The World

Sweden vs. ASAP Rocky

The rapper has unwittingly stumbled into a bitter debate over race, crime, immigration, and the future of the country’s famed welfare state.

A man displays posters advocating for ASAP Rocky's release.
A man displays posters advocating for ASAP Rocky’s release, in Stockholm on Thursday.
Frederik Persson/AFP/Getty Images

ASAP Rocky has landed in the middle of a much larger tussle than the one he had with 19-year-old Mustafa Jafari after his concert in Stockholm on June 30. After being formally charged with assault on Thursday, Rocky will remain in custody until his trial begins next week. The rapper’s arrest and detention—and President Donald Trump’s Kanye West–inspired efforts to secure his release from custody—come at a critical time in Sweden, a moment when the right-wing Sweden Democrats are effectively using social disorder and street crime to challenge the underpinnings of the welfare state. Almost every week, the party posts new stories about rising violence caused by immigrants from Africa and the Middle East who are terrorizing native-born Swedes, headlines that have begun to prompt eerily familiar slogans like “Skicka hem dem” or “Send them home,” a sentiment that seems to have gained traction thanks to Trump.

While this doesn’t apply to Rocky personally, who would probably love nothing more right now than to go home, the larger question of law enforcement has become central to Swedish politics. This is true of murder—which is rare—but also low-level assaults like this one, crimes that might not rouse Americans but do rattle Swedes. Sexual assault has also garnered a lot of attention in Sweden, as have assaults on senior citizens and children. Just this summer, for example, stories of youth gangs attacking children in the small town of Grums made the news, as did a series of other anecdotal incidents that have dramatically increased the degree to which Swedes feel unsafe, whether or not those fears are actually supported by statistical increases in crime.

Particularly panicking has been talk of gängkriminalitet, or street gangs, who have been linked to burglaries, shootings, and, believe it or not, hand grenade attacks. From 2011–18, for example, a total of 116 grenade detonations were reported in Sweden, often directed at private individuals or police. In a country where handguns are scarce, this may sound odd, though the types of weapons showing up on Swedish streets seem to be related to the country’s proximity to eastern Europe, particularly the Balkan states; lax laws regarding explosives; and foreign-born nationals who have experience with such weapons.

The question of immigrants and crime is a sensitive one in Sweden, not only because Sweden prides itself as a “humanitarian superpower” that has admitted large numbers of refugees from war-torn countries, but also because it is deeply committed to integrating immigrants into Swedish life, not vilifying them. In 2017, for example, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven refused to update statistics on the countries of origin of criminal offenders, in a bid to fend off charges that a majority of crimes were being committed by immigrants. Instead, Löfven has consistently stressed the vibrant diversity that immigrants bring to Sweden, meanwhile lobbying for increased social programs to address problems of alienation and unemployment in immigrant communities.

It’s worth pointing out that, even at its worst, crime in Sweden is startlingly low, particularly compared with the United States, where the homicide rate in St. Louis alone is consistently twice that of the entire Swedish nation. However, the idea that Sweden is a socialist Utopia has begun to lose some of its glimmer. This summer, for example, Löfven’s optimism met stiff resistance at Almedalen, a popular conference where the nation’s political leaders gather ever year to discuss policy. Moderate Party spokesperson Elisabeth Svantesson declared forthrightly that gang activity is directly related to immigration and that the question of immigration is linked to a larger failure on the part of the Swedish state to integrate immigrants into Swedish life. Citing integration’s link to security, Svantesson stressed the need to improve instruction in the Swedish language, which she argued all immigrants should learn.

Calls for the cultural assimilation of immigrants are on the rise, and are also sparking resistance. For example, one of the most popular artists in Sweden at the moment is Erik “Eboi” Lundin, the son of a Swedish mother and Gambian father who happens to be a spokesman for the diversification of the Swedish language. Lundin incorporates words and phrases from a variety of languages into his music—so much so that he included a glossary with his last EP so that native-born Swedes could understand his lyrics. Not anti-Sweden by any means, Lundin belongs to a larger youth movement—euphemistically known as “Third Culture Kids”—which is actively working to transform and, as it would say, modernize Swedish culture.

How does the diversification of Swedish culture fit in with the current political trend toward assimilation? The answer is complicated, but seems, again, to implicate ASAP Rocky. Though Rocky’s music is singularly American, his art form—hip-hop and rap—is, in the Swedish cultural context, decidedly Third Culture, i.e., an art form that Swedish immigrant youth have embraced. For older Swedes who grew up on ABBA and Roxette, hip-hop’s popularity is unsettling, particularly since young immigrant rap stars have no qualms about criticizing conservative assimilationists. No better example of this exists than Silvana Imam, a Lithuanian-Syrian-Swedish rapper who belongs—along with Eboi—to a hip-hop collective known as RMH. Like Lundin, Imam has embraced politics, singling out for attack the rise of the right-wing Sweden Democrats party, whose motto “Keep Sweden Swedish” reminds her of Nazis.

Of course, the Sweden Democrats are unfazed by such charges, pushing instead to use the failure of immigrant integration, and the rise of immigrant crime, as a ploy for dismantling the welfare state. The strategy is mildly reminiscent of Reagan-era attacks on “welfare queens” and George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” campaign. It has proved effective enough to push Sweden’s biggest party, Löfven’s Social Democrats, to make law enforcement a central part of its platform. Just this summer at Almedalen, the Social Democrats announced a plan to hire 10,000 new police by 2024 and also increase penalties for violent crimes, particularly gang-related crimes.

The stakes in this debate are high. If the Social Democrats do not get a handle on crime, they face losing support in the Riksdag, which means trouble for their larger platform of policies that subsidize the Swedish welfare state. Such policies, argue the Sweden Democrats, are bankrupting the country, burdening tax payers, and disproportionately benefiting ungrateful immigrants who then launch violent attacks on Swedish women, children, and senior citizens.

So long as the population was overwhelmingly blond and blue-eyed, conservatives found it difficult to undermine support for the high tax rates that subsidized the welfare state. Now, with higher immigration rates and increased diversity, Swedes may be starting to lose their sense of collective social responsibility.

The upshot is that Sweden risks going down the same road that the United States did in the 1990s, when Democrats like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden outflanked Republicans on crime control, calling for more prisons and police precisely because they needed to do so in order to preserve their more progressive agendas.

This won’t stop American efforts to bring ASAP Rocky home, nor should it, but it may give Swedish officials—on the right and the left—pause before releasing him.