Blackness, Norwegian Identity, and Nationality


A young woman leads chants in front of Norwegian parliament in a demonstration to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Oslo, Norway, June 5, 2020, (Shuttershock)

Speaking about his research, 2019 Holberg Laureate Paul Gilroy told the committee, “I am particularly engaged by the fate of people who have not themselves migrated, and who by virtue of being born in Europe, have had to pursue varieties of recognition and citizenship from which they have been excluded on the grounds that they are supposed to belong somewhere else.” Norwegian hip hop artists such as Pumba (Richard Edward Bravo) address Gilroy’s statement in their music. Born in Norway, Pumba is of Chilean-Peruvian descent.

Released in 2008, Pumba’s “Hvor jeg kommer fra” (“Where I come from”) came seven years after the racist murder of Benjamin Hermansen, a Ghanian-Norwegian fifteen year-old, in Holmlia in Oslo. Pumba’s song directly addresses issues of personal and national identity in Norway, and he wrote the song not just for himself but for countless others working through these identifications. Pumba told the government-owned broadcasting corporation NRK that “[h]e felt he had to write the song ‘Where I come from,’ because there are so many who experience the same thing. And many still get the same question: Where do you come from?”

Norway, a country of only 5.3 million people, has an immigrant population of about 800,094 as of March 2021. That is nearly 1/5 of the entire nation. A look at the demographic data from 2019 shows that two of the top ten countries with immigrants to Norway are African (Somalia and Eritrea), two are Middle Eastern (Syria and Iraq), and three of the top five are European (Sweden, Poland, and Lithuania), accounting for a large number of immigrant workers. These are the top ten countries for a variety of reasons that range from labor to asylum seekers.

The outward diversity of Norway, though, does not necessarily equal a completely egalitarian state. Even though about a fifth of Norway’s population is immigrant or the children of immigrants, the ruling government lacks diverse representation. Rune Berglund Steen commented in 2018, “Even Trump’s government has more people with minority ethnic backgrounds than the Norwegian [government].” Out of the sixty-eight ministers and secretaries that the new prime minister proposed that January, only two were from minority backgrounds, “State Secretary Anne Karin Olli, who is of indigenous Sami heritage, and German-born Rebekka Borsch.”

Along with all of this, there is the discussion of “ethnic Norwegians.” Cecelia Cutlre and Unn Røyneland discuss Pumba’s song and identity in Norway examining the term “ethnic Norwegian,” a phrase that “could make immigrants feel excluded and deprive them of the possibility of becoming Norwegian.” Cultre and Røyneland point out that individuals can move among ethnic and cultural fields, identifying themselves with more than one field, regardless of their origin. However, terms such as “ethnic Norwegian” deny individuals this fluid movement.

The Language Council of Norway (LCN), which is underneath the Ministry of Culture, did not see the need, in 2006, to change the term because “ethnic Norwegian” referred to people of Norwegian descent. They stated in an email to NRK,

We do not believe that there is a need to replace ‘ethnic Norwegian’ by another term. We believe it is incorrect to call people from other countries ‘Norwegians’ because ‘Norwegian’ by definition refers to someone of ethnic Norwegian descent. A Pakistani who settles in Norway does not become Norwegian, not even if he becomes a Norwegian citizen.

The Pakastani man could never be, according to the LCN, Norwegian. Instead, he would be “pakistaner med norsk statsborgerskap” (“Pakistani with Norwegian citizenship”) because he is not “ethnic Norwegian.” This reasoning, then, denies even children born in Norway the right to become fully Norwegian. These discussions stem from Norway’s history, specifically the “400 year night” under Danish rule where Norway was part of the Dano-Norwegian Realm. Since the mid-1800s, Norway has worked to construct its own national identity, apart from its former rulers such as Denmark and Sweden. As such, discussions of Norwegianess have constantly been in flux.

With all of this in mind, Pumba’s “Hvor jeg kommer fra,” addresses these issues of personal and national identity. Pumba lays out the problem from the outset of the song:

When we go to our homeland, we are Norwegian, proper too

And when I am here, I am Chilean, Peruvian, Black, you know

Where the f*** am I from?

