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Is the ‘arm’s length’ principle for the arts in Sweden at risk of amputation? 

Sweden’s government has said it wants to develop a cultural canon to forge a greater sense of community and collective identity, but the idea has met with stiff opposition from arts sector representatives who worry that the long-held principle of keeping culture at arm’s length from politicians is under threat. 

Anna Troberg
Anna Troberg, chairman of the DIK trade union for arts sector workers. Photo: Alexander Donka

The Tidö agreement between the three governing parties and the far-right Sweden Democrats says that experts tasked with developing the canon would have “artistic competence in their respective fields”, and would develop a canon that included “different cultural forms”.

Explaining the rationale for the plan in his government declaration, the Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said: “Culture and our shared history are the basis of our collective identity. They create cohesion and enhance our mutual understanding.”

The government says it will await the results of an inquiry before deciding how to use the canon, but Culture Minister Parisa Liljestrand has not ruled out making it part of a future citizenship test.

Among producers of culture and arts sector officials the plan is deeply controversial. Speaking on The Local’s Sweden in Focus podcast, Anna Troberg, the head of the culture sector trade union DIK, said a state-mandated cultural canon represented a threat to the ‘arm’s length principle’ in the cultural sphere.

In existence for more than 50 years in Sweden, this principle underpins a system in which funding mechanisms for the arts allow politicians to oversee the framework without meddling in day to day cultural life. 

Anna Troberg worried that if the government created a canon and made its use compulsory in schools, libraries or museums, “then they are in effect amputating this arm. Politicians are suddenly deciding what culture people should have access to.” 

Hear Anna Troberg discuss the cultural canon plan with our panelists on Sweden in Focus

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Two events this week led to more debate about the arm’s length principle. In Trelleborg, a library canceled a planned story time event featuring two drag queens after a local Sweden Democrat politician complained (although the town’s cultural affairs committee later overturned the decision), and in Gävleborg the Sweden Democrat regional chairman put a stop to a college’s planned St. Lucia procession on learning that the person the college had chosen as Lucia identified as non-binary.

The culture minister rushed to defend the idea that politicians should keep their distance. Speaking to public broadcaster SVT after the Sweden Democrat intervention in Trelleborg, she said: “It’s crystal clear in the Tidö agreement that the principle of keeping an arm’s length to culture will be maintained.” 

The Sweden Democrat member of parliament Björn Söder welcomed the intervention. Writing on Twitter he said: “The left’s argument about an arm’s length to culture is based on the left having been allowed to dominate the culture sector for decades.”

For Anna Troberg, Söder’s comment would have come as no surprise. She referenced a study carried out recently by DIK of the eight parliamentary parties’ culture policies. 

Seven of the parties “were very much in agreement that this arm’s length between politicians and culture should be upheld; they had a very strong view that free culture is important. But the Sweden Democrats were very different. And it is important to remember that their view on this is that they want to use culture as a tool to create a certain society or a certain way of being.”

As for the canon, it remains to be seen who will make up the expert committees tasked with creating it. The country’s best-known arbiters of culture, the Swedish Academy, said they had no intention of participating in the creation of a cultural canon. 

“A canon is a concept steeped in power and the wielding of power,” the Academy’s permanent secretary Mats Malm told newspaper Dagens Nyheter. 

“I don’t believe in the idea of developing a canon,” he added “It’s not the same as saying that certain works have achieved classic status. There are lots of very competent teachers in this country; they are best at deciding what literature to take up in their classroom.” 

His view was shared by Academy member Horace Engdahl. In an email to The Local he wrote:

“Undoubtedly, there is a number of literary works that have helped to shape Swedish mentality and have served as models and consequently deserve to be studied in school and discussed by educated people. In this sense, there always exists a canon, whether we approve of the idea or not. Yet, I am convinced that the project of making some sort of reading list compulsory is misconceived.”

“Literature, in the sense of belles lettres, is written in order to give pleasure. Making a pleasure compulsory is a contradication in terms. When I once published a selection of the poets of Swedish romanticism, I specifically addressed it to “the voluntary reader”. Such is the proper recipient of all good books.”

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For members


‘Supply and demand, motherfxxker!’: The real crime behind Sweden’s gangster rap

Gangster rap dominates the streaming charts in Sweden, with Yasin, one of the most popular artists, out with a new album this month. But does the genre glorify violence and contribute to the country's gang shootings?

'Supply and demand, motherfxxker!': The real crime behind Sweden's gangster rap

When riots broke out in 2017 in Rinkeby, just days after US President Donald Trump had been ridiculed for talking about “Last night in Sweden” in a speech, the spark was an encounter between the police and an up-and-coming rapper. 

