For folks living outside of Norway, the country conjures up images of well-to-do white people eating smoked fish and living large off state oil funds. But amid the sea of blonds that color foreign conceptions of the country live Sikhs and Vietnamese, Pakistanis and Poles, and a thriving community of African immigrants. By winning the right to represent the country at Eurovision 2011, Kenyan-born Stella Mwangi is proving they're a part of Norway, too.
Stella sees Eurovision as more than a vehicle to celebrity. The daughter of political refugees who dared to challenge Kenya's President Moi in the 1980s, she sobbed hysterically at the national final as the votes rolled in from all those pasty Norwegians. "It's like I'd had this baby inside my stomach. And then when I saw all the votes I realized it's finally happening... I had to cry, and I couldn't stop it," she told me in a recent interview. "There were days when if you were Norwegian you had to look like this or talk like this. Norway proved those days are over."
Sung in English and Swahili, her song is built around the Swahili expression "haba, haba, hujaza kibaba," which translates as "little by little fills up the measure." Largely autobiographical, the lyrics speak to the challenges of immigration, and the spoils of optimism and hard work.
In the official video, the clichéd journey of a million miles begins in an edgy dress crafted from orange loofahs. Stella leads a motley crew of Norwegians--a marching band, a man in leather pants, a punk, basketball players, and scores of her girlfriends--on a march toward the sea, all the while re-iterating her feel-good message.
When I's a little girl my grandma told me/ That I could be just anything that I wanted to/ She said that/ Everything I work for/ Everything I wish for/ Everything I look for it is right in front of me
Little by little, fills up the measure/ Don't ever give up, keep on moving/ Little by little, fills up the measure/ Don't ever give up, keep on moving
It's a message Stella took to heart early in life. Despite growing up in tiny Eidsvoll, Norway, she transformed herself into a pioneer of Norwegian hip-hop. "I just started seeing what I had written in my diary and tried to put a rhythm to it," she says. "I was just a little shy girl, but when I started doing hip-hop I felt more complete. I felt that I wasn't scared any more." In the process of becoming one of the country's most famous rappers, she's proven that rap inspiration doesn't have to stem from deprivation, and that towering swagger doesn't need to define the genre. Gangster rap isn't on her radar: "I grew up in Eidsvoll in Norway so I don't do that!"
Among this year's entries, "Haba Haba" stands out as an instant hit, a catchy summer anthem that will likely climb the charts regardless of how it fares in the competition. Evidence from iTunes seems to confirm this. On February 15, Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" was #1 in 22 of the 23 countries on iTunes' international music charts. But in Norway, the only country where "Haba Haba" had been released, Stella kept Gaga from the top spot. Commercial success, of course, does not guarantee a victory. (Britain's Gina G managed to peak at #12 in the United States with her Eurovision song "Ooh Aah...Just a Little Bit," but she only finished 8th at Eurovision).
Stella competes in the first semi-final on May 10. Earlier in the spring bookies pegged her as a front-runner, and suggested that Hungary and Azerbaijan offered the only real challenges. But her odds have widened since then, and bookies now have her down as fifth most likely to win her semi-final. It's difficult to gauge why the bookies have gone cold. As a rapper, Stella has admitted that she's had to work on her vocals. She's also faced criticism that she merely talks during much of the song. Do bookies worry that "Haba Haba" lacks the musicality needed to win? Or are they fearful that all the early hype has left voters with Norway fatigue?
In either case, Stella will breeze through to the finals. There, her unique sound should earn her a Top 10 finish, especially if last year is anything to go by. In 2010 France's Jessy Matador, another African immigrant, finished 12th with a similarly upbeat dance number that took Eurovision outside of Europe. Stella's act features less overt sexuality, and will therefore appeal to a wider range of European voters.