American-born rapper set to make Melodifestivalen history

As Sweden gears up for the finals of the 2011 Melodifestivalen song contest on Saturday, The Local's David Landes catches up with Swingfly, a Brooklyn-born rapper who is in the process of rewriting the rules for the Super Bowl of Swedish pop music.

American-born rapper set to make Melodifestivalen history

It was back in early February at the very first Melodifestivalen qualifying round in Luleå in northern Sweden when Swingfly, a burly yet bouncy Brooklyn-born black man who immigrated to Sweden in 1991, shocked the country’s pop music establishment by cruising straight into the contest’s final round, set to take place on Saturday, March 12th in Stockholm’s Ericsson Globe arena.

Despite having made and performed music in Sweden for the past two decades, Swingfly, born Ricardo DaSilva, is hardly a household name in his adopted country, and especially not among aficionados of Melodifestivalen, which has traditionally featured more straightforward pop music acts.

“I want to help change the way people think about schlager,” Swingfly tells The Local, referring to the Swedish colloquialism for a pop music hit and which is often associated with the Melodifestivalen.

While he’s excited to be in the finals, Swingfly is quick to admit that for much of his career, the Melodifestivalen “really wasn’t my thing”.

“They asked me a couple of years ago, but I said no. It wasn’t really my thing. It wasn’t really the right time,” he explains.

But with a strong song in hand this year, Swingfly decided to give the contest a go, and after a rousing performance in Luleå he found himself headed to the finals where he is set to square off against nine other acts in a bid to represent Sweden in the Eurovision Song Contest in Düsseldorf, Germany.

The song, “Me And My Drum”, was written by a team of American and Swedish songwriters, and features rapping by Swingfly laid over an upbeat drum track with splashes of electronica. The chorus is sung by Christoffer Hiding, a contestant on Swedish Idol in 2007.

Swingfly characterises the song’s music style as “wonky-pop”.

“It’s playful pop music with some rap mixed in,” he explains.

“It’s the kind of music that says let’s go out and party and have fun…that’s really my style.”

Swingfly’s path to the pinnacle of Swedish pop music started with what looked to be an ill-fated journey to Sweden back in 1991.

“I had trouble with gangs and people in the neighbourhood back home and my mother told me I had to get out of the house,” he recalls.

“My manager at the time said he knew people in Sweden and that I should check it out. I had a single to promote at the time so I got on a plane and came over.”

As it turned out, however, Swingfly’s manager wasn’t as well-connected as he led on, leaving Swingfly stuck in Stockholm with no concrete prospects for advancing his career.

Luckily, however, Swingfly met Swedish music producer Christian Falk at a Stockholm club and “things went from there”.

Nevertheless, the first few years were far from easy as he struggled to adjust to being a black immigrant in Sweden.

“At the beginning, I had a lot of problems with the racism in Sweden,” he recalls.

And while things have improved in the two decades since he first made Sweden home, he still is confronted with racism from time to time.

During Swingfly’s performance in Luleå, for example, the marketing director for a handball club in Lund in southern Sweden referred to the black American artist as “a bloated negro who can’t speak Swedish”.

While the man was fired a few days later, Swingfly has learned to take such incidents in his stride.

“I just try to let it fly over my head,” he says.

While at first sticking to more traditional hip hop, Swingfly’s style shifted after he began collaborating with the electro/dub/punk trio Teddybears, with whom he recorded “Hey Boy” in 2004 and which turned into the biggest hit of his career.

“I just want to have fun and move and scream and can’t really do that in a traditional hip hop song. This is a better way for me to express myself,” he says of his new musical style.

While he admits he has “nothing in common” with schlager stalwarts Carola and Charlotte Perrelli and laments that his Swedish language skills are “embarrassing”, Swingfly nevertheless feels he is a worthy ambassador for Swedish music in Europe.

“I very much represent Sweden, music made in Sweden. The music I make now is something created in Sweden with Swedish influences,” he says.

“There are a lot of great artists in Sweden and maybe, if I win, people will be able to hear a different side of the Swedish music scene.”

Swingfly’s adopted country also holds a special place in his heart.

“I really fell in love with Sweden – with the country and the people,” he says.

“I’m a peaceful person and Sweden is a peaceful place. I like that it’s low key and that I can go outside without worrying about getting shot.”

And following the birth of his son two years ago, Swingfly began to see the chain of events that brought him to Sweden in a whole new light.

“When my son was born, everything changed,” he explains

“I really feel now that he’s the reason I ended up here in Sweden. It’s like God brought me here or something. Every time I look at my son’s face, I realise that it what it’s all about.”

Swingfly also learned recently that one of his songs, “Something’s Got Me Started”, will be included in “Larry Crowne”, an upcoming film starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts set for release in July 2011.

And while his popularity is soaring following his maiden Melodifestivalen appearance, Swingfly knows that not everyone in Sweden is thrilled about the prospect of their country being represented by a hip hop infused dance track performed by a black American rapper.

“I’m a bit worried that the really hard core schlager fans might take it the wrong way and be really upset if I win,” he explains.

“I’ve received a lot of hate mail on my Facebook page from people saying I’m crap, using the N-word, stuff like that. But I don’t let it get to me.”

But Swingfly isn’t letting his critics slow him down heading into the Melodifestivalen finals, where he expects the competition to be tough.

“Everyone in the final is a problem. I mean, they all made it this far so they must be doing something right,” he says.

“I do really fear Danny though,” he adds, referring to the 2006 Swedish Idol finalist who came in third place in the 2009 Melodifestivalen as part of the Swedish boy band E.M.D.

