what A$AP rocky's arrest tells us about performative activism
Updated: Feb 28, 2020
Staff writer Kaila Cherry explores what A$AP Rocky's arrest brought out online and in media: performative ally-ship, activism, and faux-social consciousness.
If you've been on social media within the last month, you've likely seen reports that prominent rapper A$AP Rocky was arrested and detained in Sweden following an altercation between the rapper, his entourage, and a stranger on the street. The story quickly took off, first capturing the attention of Rocky’s fans and friends who all took to Twitter to share their discontent over the rapper’s arrest. The situation escalated further when President Donald Trump tweeted the hashtag #FreeRocky two weeks into the rapper’s detainment. He then went on to release a series of tweets that called upon the Swedish government to “grant Rocky his FREEDOM,” to focus on their “real crime problem” and accused the country of "...letting the African American Community down in the United States.” Although Rocky was released from Swedish custody on August 2nd, no verdict has been determined yet, as the investigation is still ongoing. With all the commotion and rumors surrounding the detainment of the rapper, several questions remain- what actually happened that day in Stockholm? What conditions did he face during his detainment? How did Donald Trump get involved? And lastly, what does this say about our current political climate? It’s time to take a look past the memes and the jokes and delve into the details of the debacle.
PART 1: The Altercation
On June 30th, A$AP Rocky (given name Rakim Mayers) was in Stockholm, Sweden on the European leg of his Injured Generation tour, serving as the headlining act for a local summer music festival, Smash x Stadion. Days before his performance, Rocky was arrested by Swedish law enforcement over his involvement in an altercation on the street with a stranger. When the story first broke, several rumors spread immediately over what caused the incident in the first place; however, the order of events specifies that an unidentified man approached Rocky and his team— according to Rocky, the man had appeared "hostile." According to the man, he asked the group if they had seen a friend he was looking for and they immediately told him to go away without offering help; as tension built between the group and the man, it's unclear as to who made the first hit. According to Rocky, the man hit his bodyguard on the back of his head with a pair of headphones, which broke with the impact. However, according to the man, his headphones broke after Rocky’s bodyguard picked him up and slammed him to the ground. Once on the ground, the man was beaten, kicked, and cut with shards of glass from broken bottles. Once the fight had begun, people pulled out their phones to take video of the incident.
Some believed the fight occurred because the man who was assaulted groped two women. In this narrative, Rocky and his entourage are seen as heroic figures, using violence in this context as a protective force; however, that version of the story quickly faded, with Rocky's team suggesting that the rapper and his entourage acted in self defense, as the stranger in question followed the group and refused to leave them alone, even after being verbally warned and threatened with violence. This is the narrative Rocky communicated to the public on his Instagram page two days after the altercation. He posted a video regarding the incident, which shows him beating an unidentified man with his security team. In the caption, he wrote “HITS SECURITY IN THE FACE WITH HEADPHONES THEN FOLLOW US.” After completing his set at the festival later that night, Rocky was officially detained by Swedish law enforcement.
PART 2: Rocky’s Detainment + Trial
On July 5th, six days after the altercation and three days in custody, the Swedish court determined Rocky to be a flight risk and stated that he would be detained in the country for another two weeks while the investigation continued. The rapper was sent to Kronoberg remand prison while he awaited trial. On July 9th, TMZ reported from an undisclosed source that Rocky was being held in “inhumane conditions.” These conditions alleged that Rocky was sleeping on a yoga mat, not provided with meals (some claimed he was only eating an apple a day), limited phone calls, solitary confinement, and having a cell next to a man who banged his head and threw his feces at the wall. These rumors added fire to the campaign to release A$AP Rocky from jail, which manifested into the hashtag #FreeRocky. Reports of the condition of the jail also prompted fans to sign a petition to “Free Rocky” that garnered 317,000 signatures within the first day of its creation.
However, A$AP Rocky and his legal team proved these reports to be false. His Swedish attorney Henrik Lilja said his client was being “treated correctly,” living in a dormitory style room with a bed, books, window, personal TV, and meals which included turkey, veal, and pie. Although the Swedish government initially said they would keep Rocky detained for two weeks following his official arrest, he was kept in custody for another week and a half as new video evidence emerged. On July 25th, the Swedish court officially charged Rocky with assault. The incident was determined to constitute a crime even though his team reiterated that the altercation was an act of self defense. On July 30th, the trial began, and on August 1st, Rocky gave his official testimony to the Swedish court, pleading not guilty to aggravated assault. The next day, Rocky was released from Swedish custody and allowed to return to the United States while awaiting his verdict. If convicted, Rocky could have faced up to two years in Swedish prison. His first performance sans-detainment was at the Real Street Festival in Anaheim, California. On his experience, Rocky told the audience, "God is good. People who ain’t really fuck with me felt sympathy. People was praying for me. That uplifted me when my spirits were low. That was crazy. Hip-hop never looked so strong together.”
On August 14th, A$AP Rocky and two members of his entourage were found guilty of assault. He will serve no jail time, but has been placed on a two year probation. This means if he commits a crime of a similar nature within the country within the next two years, he will then have to serve time. Alongside his probation, Rocky must pay a fine of $1,302 USD to the victim.
