musicians who “break” outside their borders in 2017 and beyond should design their musicality, combining the bits and pieces to make something entirely new and beautiful.
Unlike some of his peers, Kin also experiments with different global genres of music. Specifically, his sound combines elements of abrasive EDM and hip-hop, two sounds that reflect the tastes of the global young millennial. “I sort of figured that I want to get to know all of it better before I take my own music in that direction, so that’s what I’ve been doing — a long research process to get behind what I was supposed to be doing and what I want to do,” Kin said.
It might be a risk—Finland is not necessarily known for its EDM superstars or its hip-hop community—but if an artist wants to grow outside their home borders, experimenting with genres from outside their native country makes sense. We’ve seen other artists slowly but successfully cross global lines, including grime artists like Stormzy and Skepta.
And Kin idolizes Kanye West, a genre-breaking musician who, more than 15 years after his arrival, has established artistry beyond the limitations others place on us. “[Kanye’s] just always like, if someone [tells] him [he] shouldn’t do it, then that’s what he does. And that’s something I find very much in common with myself,” Kin said. “I’ll just work on whatever I’m doing at the time, but if someone tells me there’s something I can’t do, I go out of my way to prove them wrong.”
Is it possible to spread Kin’s personal music outlook to the larger Finnish music scene? That remains to be seen. Embracing cultural change takes more than just one artist. For a country as far removed from the global pop scene as Finland, it may be more difficult than ever. However, it is not impossible. We’ve seen one-of-a-kind cultural provocateurs seemingly change the narrative surrounding their country overnight. An artist like Bjork, who’s from Iceland, comes to mind. Even now, her music is unlike anything else that can be found in Iceland or anywhere else. She was and is an artist who doubled down on her own instincts, rather than conforming to what was popular at the time or in her country.
On a smaller scale, Kin cites Alma, a 21-year-old Finnish artist who released her debut EP, Dye My Hair, last year. The English-language EP was a hit in Finland and featured a track of the same name, which eventually charted in other countries, including Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. Since the release of her EP, the singer has been featured in the global press, including The Guardian and Noisey. “I think someone has to sort of pierce that bubble first, like a spearhead in a way,” Kin said. “Alma really showed a lot of people in the pop scene that you can actually do that.”
And Kin, like Alma, is determined to be the next in line. “You have to be ready to make that leap. You have to be ready to believe in your own stuff, whether it be music or visual art or whatever,” said Kin. “You can’t trust on other people to take care of things for you or to speak on your behalf. You look for the opportunities where you can shine as who you are, instead of catering to a certain audience.”