Hip-hop flirting with political violence causes controversy and debate around the world. The Swedes have recently been having a thorough public discussion about where to draw the line between illegal hate speech on one side, and artists’ democratic right to express themselves on the other. Here is a run-down of Kartellen’s free speech journey in Sweden so far, as they keep challenging and are being tried on what it means to be committing a hate speech crime.
By Mik Aidt
The Swedish hip-hop group Kartellen is often referred to as one of the most popular hip-hop bands in the country – and according to the lifestyle magazine Rodeo Magazine it is also “Sweden’s most controversial hip-hop group”. The band and its song lyrics have been featured and discussed in almost every Swedish media outlet.
Members of the band have been convicted of serious crimes such as larceny, murder conspiracy and some of Sweden’s most high-profile robberies, and their lead singer has been convicted for hate speech. Their rap songs are all about segregation and class inequalities, but they are being critised for glorifying a life of crime and violence.
The band members, on the other hand, feel they are being censored and have said that Swedish police tries to intimidate the band to silence.
Convicted of hate speech assault
Kartellen was formed in 2008 in a Finnish prison by two inmates who both served life sentences for accessory to murder. After having produced a couple of songs, they teamed up with the young rapper Sebbe Staxx (real name: Sebastian Stakset) who had a similar background as themselves. Already at the age of 12, Sebbe Staxx had won his first rap battle.
In May 2012, Sebbe Staxx made a statement on Twitter in which he threatened the Sweden Democrats’ party leader Jimmie Åkesson. The politician reported the threat to the Swedish Security Service, and Sebastian Staxx was convicted of assault in January 2013.
Kartellen feat Timbuktu: ‘Svarta Duvor & Vissna Liljor’ (2013)
Published on youtube.com on 13 December 2014
Banned on public radio
Then in November 2013, Kartellen released the song ‘Svarta duvor och vissna liljor’ (‘Black Doves & Wilted Lilies’) – a collaboration between Kartellen and the rapper Timbuktu (real name: Jason Diakité). It created heated debate in the Swedish media, as it contains a text line by Timbuktu that could be perceived as yet another threat to Jimmie Åkesson, saying Jimmie should be beaten yellow and blue (the Swedish expression ‘yellow and blue’ is the equivalent of the English colloquialism ‘black and blue’, but also are the colours of the Swedish flag) and pulled up in a flag pole.
Sebbe even added that he’d want to “put the Sweden Democrats in a coma”. The song was reported to police by the Sweden Democrats party and though the prosecutor chose not to bring it to trial, the controversy and the discussions about the song made it all the way to the Swedish Parliament.
The public radio broadcaster P3 decided not to play the controversial song unless when followed by a comment which put the lyrics into perspective.
In May 2014, the Swedish church Svenska kyrkan in Kungälv near Gothenburg announced they withdrew from a youth event where Kartellen would be involved. According to a representative the church did not want to be seen as supportive of “a message that is about violence as a method and where human life is being violated”.
Ultimatum and boycott in Borlänge
In June 2014, Dalarnas Tidningar (Dalarna Newspapers) pulled out as sponsor of the festival ‘Peace & Love’ in Borlänge on 4–5 July after the organisers announced that Kartellen would be performing at the festival. Initially, Dalarnes Tidningar had placed an ultimatum stating that unless Kartellen’s concert was cancelled – because their lyrics were “not in line with democracy and equal rights” – then the newspaper consortium would suspend its cooperation with the festival.
In response to this ultimatum, a section of the artists engaged to perform at the festival rallied in support of their colleagues. They declared an artists’ boycot of the festival and cancelled their performances.
The punk band INVSN spearheaded an open letter to the Peace & Love festival organisers, entitled ‘We are Kartellen’.
The letter ends with a question: “We are cursed with the Sweden Democrats and Jimmie Åkesson sitting in parliament advocating a policy that is exclusionary and undemocratic and that origines from a neo-Nazi legacy. We talk about this at every gig we play and in every interview we do, and in the lyrics we write. We may not do it the same way as Kartellen. But we stand behind their fight. Can we still play at your festival?”
On Twitter, the veteran musician Stefan Sundström summarised his point of view, saying: “Mittmedias’ dictatorship over Peace and Love, where they poke Kartellen, is a scary crime against freedom of expression. Time to stop. I want to get off!” – and he later elaborated in an interview: “This is a solidarity thing. Next time it could be me who gets censored. I am against violence, but I don’t have a problem with Kartellen.”