What is Pumba’s and other’s “hjemlandet” (“homeland”)? It is not, from the framing of the sentence, Norway, even though they may have been born in Norway. Does “hjemlandet” just mean ancestral origin? No matter what the connotation, the point is that in Chile or Peru, individuals view Pumba as Norwegian. In Norway, people view him as Chilean, Peruvian, or Black. The movable ways that others identify him makes him ask, “Hvor faen er jeg ifra?” (“Where the f*** am I from?”)

Throughout the first verse, Pumba shows the malleability of his identity. He moves from assertions where he states he is Chilean, Peruvian, and Norwegian. Each forms part of his identity, and this mixture of ethnicities makes Pumba into a polyglott who can navigate multiple spaces: “Tenker på det ene språket, og snakker med det andre” (“I think in one language, and speak in another”). Pumba even tells the listener not to be surprised if he answers in Spanish. He concludes the first verse by rapping about Norway’s economic stability and opportunities, stating that people have a chance to make it.

The refrain, though, continues the questions about identity and place of origin.

People like me often ask where I come from

I don’t know, f***, but all I know is that I’m here today

My parents work hard for me here

Lived here all of my life and it is sometimes in doubt

Here, the questions of identity take center stage. Pumba states that he, along with others question where he comes from. Even with this assertion, though, the situation remains tenuous because while his parents have worked hard in Norway, their existence within the nation “er noen ganger i tvil” (“is sometimes in doubt”). This even occurs with celebrity athletes such as John Ertzgaard, a Norwegian-Kenyan sprinter. Writing to the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet about the use of the term “neger” (“negro”) in public discourse, Ertzgaard concludes by affirming, “I am not a neger from Toten, but a Norwegian-African!”

In the second verse, Pumba calls out the media for labeling him and those around him as criminals, and he bites back by rapping, “men vi har bygd opp oslo” (“But we have built up Oslo”) by driving the taxis, subway, and busses and by running vegetable and kebab shops. He continues by noting that immigrants are on tv, radio, and everywhere. Even with their visibility and contributions to Norwegian society, Black immigrants and others experience racism. Hkeem’s “Ghettoparasit” highlights this from the outset through the use of a quote from Erik Gjems-Onstad who stated, “Today it is mixed up with Pakistanis and Negroes. This is a culture come to Norway, which I mean we should not accept.”

Pumba ends the second verse by stating that he, along with everyone else he mentions, “er en del av landet” (“are part of the country”), adding to it with their food, culture, and beliefs. Ultimately, as Cultre and Røyneland point out, identity shifts and changes. We become part of different cultures through exchange. We experience different cultures through exchange. We can identify with different cultures through exchange. This is one of the things that makes life worth living, the coming together of cultures. When we get fanatical about distinguishing cultures, we isolate ourselves and cause individuals to question their own identity. This should never be the case. We should be proud of our cultures, but we should also seek to bring cultures together not sanction their separation causing people to ask, “Hvor faen er jeg ifra?”

Flexi Aukan, the son of a Chilean father and a Norwegian mother, explains this tension when he states, “Folk spør “hvor kommer du fra?”. Jeg svarer at jeg er fra Hauketo, Holmlia, Oslo sør, Søndre. Jeg svarer ikke “Norge”, jeg har alltid sett på meg selv som mer utlending enn norsk.” (People ask, “Where do you come from?” I answer, that I am from Hauketo, Holmlia, Oslo south, Søndre. I don’t answer, “Norway.” I have always looked at myself as more of a foreigner than a Norwegian.”) Flexi refers to himself as “utelendinger” (“foreigner”) and this appears on the shirts that people hold up in the video for “Hvor jeg kommer fra.” Flexi, like Pumba and other children of immigrants, identify first and foremost with their neighborhood, then possibly with their cultural ancestry, and finally with their Norwegian identity.

Even though they were born in Norway, Pumba, Flexi, Hkeem, and others “have been excluded on the grounds that they are supposed to belong somewhere else.” This exclusion, through terms such as “ethnic Norwegian” and the continued use of derogatory language in public discourse, works to position individuals as outsiders, as threats to a supposed pure ethnic ancestry. Terms such as this, as Gilroy points out, “have fed the monsters of nationalism and let them off the leash,” stoking fears within people “that must be overcome.”


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Matthew Teutsch

Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest's run on Black Panther. Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.