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Donald Trump, A$AP Rocky, and the Folly of Hip-Hop Diplomacy

The strange case of a president, a rapper, a celebrity power couple, and the Swedish criminal justice system

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A$AP Rocky’s recent arrest and incarceration in Sweden made for a strange cause célèbre.

On June 30, Rocky—whose real name is Rakim Mayers—and members of his entourage encountered two young men while exiting a restaurant in Stockholm. The daytime encounter turned violent, and one of the men, 19-year-old Mustafa Jafari, alleged that Rocky and two of his associates, David Rispers Jr. and Bladimir Corniel, assaulted him and beat him. Footage of the incident available online provides a disjointed account of the altercation. Rocky claimed the two men followed his group, and that he and members of his entourage acted in self-defense. In an Instagram post on Rocky’s account depicting a portion of the incident, Rocky alternates between attempting to diffuse the encounter and addressing his followers. “We don’t want to fight y’all,” Rocky reassured Jafari, “we not tryna go to jail.”

Swedish police detained Rocky three days after the altercation, and prosecutors charged Rocky, Rispers Jr., and Corniel with assault on July 25. Now, there’s no shortage of scandalous headlines about young rappers, criminal charges, and court dates; G-Eazy was arrested in Stockholm a year ago and charged with cocaine possession and assault stemming from an incident at a local nightclub. Rocky’s case gained worldwide attention after Rocky’s partner, A$AP Ferg, posted on Instagram to publicize Rocky’s pretrial detention. “He’s in Sweeden [sic] locked up in solitary confinement with no visit or phone call privileges,” Ferg wrote in a caption. “They are trying to keep him there for 2 weeks and if convicted he will be looking at 6 years just for defending himself in a fight.” Ferg, who wasn’t involved in the altercation, perhaps exaggerated the humanitarian concerns about Rocky’s detainment. In Sweden, defendants are not granted bail, nor are they detained indefinitely. Rocky’s four-day trial concluded on Friday; he returned to the United States on Sunday pending the verdict, expected next week.

At home, Ferg helped rally attention to Rocky’s arrest by promoting a #FreeRocky hashtag, which spread online as several celebrities, including Kris Jenner, Shawn Mendes, and Jaden Smith, called attention to Rocky’s cause. Rocky’s fellow rappers Tyler, the Creator, ScHoolboy Q, and Lil Yachty pledged to boycott Sweden (where Rocky was performing in a music festival) until authorities released him. Rocky has supportive fans but, more importantly, Rocky has supportive celebrity peers. His most crucial allies would prove to be first lady Melania Trump, Kim Kardashian West, and Kanye West, who lobbied President Donald Trump. On July 25, Trump adopted the #FreeRocky hashtag, transforming Rocky’s legal ordeal into a diplomatic crisis. The president enthusiastically became Rocky’s most steadfast advocate. Trump called the Swedish prime minister, Stefan Löfven, to appeal on Rocky’s behalf; Löfven declined to undermine a criminal prosecution. Trump has since said he’s “very disappointed” in Löfven. “Give A$AP Rocky his FREEDOM,” Trump tweeted. “We do so much for Sweden but it doesn’t seem to work the other way around. Sweden should focus on its real crime problem! #FreeRocky.”

Trump’s concern-trolling about Sweden’s “real crime problem” marks only the beginning of the president’s political investment in A$AP Rocky. In petitioning for Rocky’s release, Trump means to appease black voters. “Sweden has let our African American Community down in the United States,” Trump tweeted. In a conversation with reporters in the Oval Office, Trump underscored the racial dynamic as he perceived it. “I personally don’t know A$AP Rocky,” Trump said, “but I can tell you he has tremendous support from the African American community in this country.” While he’s antagonized black politicians in recent weeks—most recently disparaging Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings and his congressional district in Baltimore County—Trump also hopes to cultivate support among black celebrities for his 2020 re-election campaign. Rocky has, in fact, aroused some activism among Democrats, too. New York Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a Congressional Black Caucus member and a prominent Trump opponent in Congress, has spent the past couple of weeks petitioning for Rocky’s release. But Trump is Rocky’s chief advocate. Rocky doesn’t embrace Trump as Kanye West has, and Rocky has yet to publicly acknowledge Trump’s support for his release; but Trump seems to believe his support for Rocky will, in any case, bolster his standing among young, black voters.

But Rocky falls awkwardly into the lineage of hashtag campaigns in support of incarcerated rappers: Lil Boosie, Max B, Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, and Meek Mill, among others. Fans often rally to support stars regardless of their alleged offense and the evidence against them. Typically, the celebrity’s guilt is somewhat beside the point so long as the celebrity embodies some crucial contribution to the genre or some larger political significance, or both. In Gucci Mane’s case, the hip-hop community identified a subgenre pioneer who overcame drug addiction in prison. In Meek Mill’s case, civil rights activists identified a young, underdog rapper who was the subject of unrelenting punishment for an 11-year-old gun possession charge, including an indefinite probation which restricted the rapper’s ability to record and tour for a living. The sentence seemed wildly disproportionate to the crimes Meek Mill was charged with, and his case became an example of how petty, pitiless, and arbitrary the U.S. criminal justice system could be. Meek Mill has become a celebrity spokesman for the civil rights movement. Rocky is a fashion model who played the ugly American abroad. He’s too aloof, too frivolous, too proudly detached for his case to resemble Meek Mill’s martyrdom or Gucci Mane’s rehabilitation.

In crucial ways, Rocky defies sympathy from the corners which supported Gucci Mane and Meek Mill. Rocky has described Black Lives Matter as “a bandwagon.” Four years ago, Rocky declared his intention to disregard “that fucked-up shit I see on TV” in his own music. “I don’t wanna talk about no fucking Ferguson,” Rocky told Time Out New York. “I live in fucking SoHo and Beverly Hills. I can’t relate.” Over a year later, Lil Wayne echoed Rocky’s pronouncements about Black Lives Matter: “I don’t feel connected to a damn thing that ain’t got nothing to do with me,” Wayne told Nightline. “I ain’t no fucking politician,” he added. Such attitudes complicate a rapper’s political significance, of course. Rocky’s entanglement in the Swedish criminal justice system doesn’t represent a larger, familiar story of injustice so much as it represents the peculiar form of justice advocated for by the Trump-West-Kardashian alliance, which helped free Alice Marie Johnson from an Alabama prison upon Trump’s granting her clemency last year.

The prosecutor in Rocky’s case recommended a six-month prison sentence if a guilty verdict is reached. Upon returning from Sweden to California, Rocky visited Kanye West at his weekly Sunday Service concert—a small, invite-only affair—in Calabasas, California, the gated Los Angeles community where so much of Trump’s civil rights concerns begin and end. Trump thinks he’s earned some goodwill among black voters who know A$AP Rocky better than the president does. But Rocky’s case, and his unconditional support from the president, underscored the great distance between Rocky, in Beverly Hills, and black people everywhere else.