Police had arrested the young man, Yasin Abdullahi Mahamoud, a few months earlier for carrying a pistol and so felt justified in stopping and searching him when they encountered him, together with his friend, Jafar Ahmed Sadik, outside the local underground station. 

What they hadn’t taken into account was how much of a local celebrity he was becoming.

The police officers checking him were soon surrounded by young, masked men who began throwing stones at them. They panicked and fired warning shots, after which the situation escalated into a full-blown riot, with shop windows and cars trashed. 

Mahamoud — going by the name Yasin, or Yasin Byn – would go on over the next few years to become one of Sweden’s biggest music stars, topping the Spotify streaming lists and winning top music prizes, with his friend Sadik, rapping then under the name Jaffar Byn and now JB, not far behind.

Whether Yasin has ever really been an active member of Shottaz, the gang whose conflict with the rival Dödspatrullen has been blamed for an explosion of violence in the suburb between 2018 and 2020, is disputed, although the police have argued that he was.

His music certainly refers frequently to the conflict.

“Me and Fayye in the backseat with a Glock-19”, starts his 2018 hit, “Chicago”. Fayye, one of the leaders of Shottaz, would a year later be shot dead in a gang execution in Copenhagen

“Rest in Peace, Indiana”, comes a line a little later in the song, a reference to the 2016 murder of two young men in Rinkeby’s Mynta café.

This killing has been seen as the point the violent dispute between young men in Rinkeby led to a split into the two rival gangs.  

Should gangster rap be banned for glorifying violence? 

When Yasin, Dree Low (real name Salah Abdi Abdulle, from Husby), and Einár (real name Nils Grönberg), were winning music prizes at the peak of their fame from 2018 to 2020, there was a fervent debate in Sweden’s culture pages as to whether it was appropriate to celebrate a genre that glorifies violence and crime. 

At the same time these rappers were earning big sums from streaming, they were in constant trouble with the police. 

When Yasin topped the Spotify streaming charts in January 2020 with his song XO, which lauded the intoxicating combination of Rémy Martin cognac and cannabis, he was sitting in pre-trial detention for suspected involvement in a murder. When he received a Swedish Grammy the next year, he was again in prison, so could not pick it up. 

Between 2019 and 2020, revenues from Dree Low’s music company, Top Class Music, went from 3.3 million kronor to 7.8 million kronor, bringing him a profit in 2020 of about 4.5 million kronor. The next year he was jailed for involvement in a robbery. 

The Social Democrat minister Mikael Damberg in 2021 complained on Swedish radio about a “subculture among young people that glorifies gangster life”. Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, went one further, calling for gangster rap to be banned.

Mats Lindström, a policeman involved in fighting gang violence in the area around Rinkeby, told Aftonbladet in March 2021 that he thought the Swedish media should stop giving publicity to the young rappers. 

“Aftonbladet would never interview a Nazi singer, or a person who praised Islamic State or religious violence,” he argued. 

Even if you accept that Yasin and Dree Low were never fully fledged gang members themselves, arguably, by turning a real-life conflict into a crime soap opera followed avidly by teenagers across Sweden, their music raised the stakes for the actual participants. 

“The rappers write lyrics about each other. We have impulsive boys who are easily offended,” argued Gunnar Appelgren, another Stockholm police gang expert. “Now there is a culture that focuses on violence for the sake of violence.” 

In an interview last month with the YouTuber Victor de Almeida, Yasin acknowledged that Swedish gangster rap did have a relationship to crime. 

“There’s no smoke without fire, they have their point. Stuff happens out there, we can’t deny that,” he said of the criticism. But he said the idea that banning gangster rap would bring an end to the violence was “bullshit”. 

“To lay the blame on people and shout things right and left, you can do that, but how much it will lead to any actual change is another thing,” he said. “I’m not a politician, so I don’t know. But I just notice that we aren’t getting any more youth centres [fritidsgårdar] as a result of music publishers stopping giving prizes to rappers and people with convictions.” 

In his new album, Pistoler, Poesi, och Sex (Pistols, Poetry and Sex), Yasin claims to be reporting a reality rather than glorifying it. 

“I write what I see, but they would rather criticise what I write than criticise what I see,” he raps in the track Rap är ingen konst (Rap is not an artform). 

The SVT journalist Diamant Salihu, in his book on the Rinkeby conflict Tills alla dör, agrees that gangster rap reflects an underlying reality rather than causes it. 

