The Arctic country of Greenland is one of the world's sparsest and most remote, but despite that, the country has had success in building unique culture.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: What does your pop culture look like when there's not a lot of modern culture to pop? This is an interesting challenge in a lot of ways for the world's most-sparsely-populated country, Greenland. With a population of less than 60,000 and a land area larger than Mexico, Indonesia, France, or Germany—though with nearly all of that area covered in a giant block of ice—Greenland is most definitely a region where creating a unique, modern culture can be a bit of a challenge. It's a country where the largest city, Nuuk, would be considered a small town in any other large country. And with those limitations in mind, Greenland's pop culture makes for a perfectly cromulent topic for this issue of Tedium. — Ernie @ Tedium


The number of albums released in Greenland each year, according to the country's official website. A success for a band in the country is an album that sells around 5,000 units locally, which means that you have to sell one album for roughly every 12 residents of Greenland. If you were to sell a proportional level of units in the United States (where tens of thousands of albums get released yearly, by the way), you would need to move 25 million units—something only one musician, Michael Jackson, has done in the U.S. alone.

Sume rock band

Greenland's greatest rock band singlehandedly brought rock 'n' roll (and revolution) to the island

If you were a music fan living in Greenland in the 1970s, you most assuredly owned a copy of Sumé's Sumut. The record was revolutionary for a number of reasons. For one thing, it was a rock album in Greenland, sung in Greenlandic rather than Danish or English.

And it emphasized a message of freedom and sovereignty in an area that was treated as a second-class citizen to Denmark, which had colonized the region in the 1800s—taking over from Norway, which had colonized the land six centuries prior. The album was a huge success—and a quietly political record.

Sumut album cover

The record's politics start with the cover art for Sumut, which depicts the violent struggle between a legendary figure in Greenlandic culture named Qasapi and a Norse chief named Uunngortoq. The basic story of the battle between the mythic characters can be read in Google Books, but the long and short of it is that Qasapi won handily. (The man who created the artwork is equally legendary in Greenlandic culture, by the way; Aron of Kangeq was a 19th-century Inuit who went from being a seal hunter to the country's best-known artist, thanks to a cultural reassessment of his work during the 1960s.)

Also highlighting the politics of the record is the label it was released on. Demos, the Danish publishing arm of the anti-war Danish Vietnam Committees, released the album essentially as a way of taking a stance against imperialism. Denmark's control of Greenland was pretty much as imperialistic as you could get.

But when it comes down to it, the most political thing about Sumut was the fact that Sumé was singing songs in Greenlandic. It was the band's way of showing off some native cultural identity when Greenland was in severe danger of becoming culturally assimilated as a part of Denmark—a strategy that Denmark began to encourage after World War II by offering Greenlanders Danish citizenship and taking a more active role in the country's affairs.

(The assimilation is interesting to note when looking specifically looking in geographic terms, by the way. Nuuk is closer to Toronto than it is to Copenhagen, and the region's Inuit background clearly creates cultural ties between the island and northern Canada. However, it's challenging even now to travel to Greenland without going through Iceland or Copenhagen first, meaning it's easier to head to Greenland through Europe than through North America.)

Sumut however, showed a new path for Greenland that allowed the country to build its own cultural identity—keeping the traditional drum patterns and the native language—while embracing modern trends like the then-prevalent progressive rock that was popular in Europe and the United States.

That music, implicitly critical of the Danish government, quickly became associated with an independence movement in Greenland, one that saw success just a few years later. In 1979, Greenland was given a degree of home rule, allowing the country to start its own parliament and control over some internal policies. That home rule has expanded ever since and is expected to turn into full independence at some point.

Sumé, as a band, didn't last nearly that long, breaking up in 1977 after three albums. But their legacy long outlasted the band itself. In 2014, the band was the subject of a documentary, Sumé: The Sound of a Revolution, which makes the case that Sumé started the home-rule conversation in the country.

"Among other issues, Sumé's lyrics put [feelings] of alienation, loss of direction, and the reestablishment of own self-esteem into words and questioned people's indignation towards authority," director Inuk Silis Høegh said of the band's importance to Greenland. "I think all of those issues are just as much in play today as they were 40 years ago."

