It has been a year since award-winning artist and fashion icon Rakim Mayers, otherwise known as A$AP Rocky, has been free.
When the artist was jailed in a Swedish detention center awaiting trial for a street brawl in central Stockholm, unbeknownst to him, Mayers was the center of a “diplomatic rift,” where many of us (including myself) found ourselves asking, “Who is A$AP Rocky and why does he need to be freed ASAP?”
Mayers’ arrest turned social media into a frenzy with people from all over the world chiming in to give their opinions about the Swedish justice and legal system. Even the Kardashian-West clan used the opportunity to turn the spotlight onto themselves trying to use their soft power and celebrity status to advocate for criminal justice reform…in Sweden.
While headlines were demanding for his release, the media also subjected the case to exceptional scrutiny. Some media outlets were quick to frame his case as a race issue – yet another Black man incarcerated for unjust reasons that luckily was caught on camera for public consumption.
Mayers’ case was about race and privilege, but not everything is so black and white.
Living life on the margins
Rakim Mayers was a Black American man with an Arabic-sounding name incarcerated in a predominantly White European country. His co-defendants were African-American and Dominican-American men. The alleged victims of the attack were Afghan refugees who arrived in Sweden five years ago as unaccompanied minors and lived in a Swedish suburb otherwise known as “no-go zone.” The witnesses in the video trying to mediate tensions before they escalated were Black hijab-wearing young Muslim women; non-White Swedish women of African descent.
And while Sweden does not keep statistics on ethnicity and crime, according to Mayers own admission, the detention center “was only Black and Brown people.” But unlike the majority in Swedish detention centers Mayers enjoyed the privilege of visibility afforded to him by fame.
The remarkable part of the story is not the hysteria surrounding the case, or even the outcome, but what Mayers did when he returned to Sweden several months later for a concert.
Rather than be a cultural ambassador, A$AP Rocky became an accidental activist. In true artistic form, he used his art to convey a powerful message that was unfortunately left unheard by many.
In a show-stopping performance he defiantly performed on top of a cage for the majority of the concert and at one point, Mayers even performed inside of a cage with dancers in a spectacle. He had non-White Swedish artists opening the show, showcasing not only the universality of hip hop, but also recognizing the diversity of Swedes.
But most noteworthy was what Mayers did in the hours preceding the show.
Mayers documented his trip to the Swedish suburb of Husby (an alleged “no-go zone”) in a Spotify mini-documentary where he was “checking out our people, letting them know we care about them” showing affinity to those with similar lived experiences, i.e., the forever foreigners.
Like America, minorities in Sweden face forms of othering, neglect, discrimination, and social exclusion from high unemployment to poor education facilities and segregation – something Mayers knows all too well having grown up as a Black person in Harlem.
Mayers’ experience of growing up in a neighborhood like Harlem and belonging to a stigmatized minority group means he has an insight of what life is really like growing up in such circumstances.
And while those living in the margins of society are accustomed to being talked and written about, but not listened or spoken to, their representation and experiences are often filtered through the interpretative work of the dominant culture.
Tap dancing on the line between art and activism, Mayers not only passed the microphone to Swedish minorities, but he also shone a spotlight on the plight and struggles of those living on the periphery of Swedish society. Given the increasing ethnocentric discourse, negative portrayal of minorities, and immigrants in the public sphere, we have to pay close attention to such examples on how to build bridges and find meaning and solidarity with our lived shared experiences, singularity and differences.
When Mayers entered the “no-go zone” visiting Husby, a disadvantaged strong immigrant community – he leads by example because any type of activism consists of, at the very least, action – and actions certainly speak louder than social media posts. Woke hashtags or black squares are simply not enough. A$AP Rocky sent a strong message – it’s a shame most missed it.
It seems Mayers, who in the past actively sought to be not political, may have learned a valuable lesson from his Swedish experience. Sometimes existing as a minority can itself be a political act, whether or not you have a choice in the matter.