A voice for justice – Meet Sofia Jannok
Many actors have taken up good causes and used their influence to help others once they’ve become sufficiently well-known, but Sofia Jannok’s case is different. Helping her people has been a way of life for as long as she can remember. Her career has merely given her the opportunity to reach a much wider audience.
Job: Singer, actor, agitator for indigenous rights
Lives: Umeå and Leaibbik in Luokta-Mávas Sami reindeer community, Sweden
Current projects: Summer festivals Peace & Love, Urkult and Storsjöyran, acting role in the French-Swedish TV series Midnight Sun
On the screen, Jannok played the part of The Noaidi (or wise teacher in Sami mythology) in the TV series Midnight Sun, while her life was documented by national broadcaster SVT last year in The World’s Sofia Jannok. Her long music career, with songs protesting about how Swedish society constantly persecutes the Sami people and denies them their rights, has reached far beyond Sweden’s borders.
“This is my Land” is a good example. She opens the song – a paean to the Arctic landscape and to Sápmi, the land of the Sami people – by quoting Hans Forsell, the lawyer who represented the Swedish government against the Sami reindeer herding community of Girjas a few years ago. During the case, over the ownership of rights to manage small game hunting and fishing in the grazing area of the Sami reindeer-herding community, Forsell questioned the ethnicity of Sami, referring to them as a “concept.” He said it was “contentious” that the Sami were an indigenous people, even though it is written in the Swedish constitution.
“When that lawyer said that my people had not lived in Sápmi historically, despite the fact that we were sitting there in court as living proof of the existence of our ancestors, I dissolved in tears. He was speaking on behalf of the government, and their position is very clear. It’s undeniable,” Jannok says.
“Why should I have to accept a rewriting of history? I was angry and frustrated, combined with feelings of love for our surroundings. I am singing for the future, that we will still be here.”
Her love for her homeland and determination to speak out date back to her childhood.
“It comes naturally, if, like me, you have grown up in a core Sami area, where both your parents are Sami and you have many politically and artistically active relatives. For me, it’s more normal to speak out than to hold my tongue. I think everyone has a responsibility to try to make the world a better place.”
In Midnight Sun, the Sami people experience overt racism. How true to life is that picture?
“It’s very true,” Jannok says. “We get called bloody Lapps. I went to a Sami school as a young child and started at a Swedish school when I was 13. My classmates didn’t know anything about Sami people so I had to explain. Then, the prejudices emerged. Someone said ‘How can you be a Sami, they are all dark skinned.’ Strange, I thought, as you could see I was blonde. But there were far worse prejudices than that.”
She started singing as an 11-year-old and still describes herself as an artist, rather than an activist. Meanwhile, another label pinned on her is “role model.”
“I am honored if I am, but I don’t want to take any credit away from the earlier generations. I infuse my songs with passion, which some call politics, but it’s about my life.”
Her lyrics, meanwhile, mix yoik with Swedish and English.
“No one in my family had kept yoiking alive. I learned it from other teachers. I’ve tried to track down my great grandmother’s collections. She sang them a lot when she was young, before it was banned.”
Jannok released her first album in 2006 and has released a further three since, most recently in 2016. Along with touring Scandinavia and many other countries around the world with her band, traveling to meet representatives of indigenous people has become something of a necessity for her, too. Over the past year, she has been to North America several times, where she demonstrated with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe against a proposed oil pipeline planned to run through their sacred grounds.
“Standing side by side with those affected was absolutely fantastic, an emotional journey,” she says.
“I have met many indigenous people, often at festivals and in their homes. I have felt at home everywhere I’ve been, it’s wonderful. It’s rare for me to feel we are in the majority. In Sweden, I’m often labeled as controversial, but there [Standing Rock], it was great to see so many people fighting for the same cause, fighting the same colonization.”
It could be said that the Standing Rock demonstration was a great victory, but then when Donald Trump took power, he gave his approval to the pipeline.
“I’m worried about what will happen with Trump. From an indigenous perspective, breaking promises made to the indigenous people is nothing new. Here in Sweden, no government has ever ended colonization. Yet, we are standing firm. As my mother always says, ‘as long as reindeer live and water is fresh, we will live.’ That’s why we protect nature, it’s about protecting ourselves.”
Although Jannok’s various responsibilities have taken her all around the world, home – Leaibbik in Luokta-Mávas Sami reindeer community, a five-hour drive from Umeå, Sweden – is still very much where her heart is. She has tried to live in both Stockholm and Gothenburg, but neither worked out.
“I couldn’t stand November there – it was so dark without snow. Umeå is a bit in-between, a good balance between town and country. Umeå also has a northern climate, which means I feel less homesick. They do have winter here, although it’s milder than at home. I do enjoy city life as well.”
Feeling at home for Jannok means taking part in traditional activities such as reindeer calf marking and fishing, which were caught on camera during the TV series The World’s Sofia Jannok.
“Everyone always tries to join in. It is a key part of being a family and everyone is involved. We move reindeer herds and mark calves. That takes a lot of people. It’s beautiful teamwork. And I like being there as me, rather than needing to be there as a Sami.”
Teamwork is a recurring theme in Jannok’s life, both in and away from work.
“She is a person who makes work fun. She brings plenty of energy and feedback to keep you on your toes and likes to celebrate success together,” her agent Lisel Naeslund says.
“She is a very aware artist who revels in leveraging her artistry and celebrity status to influence the world. We have lots of fun together and have many interests and values in common.”
One of the ways Jannok hopes to use her growing influence is by helping people appreciate the folly of wasting natural resources.
“The politicians think that wealth is a matter of chopping down all the forests and killing all living things. But what’s important is that the natural kingdom should be managed without depleting it. Things are pure and clean up here in the far north; it’s nature we need to protect. All this is home. The lifestyle and philosophy – that’s home.”
Text: Gunnar Rehlin