Eventually, the festival organisers announced that they Kartellen again would be welcome at the festival, and Sebbe Staxx wrote in his blog that the band decided to play there after receiving a ‘genuine apology’ from the festival.
Concert cancelled in Linköping
In August 2014, Kartellen was booked to perform at the festival ‘Keep It Loud’ in Linköping on 16 August, when a majority in the city council voted to pull the funding for the festival unless the rap group’s concert was cancelled. They argued that tax payers money should not be used to pay a music group that gloryfies and advocates for political violence. Instead the municipality were to pay a cancellation compensation fee of over $10,000 because the decision was made only one week before the scheduled event.
Kartellen said they were being censored and denied that they were gloryfying violence: “In our videos, all we are doing is showing an authentic picture of Sweden,” told Sebastian Stakset in an interview with the Swedish public broadcaster SR. “Municipal tax money has been used to censor Sweden’s most popular rap group,” he wrote on Kartellen’s Facebook page.
“We will not accept being oppressed by these kinds of undemocratic acts of censorship,” frontman Sebastian Stakset said, offering to play for free if a gig would be organised. A few weeks later it was announced that Kartelle would perform at Garden Society in Linköping on 31 August.
Public debate about free speech principles
The controversy over these incidents sparked a heated debate in Swedish mainstream media about artistic freedom of expression. For instance, Sam Sundberg wrote in Svenska Dagbladet:
“Alarming amounts of people do not understand the concept of freedom of expression. A sponsor that does not want to support an event that engages artists with criminal background and violence-glorifying lyrics can never reasonably be described as a threat to freedom of expression. A threat to freedom of expression is, in contrast, when you threaten people because of their opinions.”
“Is this art?” one angry columnist asked when Kartellen had just released their song ‘Black Doves & Wilted Lilies’. Freemuse asked Civil Rights Defenders in Stockholm: “Is this hate speech?”
Civil rights group: “This is not hate speech”
“We do not consider songs like ‘Svarta duvor och vissna liljor’ to contain anything that falls under the definition of hate speech simply because the object in question does not belong to a protected group of people. One could argue that it would fall under the penal code as assault, but then the context [the fact that this is being expressed through music and song] would have to been taken into consideration, and I doubt that a court of justice would find it to be a crime in the end,” Executive Director of Civil Rights Defenders in Stockholm, Robert Hårdh, replied.
In 2005, Civil Rights Defenders published a report on ‘Hate speech – the borderline between hate propaganda and freedom of expression’. (It is available online in Swedish language: ‘Hatets språk – gränsen mellan hatpropaganda och yttrandefrihet’.)
Alfons Karabuda, who is president of the European Composer and Songwriter Alliance and executive chairman of SKAP, the Swedish Society of Songwriters, Composers and Authors, told Freemuse that while he is not commenting on individual cases, his general observation is that whenever a society feels threatened, the question of what is considered artistic free speech and what is considered hate speech will accommodate strong voices in favor both sides.
“What is considered artistic free speech and what is considered hate speech will not always be defined on a level of principals, but according to each individual situation. It is, therefore, important to stick to principals while keeping the rational discourse running,” he said.
“I don’t think the music of Kartellen can be classified as hate music or hate speech,” said Krister Malm, professor of musicology at Gothenburg University, member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, and co-founder and member of the Executive Board of Freemuse.
“Personally I think Kartellen’s music is a mild case of gangsta rap. The content of their criticism of Sweden Democrats is not different from criticism aired by politicians and others opposed to the views of the Sweden Democrats. The difference is in the wording. Kartellen and Timbuktu use the language of gangsta rap with a joking twist. It’s the bragging of rappers giving it a finger,” Krister Malm told Freemuse.
Experience of darkness
On 3 September 2014, Sebbe Staxx wrote on Kartellen’s Facebook page which has received over 60,000 ‘likes’:
“I get many questions about how I can say that I am against violence because of my criminal records and the substance of our lyrics. The thing is that I understand your questioning this. The truth is that I found myself in the dark for many years and that I have been anything but a role model for young people. But the fact is that I have a lot of young people who actually look up to me now. (…)
I have realized that my place is not in politics but in the future I will use my experience of darkness to give presentations to young people and give hope to young people who currently are in a situation where I once was. I understand that not everyone is willing to give such a man like me a second chance. That’s okay. Because Jesus gave me a second chance! Love and peace be upon you all! ”
More than 2,000 people clicked ‘like’ below this particular message.
