With everyone from President Donald Trump to the Rev. Al Sharpton weighing in on rapper A$AP Rocky’s detention in Stockholm after his involvement in a street brawl there, this peculiar saga seemed tailor-made for summer’s silly season. But in Sweden it has also sparked debate about some serious issues – such as the nature of the country’s pre-trial detention system, which international institutions have criticized for decades, as well as how to debate racism and discrimination, matters that are particularly thorny following the country’s 2015 refugee crisis, after which it experienced a peak in immigration.
Imagine someone claiming just a few years ago that the following would happen – would you have believed it possible or would you have thought it seemed like the synopsis of an over-the-top comedy?
It’s 2019. A diplomatic crisis is unfolding between the U.S. and Sweden after a rapper’s arrest in Stockholm. Donald Trump is POTUS and, at the behest of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, accuses Sweden of racism, tweeting that the country has “let our African American community down.” The rapper is in custody after getting involved in a fight from which he and his crew tried to get away on electric scooters. He tells Swedish police that he goes by the nicknames “Rocky, A$AP Rocky and pretty motherf—er.”
The Swedish embassy is attacked in Washington, Al Sharpton demands visiting rights in the Stockholm jail, and a former U.S. ambassador to Sweden urges the royal family and the foreign minister to secure A$AP Rocky’s release. The White House sends its special envoy for hostage affairs to monitor the assault trial in Stockholm, and as the world awaits the verdict, A$AP Rocky says he’d be up for doing community service in Sweden. “I’m easy,” he tells the judge before being allowed to return to America, news that President Trump greets triumphantly on Twitter.
Stranger than fiction. But beyond the spectacular, international headline-grabbing details, in Sweden it wasn’t just A$AP Rocky and his two companions who were in the dock. [The three men were found guilty of assault by a Swedish court on Wednesday.] Instead, this story also came to serve as a kind of prism through which to view Swedish society and institutions.
For instance, Sweden’s system of detention meant the trio could be held in custody, with restrictions, for several weeks, since there’s no limit on how long a suspect can be held awaiting trial and there’s no system of bail. Now, commentators and legal experts in Sweden have welcomed the spotlight shone on the case, expressing hopes that it will help shape public opinion and encourage reform, something that decades of criticism from international institutions including the U.N. has failed to do.
Such criticism has challenged Sweden’s self-image as a shining beacon on the matter of rule of law. In 2016, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture stated that “despite 24 years of ongoing dialogue” with Swedish authorities, there are “no real signs of progress as regards the widespread imposition of restrictions on remand prisoners.”
Moreover, the A$AP Rocky case has triggered debate about racism and prejudice. While many U.S. politicians were quick to presume a bias against blacks by Swedish authorities, in Sweden the affair has not been framed in such terms. That’s because both the defendants and the alleged victim belong to groups that are often described as among the most vulnerable in today’s Sweden: blacks and unaccompanied Afghan migrant youths. (The man with whom A$AP Rocky tussled with on June 30 is Mustafa Jafari, a 19-year-old Afghan refugee.)
The debate about racism, power and privilege is heavily influenced by the theory of intersectionality, the idea that people can hold multiple identities and that multiple forms of discrimination can overlap to shape the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups. For progressive anti-racists who interpret social relations according to this framework, and who also tend to stand up for the party perceived as the most victimized, the A$AP Rocky case is arguably confusing. Commentators on the right, who were also vocal critics of the Swedish government’s recent decision to grant 9,000 Afghans asylum, have been quick to accuse leftists of passivity with regards to this case.
Yes, A$AP Rocky is a black man from an underprivileged background, but today he’s also a wealthy American celebrity who travels the world with an entourage. Yes, the young man and his friend who got beaten up were not destitute since they can apparently afford nice clothes, Bluetooth headphones and holidays abroad (one of the alleged victims told police he planned to attend his sister’s wedding in Iran). But the two men are young asylum seekers who belong to an Afghan minority in Iran. Intersectionally speaking, they are the more vulnerable party.
In fact, the affair highlights the limits of characterizing people as either victimized or privileged by virtue of their ethnicity and then judging their behavior accordingly. That clouds rather than clarifies reality. We’d do better coolly to consider the facts, which of course the Swedish court has tried to do during its deliberations.
While this whole affair holds all the hallmarks of an action-packed comedy, perhaps A$AP Rocky’s gift to Sweden will be to generate healthy debate on some serious matters. And if the rapper does return to do community service, well, that would be an ending fit for a Hollywood blockbuster.