PART 3: Trump’s Involvement
Two weeks into A$AP Rocky’s detainment, U.S. President Donald Trump posted a thread on Twitter calling for the rapper’s release from Swedish custody. Trump became aware of the situation through Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. West, a friend of Rocky and supporter of Trump, reached out to the president directly and Kim reached out to the first lady, as well as Trump’s son-in-law and White House aid Jared Kushner. On July 19th, Trump released the first of what would be a string of public statements in relation to Rocky’s detainment. In his first series of tweets, Trump stated that he would contact the prime minister of Sweden to discuss the terms of A$AP Rocky’s release. In a twenty minute call with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, Trump offered to pay the bail fee for Rocky to come back to the United States for the remainder of the investigation. However, there is no bail system in place in Sweden; and, furthermore, Löfven informed Trump that political figures are not allowed to meddle within an ongoing investigation.
With his attempt to #FreeRocky rejected, the president took to Twitter again on July 25th to express his displeasure with Sweden. He wrote that he was “very disappointed” in Löfven, stating that Rocky was a respected member of the African-American Community, needed to be treated fairly, and then critiqued the country on their approach to crime and discipline. Trump did not comment on the issue again until August 2nd, the day Rocky was released from detainment. In celebration, the president tweeted “A$AP Rocky released from prison and on his way home to the United States from Sweden. It was a Rocky Week, get home ASAP A$AP!”
Trump has yet to comment on the final verdict of the case.
PART 4: The Big Picture
When looking at the plight of A$AP Rocky from the beginning to the end, I am left thinking about a few things. The first being: how does A$AP Rocky’s celebrity status affect how the public interacted with the case? What made the entire situation so curious to me is how quickly fans and celebrities alike came together to rally for Rocky’s freedom. The rumors attached to the case spread instantly, each being more absurd than the next. I found it doubtful that Rocky landed himself in jail because he was “protecting” women who were groped by the man who was beaten, especially considering that he associates himself with individuals who have been accused of sexual assault; I was also suspicious of the sensational stories about Rocky’s “horrid” prison conditions. I found it hard to believe that a very famous celebrity detained in a country known for their “college campus like” prison system would hold someone in such an intense environment and expect it not to leak into the media. Although it was clear to me that such claims were untrue, many fans were quickly convinced that these rumors were fact, influencing the creation and speedy circulation of the #FreeRocky petition. Throughout the duration of the case, I could not help but wonder: why is it that we can mobilize quicker for a celebrity that we can for those who are actually suffering? Why is it that our sympathies are with someone who has money, power, and influence and would likely (and ultimately did) face the least severe punishment possible?
I find it curious how, as a culture, we share a common belief that people who are rich, famous, and talented are intrinsically good individuals who can do no wrong. We see them as invincible because they have status.
The public’s response to the A$AP Rocky case is a prime example of our society’s obsession and idolization of celebrities. We were so quick to find ways to absolve Rocky of responsibility for his actions by inventing narratives that rendered him a victim, whether it be through dramatising his jail conditions or by framing him as someone who “did what he needed to do” in a situation that is not so cut-and-dry. This is not to say that I believe Rocky is entirely guilty or should face a more severe punishment; however, I find it curious how, as a culture, we share a common belief that people who are rich, famous, and talented are intrinsically good individuals who can do no wrong. We see them as invincible because they have status. When this invincibility is threatened in any way— may it be through an arrest, a distasteful comment, or bad behavior— the public wastes no time in advocating for the goodness of the celebrity in question. Yet when regular people come out with their stories of abuse, suffering, and marginalization, the public is not as trusting. It is important for us to be aware of this double standard when interacting with news stories and political issues.
Trump’s involvement with the situation was a clear act of performative politics in order to appeal to young, predominately black voters. He made a point to mention Rocky’s popularity with the “African-American Community,” as if to subtly say “I understand you! You see me helping this black person? I care about justice!” However, Trump’s passion towards helping this one member of the “African-American Community” does not transfer to any actual policymaking; the black community, in America, is still afflicted with a lack of generational wealth, poor housing due to redlining, poor schooling, high crime rates, increased health risks, and more. Some black conservatives have embraced Trump’s “activism” in the A$AP Rocky case as “proof” that he is helping the community. In reality, Trump “helping” (as he did not have any real influence over the case or on Rocky’s release) one rich and famous black person who has previously downplayed efforts towards black liberation (see: his comments on the Black Lives Matter movement) does not reflect the betterment of an entire community. What it does show, however, is that Trump only cares about black people when they have something to offer him. In this case, it is “cool points” with the POC youth in the hopes that they will swing him some votes next November.
A$AP Rocky, welcome back to United States. Please don’t get arrested again. No one wants to read Trump tweet #FreeRocky. It just doesn’t make any sense. ✉
Kaila Cherry is a 19-year-old writer and filmmaker based in the Bay Area of California. A lover and admirer of art in all its various forms, she aims to create works that hinges on realism and gives significance to the nuances of the everyday life. She likes the fact that her last name is a fruit because she knows she will never get confused for someone else.