“We don’t want to fight y’all. We’re not trying to go to jail.”
That’s what A$AP Rocky, the 30-year-old New York City rapper, can be heard saying in a video of an encounter with strangers in Sweden that has ballooned into an international crisis. Despite Rocky’s protestation, a fight did happen. The rapper is now in jail. His saga has inflamed American pop culture and politics—and somehow brought left-leaning figures and Donald Trump–supporting nationalists to advocate for the same goal: Rocky’s release.
In two videos that Rocky posted on Instagram, two unidentified young men follow and annoy Rocky and his team around Stockholm. At one point, one of the guys appears to throw headphones at Rocky’s bodyguard. Rocky and his bodyguard repeatedly ask them to go away. The men keep tailing the rapper’s entourage; they repeatedly ask for their headphones back. A woman comes up to Rocky’s group and says that one of the men “slapped my ass and my girlfriend’s ass.” The footage cuts out.
Another video that’s been posted online shows Rocky and his associates throwing one of the men to the ground and beating him. Swedish prosecutors say CCTV footage demonstrates that Rocky’s crew “punched, kicked, and struck [the teenage Mustafa Jafari] with a glass bottle in an attack that lasted several minutes.” Rocky has been in Swedish detention since July 5, and on July 25 prosecutors charged him and two other men with assault; he says he’s innocent and acted only in self-defense. The trial begins Tuesday. Rocky could get up to two years in prison, and his lawyer argued in court that he’s already lost at least $1 million from canceled tour dates.
The case is murky: Why were those men following Rocky around? What precipitated the fight itself? The process has been murky, too. Sources connected to Rocky say that he is being held in unsanitary and inhumane conditions; Swedish prison officials have highlighted the amenities and cleanliness of their detention facilities. In any case, Rocky has become a rallying cause—though the underlying grievance varies depending, on the person rallying. Entertainers and liberal politicians have weighed in on the situation, and so has Trump. Meanwhile, the Swedish legal and political establishments have rejected American attempts to influence their justice system.
At a moment of heightened public awareness about the overpolicing of people of color—and with famous rappers such as Meek Mill emerging from years-long, career-damaging legal morasses—Rocky’s case brings with it, for many, a nauseating feeling of familiarity. Though he was only charged on Thursday, the rapper has been in detention for weeks because a judge ruled him a flight risk. By contrast, when the white rapper G-Eazy was arrested in Sweden last year for assaulting an officer, violent resistance, and illegal drug possession, he was able to plead guilty and go free within two days. G-Eazy wrote on Instagram, “The difference between me and Rocky’s treatment and process in Sweden brings to mind two concepts that disgustingly go hand in hand: white privilege and systemic racism.” Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Snoop Dogg, and other artists have posted messages saying #JusticeForRocky or #FreeRocky, and four House Democrats held a press conference on his behalf.
The cause célèbre escalated to another plane, however, when Kim Kardashian called the White House adviser Jared Kushner to talk with him about the situation. Kushner spoke with Trump, and so did Kardashian’s husband, Kanye West. Trump in turn called Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, who, Trump then tweeted, “assured me that American citizen A$AP Rocky will be treated fairly. Likewise, I assured him that A$AP was not a flight risk and offered to personally vouch for his bail, or an alternative.” (There is no bail in Sweden’s legal system.) Trump has also tasked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with working toward Rocky’s release.
It sounds like a game of celebrity Mad Libs: Kim Kardashian and Kanye West ask President Donald Trump to prod the Swedish prime minister about A$AP Rocky. But there’s some precedent for these players to be involved in this way. Rocky is not just a hit musician, but also a well-connected celebrity who’s close with West and the Kardashians. Moreover, Kim Kardashian has made the fight against unjust incarceration her signature political issue. In 2018, she successfully lobbied Trump to grant clemency to a first-time drug offender with a life sentence. After Congress passed the First Step prison-reform act, she and a legal team from the advocacy group #cut50—which is coaching her to eventually take the bar exam—provided assistance to a number of inmates who sought reduced sentences under the new law. West has spoken out about racism and incarceration, too, and is famously chummy with Trump.
For his part, the president has discussed the A$AP Rocky case not in terms of justice, but in terms of tribalism and nationalism. Previously, he’d spun his every move on incarceration reform, as well as his alliance with West, as overtures to black voters. He clearly wants his advocacy for Rocky to be seen in the same way. “I personally don’t know A$AP Rocky, but I can tell you he has tremendous support from the African American community in this country,” he said to reporters. On Twitter he wrote, “Sweden has let our African American Community down in the United States.”
Trump has also used the Rocky case to score points on another issue of concern to him: immigration. “Sweden should focus on its real crime problem!” he tweeted on Thursday, alluding to—and amplifying—the conservative argument that Sweden’s tolerance of migrants has compromised its peace and order. At a 2017 rally, for example, Trump referenced a nonexistent terror attack in Sweden; that same year, the country’s migration minister said, “The next time, I hope the president, if he’s going to speak about Sweden, is better informed about what the conditions really are here.” Now right-wing pundits such as Mike Cernovich and CJ Pearson are drawing attention to reports that Jafari, Rocky’s alleged victim, is an Afghan immigrant with prior drug convictions and has been released from custody.
Perhaps addressing both sides of the American protests—the Rocky supporters alleging racism and the Trump supporters alleging reckless immigration policies—Sweden’s U.S. ambassador, Karin Olofsdotter, tweeted, “Under Swedish law, every person has the right to a free and fair legal process regardless of ethnic background, wealth and religious affiliation.” Rocky’s Swedish lawyer, Slobodan Jovicic, dismissed the idea that his client was being subjected to racism, telling reporters, “I don’t see that angle at all.” The main point the Swedish representatives have tried to make, though, is that the protests of Americans regarding Rocky’s situation should be of no consequence. Summarizing Trump’s call with Löfven, the prime minister’s press secretary said that Löfven “made certain to emphasize the complete independence of the Swedish judicial system” and that “the government cannot and will not attempt to influence the legal proceedings.”