That's a pretty good way to sell a rock record, don't you think? Good news for you: The full album is available on YouTube.

"The cap is in place so that heavy users do not monopolize the network to the detriment of others. These practices also allow TELE Greenland to recover extremely high capital and operating costs to build and maintain networks. To be sure, users who want to stream video can pay for a package with a higher speed and data cap."

— The American Enterprise Institute's Roslyn Layton, discussing how Greenland's internet access relies on the aggressive use of data caps in an effort to ensure that access is available to everyone. AEI (which, it should be noted, is opposed to net neutrality) says that such a system, which basically forces people to pay for higher levels of bandwidth, helps to ensure that network offerings meant to benefit the public good go above those (like Netflix) that benefit just a few.

Five of Greenland's most popular musical acts

  1. Nuuk has a posse, and that posse is pretty much the country's greatest gift to hip-hop. Active since the 1980s, Nuuk Posse has built a reputation for socially-conscious (and good) music, and the group—made up of Inuits, the largest population sector in the country—has managed to remain relevant in the country for decades.
  2. Also from Nuuk but mostly based out of Copenhagen these days is Chilly Friday, a band with more of a grunge sound. Don't believe me? Compare this Bush song to this Chilly Friday song.
  3. Perhaps the most popular act in Greenland these days is Nanook, an indie pop band, led by a duo of brothers, that has an acoustic-driven sound comparable to early Coldplay. The band comes from a musical family, one that runs one of the largest record labels in the country, Atlantic Music. (No, not that one, the other one.)
  4. Slightly easier for non-Greenlanders to get into is the Qaqortoq-based Small Time Giants, an alternative rock band from the country that mostly sings in English. While there is some heart-on-sleeve stuff in their songs, it's hard to miss the political messages in like "3-9-6-0." Sample lyric: "We sold all we had at the end of the rainbow/we lost all we had when the sun set."
  5. Greenland doesn't have its own version of American Idol or anything like that, which makes it one of those times that having ties to a European country comes in handy. Julie Berthelsen, a pop star in Denmark whose voice throws shades of Kelly Clarkson, grew up in Nuuk and found major success after being featured on the Danish edition of PopStars. She didn't win, but she became famous anyway.

"Natural performances from the native Greenlanders help anchor the film, while the amazing landscapes provide a rich backdrop for this lushly photographed odyssey. Technically, the film leaves nothing to be desired."

Variety reviewer David Stratton, offering a blunt-but-thoughtful critical assessment of Heart of Light, the 1998 film that represents the first piece of Greenlandic cinema that was shot completely on the island. The film stars Rasmus Lyberth, a well-known musician from Greenland who plays an alcoholic in the film. The film industry, working from this starting point, has since produced dozens of films (including the Sumé documentary mentioned above), leading to Greenland Eyes, a traveling film festival that went to numerous countries between 2012 and 2015—including the United States.

Befitting Greenland's role as an outsider nation, the island tends to be the subject of a lot of outside-in cultural depictions, rather than the other way around. But too often, these depictions fail to actually tie in the native culture, instead overplaying the whole icy, remote element of the country.

Most famously, Happy Days lead Richie Cunningham joined the army and found himself stationed in Greenland for two seasons—conveniently, allowing Ron Howard to leave the show to become a director. Despite this remote assignment, he still managed to marry his girlfriend Lori Beth and have a kid with her. (No word on if Richie partook in the local culture while he was there.)

And Greenland isn't an unusual setting for video games. For example, the PC-based game series Penumbra largely takes place in Greenland, using the remote location to play up the horror elements of the game. The Playstation game Wipeout, meanwhile, used Greenland as a setting for some of its races.

More recently, Animal Planet pointed out the fact that there's gold and other noteworthy minerals in the glaciers, launching a series called Ice Cold Gold a couple years ago.

But the most depressing emphasis of Greenland as a nation that's only good for ice and cold is yet to come. Syfy is currently working to produce 51st State, a series that imagines Greenland being purchased by the United States and turned into a giant prison for all of its extra inmates.

There may only be less than 60,000 people there, but could we perhaps do a better job representing their pop culture in our pop culture?

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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