How do you watch the Swedish extravaganza that is Melodifestivalen?

Here's a guide to what to expect from this year's Swedish tryouts for the Eurovision Song Contest, ranging from Sami tunes to chart-breaking pop anthems.

How do you watch the Swedish extravaganza that is Melodifestivalen?
Melodifestivalen hosts Farah Abadi och Jesper Rönndahl. You'll be seeing a lot of their faces in Sweden this spring. Photo: Nils Petter Nilsson/TT

Congratulations for surviving the depths of winter. When the sky was at its darkest and the Christmas ham seemingly dominated every plate of food, hope and brightness was getting ever closer.

And now that the light is starting to return, so does the Swedish television tradition that trumps all others (ok maybe not Kalle Anka and his friends at Christmas), but it’s not far away. We are talking about the brightest and sparkliest show on the whole of Swedish TV that fills the void of these late winter days.

Welcome once more to Melodifestivalen.

The biggest selection in Europe

Melodifestivalen is the competition for Sweden to choose the song that will represent the country in the Eurovision Song Contest, the biggest entertainment show on Earth. Broadcasters from 37 countries as far afield as Azerbaijan, Iceland and… yes, Australia will compete in Liverpool this May for the prize of being the best song in Europe and bringing the show to their home country next year (or at least that is traditionally the plan, sadly the 2022 victors Ukraine are not able to host due to Russia’s invasion, and as thus the public broadcaster there is co-hosting with the BBC from the United Kingdom, who finished 2nd).

Sweden takes this Eurovision deal seriously. Melodifestivalen is a six week long extravaganza. Year upon year all six of these shows rank in the top ten of the Swedish television viewing figures. Not only that but you are sure-fire guaranteed to find a plethora of the 28 competing songs smashing the Swedish charts and being on radio airplay lists even months after the show disappeared from television.

But this isn’t just a thing appreciated by the Swedes. When it comes to Eurovision, Sweden is arguably the hottest country in the entire competition. Only twice in the last 12 years has Sweden finished outside of the Eurovision top 10, a record including four podium finishes and two first places. This track record means that the Melodifestivalen fanbase doesn’t just cover Swedes from the ages of 3 to 93, but also hundreds of Eurovision fans who make a pilgrimage to witness Melodifestivalen live in person each year and party all weekend long.

The popularity of the Swedish show is such that since 2013 the show’s finale has been held in the national football stadium of Friends Arena to an audience of nearly 30,000 spectators – a show on a scale many times more than most other competing countries.

Those two hours of musical entertainment are a highlight for the public broadcaster SVT, and have been the springboard for much of its talent to now work internationally. Former Executive Producer Martin Österdahl led the SVT team for the Eurovision hosting in Malmö in 2013 and in Stockholm three years later before taking the top job as Executive Supervisor of the entire Eurovision Song Contest in 2020.

That is in addition to the whole team of Swedes who went out last year to California to create the first ever American Song Contest featuring acts from every state and territory of the United States, a format that is even entering Canada later this year.

Cornelia Jakobs represented Sweden at Eurovision in 2022. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

What can we expect this year?

All being well, the 2023 edition of Melodifestivalen will be the first since pandemic times when the TV spectacle has been able to tour the length and breadth of the country, with the heats before the final taking place in Gothenburg, Linköping, Lidköping and Malmö this year. Two songs from seven in each heat will qualify to the Grand Final in Friends Arena, and two others will head to the so-called Semi Final round, this year in northerly Örnsköldsvik, before we get the 12 songs that will compete for a place in the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday 11th March.

And while Sweden might be the country best known for exporting pop music to the planet, expect all sorts of genres to be thrown at you. Look out in Saturday’s first heat from Gothenburg for tender ballads, sparkly pop tunes, Sami jojk and a clap-a-long duet by long loved Swedish icons Eva Rydberg and Ewa Roos with a combined age over 150. Whatever type of entertainment you are looking for from Saturday night programming, expect to find it here.

The biggest name in this year’s competition is Loreen, the 2012 winner of the Eurovision Song Contest with the smash hit Euphoria that packed out the dance floors and radio playlists all spring and summer across the continent. But SVT has decided we will have to wait until the final week to hear if the pre-show favourite has the song to head across to the United Kingdom in May.

Loreen won Eurovision in 2012. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Otherwise the expectation is that Norwegian twins Marcus and Martinus and 17-year-old Theoz are going to be the names on all the teenagers lips this year as both promises to bring both slick routines and catchy choruses to this festival of hit music. You have been warned.

Nestled within the pop music glitz and glamour though is the story of Maria Sur, herself 17 years of age and a refugee from Ukraine. The Local has already spoken to her about her journey from Ukraine to Sweden and now to the nation’s biggest stage, and her song Never Give Up is certain to be a tearjerker.

How can I watch the circus?

Melodifestivalen is shown on Saturday nights at 8pm for six consecutive weeks on SVT1 or SVT Play, the broadcaster’s online streaming service. SVT Play will also offer an option to follow the English text commentary if you would like more explanation as the chaos unfolds each night. The show is also available on Sveriges Radio P4.

One can even jump straight into the deep end and purchase tickets for the arena shows around the country, with rehearsals on the Friday night as well as a Saturday matinee performance available as well as the live broadcast.

What you want to do either way is before the show get yourself loaded up with the Melodifestivalen app (Apple or Android). Create an account so that you can join the hundreds of thousands of Swedes in voting for your favourite songs using your phone absolutely free (pay options are also available, including one that donates money to Radiohjälpen).

And whether you watch it or you don’t, make sure to check in with the results and the songs before you return to work, because if there is one thing you can be sure of is that the conversation topic of the day will be if the right songs won or not.

Ben Robertson is also covering Melodifestivalen 2023 for ESC Insight.

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‘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.