“He’s got a pretty cool song. If anyone else were to win, I’d want it to be him.”

Still, Swingfly hopes he is the Swedish act who gets to book a ticket to Düsseldorf after Saturday’s final.

“I really want to win,” he said.

“But there will be a lot of pressure on me if I do.”

Check out Swingfly’s performance in Luleå below:

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‘My song is about resilience’: The Ukrainian in Sweden’s Mello song contest

Maria Sur, 17, arrived in Sweden in March after a journey of hundreds of kilometres through Ukraine and Poland from Zaporizhzhia, her home town. She tells The Local's Yuliia Kyzyk of what she hopes to gain from taking part in the Melodifestivalen song contest.

'My song is about resilience': The Ukrainian in Sweden's Mello song contest

THE LOCAL: After weeks of war, a long journey, and emigration to Sweden, you still found the strength to participate in charity concerts in your first month here in Sweden. Tell us about your journey to Melodifestivalen. 

Maria Sur: The next day after I arrived in Sweden from Ukraine, I started looking for opportunities to work. It was obvious that whining and suffering would not help anyone, so I had to do something that would give me strength and help other people.

Since my passion is singing, I decided to continue working on it. I literally wrote to a lot of popular Swedish singers to find a way of making my dream come true and eventually, one of them helped to take part in my first charity singing festival for Ukraine.

As a result, we collected €8 million to help Ukraine. A few days after the festival, I got spotted by Warner Music Sweden. After a meeting and talk about my goals and skills, we started cooperating with them, and after a few months of hard work, we decided to take part in Melodifestivalen.

Maria Sur had been a participant in Ukraine’s version of The Voice. Photo: Maria Sur
Before the start of the Russian invasion, I was already working on a singer career in Ukraine. I took part in national singing competitions, and I was quite successful. It seemed like the best time in my career was approaching. I lived, dreamed, and acted, and then one day someone just came and took it all away. Everything just broke down. And suddenly I found myself in a situation where I needed to start all over again.

Now I live for today. Now I know that no one in the whole world can know what awaits us all tomorrow. Of course, I continue to dream, it helps, but I can no longer plan, or live in illusions. And it’s scary that young people like me think this way. That we live one day at a time.

My first goal at Melodifestivalen is to do a really quality performance that I will be proud of. I want to feel after the performance, “I did everything I could. I did the best I could. It was honest. People felt it.”.

That is more important for me than results. 

Maria Sur on stage in Ukraine’s version of The Voice. Photo: The Voice Ukraine

THE LOCAL: Your song for Melodifestivalen is called “Never give up”. What is the message your song has for listeners?

Maria Sur: “Never give up” is a song about my way, about my personal fight. This is my motto. You have to go forward no matter what. This is about my experience before the war, when I fought for a long time to end up singing on a big stage in Ukraine. And this is about my road now, when despite the war, separation from relatives and home, I still go on. With this message, I want to encourage Ukrainians and everyone in the whole world who needs to know it, to continue fighting on his own path. I don’t want to be pitied or win sympathy. My song is about resilience. My story is sad, but it is about strength.

Maria Sur (centre), surrounded by the team backing her at the Swedish arm of Warner Brothers. Photo: Maria Sur

THE LOCAL: Russia’s full-scale invasion caught us Ukrainians sleeping. What were the first weeks of life in the new reality in Ukraine like? And how do you see your journey as a refugee shortly afterwards?

Maria Sur: I remember February 24th clearly. Early in the morning, I had online lessons at school, I was going to go to an English class, and in a few hours it became obvious that the war had started. It was very unexpected for me personally. We hadn’t had any conversations in our family about it before it happened. 

I remember very well how many people I saw panicking, at the same time air raid sirens were sounding continuously and everyone ran to the basement. My family could not believe that all those things were happening. We were convinced that everything would be over in a few days. That is why we didn’t want to leave Ukraine. 

My family always stick together. However, in two weeks it became clear. We must leave my city, Zaporizhzhia. For three days we could not pack for the journey. Whenever we attempted to do it, we sat down and cried. Eventually, Dad stayed at home, and Mom and me were forced to go. 

I remember the train station in my city at that time – huge queues, a lot of people and everyone crying, saying goodbye to each other. The trains were completely packed with children and women. It was impossible to cross the carriage of the train because of the hundreds of people inside.

My city is located in the southeast of Ukraine, so we were evacuated to Poland by travelling almost through the whole of Ukraine. It took a very long time. At the border with Poland, they did not want to let the train pass, because it was completely full of people.

So we were sent back to Lviv, a city in the west of Ukraine. Still, a few days later we got to Poland. Later in March we flew to Sweden to my aunt. 

Maria Sur is interviewed on stage by the Norwegian TV host Fredrik Skavlan. Photo: Zap Group

How you have changed in the months that have passed since the war started? 

Maria Sur: I have grown up very quickly. I started to appreciate things that I used to ignore. I started to support my parents and my friends. I look differently at things such as happiness. For instance, I was happy when I got the news that I had been selected for Melodifestivalen. But it was not the same joy as I felt before the war, especially since, five minutes previously, I had talked to my dad, who is now in Ukraine, and told me everything that is happening there now.

Despite everything, we must go on living. If we have this chance to live, we should take everything from it to the maximum. That’s what I’m trying to do, and that’s what I’m singing about.

Today, we must not stop talking about the war in Ukraine, we must continue to organise charity concerts, as well as make music to support people.