In October 2013, Kartellen published a video for the song ‘Underklassmusik’ which had been produced in collaboration with the extreme leftwing group Revolutionary Front (Revolutionära fronten). The video showed authentic footage of politically motivated vandalism and assaults while the lyrics speak of prostitution, poverty and crime. “You see me as a criminal,” goes one of the hooklines.
On their Facebook page, Revolutionary Front (Revolutionära Fronten) writes: “We have wiped out more than 10 neo-Nazi organisations. Though we share the same failures as the liberal anti-fascism, we can also point to some victories. Moreover, we have succeeded, with the help of our domestic capital, to break into the extreme right hegemony and actually been able to hold conversations with active Nazis with discussions about the economy, society and reasons to drop out. We build resistance, economically, culturally and socially, towards this development.”
Kartellen featuring Aleks: ‘Underklassmusik’
Published on youtube.com on 7 October 2013.
» Freemuse – 19 December 2013:
Sweden: Public broadcaster excludes hit rap song from playlists
Because of ‘violent lyrics’ and a ‘stance against the Sweden Democrats and the Moderates’, the song ‘Black Doves and Wilted Lilies’ (‘Svarta duvor och vissna liljor’) by Timbuktu (real name: Jason Diakité) and Sebbe Staxx (real name: Sebastian Stakset) will not be included on the national Swedish radio’s playlists and is thus practically banned from the main music channel, SR P3.
» The Local – 3 December 2013:
Riksdag snub after anti-Sweden Democrat song
“Lyrics interpreted as an invite to assault the anti-immigration Sweden Democrat leader have caused a political stir, prompting the speaker of parliament to boycott a Riksdag ceremony where singer Jason Diakité, also known as Timbuktu, will receive an anti-racism award.”
» Kartellen’s Facebook page:
» Wikipedia page about Kartellen:
Articles in Swedish language:
Aftonbladet – 21 August 2014:
Kartellens ordkrig med Moderaterna
Efter dyra avbokningen – spelar gratis
European No Hate Speech campaign
» Forthcoming book by Benjamin Teitelbaum:
‘Lions of the North: Music and the New Nordic Radical Nationalism’. Oxford University Press
Excerpt from ‘Black Doves & Wilted Lilies’
“The old ones are not free and the young have no future
Yes, they will take you and send you home even though you lived here all your life
Black doves appear and lilies are no more
But the dream inside us lives even though the country is buried
The man, Reinfeldt is a champion[Chorus] [Verse 2: Timbuktu]
Bildt a real killer
He painted his masterpiece in red blood spillage
And four glossy black door mirrors stare at me
Five antennas and directional microphones
I sat for a few hours there and Säpo, no biggie
It was something they said, that I have kill-hated Jimmie
Ha, Sebbe fucking Staxx does what he wants
So Säpo, are you with me? Here comes yet another threat!
Kungsgatan with Soran, had I been there
I would have taken the iron pipe and put them in a coma, all three
Yeah, fuck SD with Jimmie at the forefront
Sink one, sink two, yes, then the rest will run
Because we coloured streets with programme-rebels and soldiers
Bomber jacket became costume
They seized their chance but racism is a result of ignorance
Palme got a neck shot, SD got a jackpot
The people became the butts in Anders Borg’s ashtray
Fuck them, plowed the welfare with a tractor
Left us with poor education and a cash fund
And so, the whip will blow until we walk in line
Pound Jimmie yellow & blue, hoist him into a flagpole
The country we now live in is more tortuous than the king
Go to Djursholm and ask every imaginable kid
From the frying pan into the strange playgrounds and swings
Stone-throwing masses and slant-talking tongues
Mamma Svea has become ice cold – to SMHI
Give it twenty winters more and too late we’ll understand
Social Democracy, Alexander Bard’s idiocy
Your everyday life as a newly elected liberal slave probably sits fine
Sweden baby, a boulevard of broken dreams
And what they once were they want you to forget”
What is ‘hate music’?
Music intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or disability. Similar to hate speech.
“While it is an anti-censorship organisation, Freemuse does recognise that there may be occasions on which free speech can legitimately be restricted. In general we judge on a case by case basis and are guided by international conventions such as the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Such documents themselves tend to recognise that there are occasions where speech may legitimately be restricted. For Freemuse to be anti-censorship is not to say “anything goes”.”
Dr Martin Cloonan, Chair of Freemuse executive committee
» Read the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
» Read more on freemuse.org about hate music