He traces the Rinkeby conflict back to the decision in 2007 to fuse Rinkeby with the much richer nearby Kista district. Over the next few years, the offices of the Swedish Public Employment Service, the post office, the high street banks and the police all closed down. 

“However much opinion-makers criticise their texts glorifying violence, however much the artists themselves promote their lifestyle, it doesn’t change the underlying reasons,” Salihu writes. “The more people I speak with, the more investigations I read, the clearer the connection between changes in society, closures [of government agencies], and poor school results which lead to exclusion, in the wave of violence we are seeing today.” 

Rap, ghetto fashion, and the way young men pose in photos with weapons and luxury cars is “just a desperate attempt to make meaning out of the chaos”, he argues. “It’s a way of trying to take control of a hopeless situation”. 

The main driver of gun violence in Sweden’s suburbs, Salihu told The Local in the Sweden in Focus podcast is the huge amount of money that can be earned from distributing and selling drugs.

“Everybody that buys a gram of cocaine or cannabis should know that their money is being used to buy the bullets and guns that are killing people in Stockholm,” he said. 

As Yasin himself writes in his 2020 song “Pistol Whip”, a collaboration with his friend Jaffar Byn, the whole of Swedish society bears some of the responsibility. 

“You asked us for this gangster shit. Supply and demand, motherfucker.” 

Death toll

  • Mehdi Sachit (Dumle, Alawee) This 27-year-old rapper, known as Dumle, was shot dead in Rinkeby, one of the most troubled suburbs of Stockholm, on Christmas Day 2022. Sachit was reportedly with the 19-year-old rapper Nils Grönberg, known as ”Einár”, when he was murdered in October 2021. He was a convicted rapist and he was thought to have a central role in the Dödspatrullen gang. Find his track Våldsbenägen, meaning “prone to violence” here
  • Nils Grönberg (Einár). Grönberg, was shot dead at a distance of 1.5m in a gang execution in October 2021.  The son of the prize-winning Swedish actress Lena Nilsson, Grönberg ended up collaborating with rappers with tough backgrounds in Stockholm’s crime-ridden suburbs, breaking through in 2019 with the song Katten i Trakten, which won the Guld-priset, or “Gold prize” from Swedish Radio’s P3 channel for best song. In 2020, he was kidnapped and forced to perform for humiliating videos. 
  • Ziad Elhassan (Debenz). This rapper from Borås, was shot dead in 2020, four years after surviving another shooting.
  • Rozh Shamal (Rozh). This rapper was shot and killed, aged 23, in an attack near his apartment in Blackeberg, Stockholm. Find his track Dras till problem, “Drawn to problems”, here
  • Robin Cortas (Roro/RC). Cortas was shot dead in Varbergsgatan, Helsingborg, southern Sweden, aged 25 in June 2019.
  • Aiman Qabli, Aiman. Qabi was stabbed to death in an underpass at midnight in Alby, south of Stockholm, back in 2015.

Serving time 

At least six of the big names in Swedish gangster rap — Dree Low, Yasin, Jaffar Byn, 1.Cuz, Haval, and Z.E — have been in and out of prison. They have often, indeed, been behind bars at the same time as their songs have topped the streaming lists on Spotify. 

  • Salah Abdi Abdulle (Dree Low).  Abdulle was arrested in 2021 on suspicion of robbing a shop of 5,000 kronor worth of snus, cigarettes and sweets, and in November 2021 sentenced to a year in prison. He claimed he had an agreement with the owner of the shop to take goods on credit, and he certainly didn’t need the money. In April 2022, he was charged again, this time for weapons offences, and sentenced to another year in prison that November. 
  • Jafar Ahmed Sadik (Jaffar Byn). Sadik was sentenced to four years in prison in 2017 for serious weapons crimes, and released in October 2020.
  • Yasin Abdullahi Mahamoud (Yasin). Mahamoud was jailed for weapons offences in May 2018 and released in November 2019, after which he was arrested again in July 2021 for his alleged involvement in the kidnapping of Einár, sentenced and finally released in December 2021. 
  • Haval Khalil (Haval). Khalil was jailed in November 2021 at the same time as Mahamoud for involvement in the Einár kidnapping, and, like Mahamoud, released that December. 
  • Abas Abdikarim Bakar (1.Cuz). 1.Cuz served two years in prison, launching his career after his release in 2018. 
  • Jozef Wojciechowicz (Z.E.). Wojciechowicz was jailed for robbery in 2017, like 1.Cuz only launching his career on his release. Wojciechowicz broke through with a collaboration with the singer Cherrie.