STOCKHOLM — Sweden had never seen anything like Einar. A hyperactive and self-assured young artist in a place increasingly obsessed with global hip-hop, by 19 he was one of the biggest rappers the country had ever produced.
Born Nils Gronberg, Einar had the face of puppy dog, the flow of an international rap connoisseur and the chest-puffed lyrics of a hardened gang member. He was also white and born in Sweden, a loaded distinction in a scene where most rappers come from immigrant backgrounds.
Raised mostly by a single mother, Einar was noticed by age 10, with videos of his childhood freestyles shared regularly online. Later, while living in a home for wayward teenagers, he broke through with only his third song, a steely lover-boy track that topped the country’s pop charts. Soon, he was a dominant force on Spotify, becoming Sweden’s most-listened-to act in 2019, ahead of global giants like Ed Sheeran.
But one night in October, the country’s biggest crossover star became its foremost cautionary tale, shot multiple times and left to die outside his home.
“We heard pom, pom, pom,” said Dumlee, an aspiring rapper who was with Einar that night. Dumlee, a convicted rapist affiliated with a gang called Death Patrol, said in an interview that he and Einar scattered to hide before he heard more shots minutes later: “Bam, bam, bam, bam.”
Einar’s killing, which remains unsolved, has rocked Sweden’s rap scene. His fate and the violence that swirled around him in life have also put a very Swedish face on issues that have for years been roiling beneath the surface here, and given fresh urgency to debates in the political mainstream about rising gun violence, immigration and gang warfare.
Some lawmakers, newspapers and parents have been left questioning the role of the music they have labeled — in a 1990s throwback — “gangster rap.”
“We have never seen something like this before,” said Petter Hallen, a veteran rap journalist and D.J. who hosts a show on the Swedish public service radio station P3 Din Gata.
He compared the situation to the societal strife that erupted in the United States around the killings of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur in the 1990s, and more recently around the style of rap known as drill music in both Europe and the United States.
“You have the politicians involved, the media, the rap fans, celebrity culture, public service, taxpayer money, influencer culture, youth culture, race — all these ripples in all directions of Swedish society,” Hallen added, describing the confluence of factors that have captivated this Nordic country of 10 million people.
More associated with Abba than with sharp-edged rap, Sweden has for at least six years been struggling with a tide of gang violence that has contributed to its shift from one of the safest countries in the world to among Europe’s most violent. Last year, there were at least 342 shootings resulting in 46 deaths (up from 25 shootings in 2015), along with dozens of bombings.
That carnage had long been seen as an issue confined to ethnically diverse outer “suburbs,” where poorer housing feels dislocated from the gleaming wealth of the country’s largely white city centers.
But Einar’s death — in a rich part of Stockholm, rather than a suburb — has broadened the debate and finger-pointing, with some saying rap has become a convenient boogeyman, especially with elections scheduled for this year.
Shortly after the shooting, Mikael Damberg, Sweden’s interior minister at the time, told reporters that the culture around the music could drive people toward gangs. Hanif Bali, a member of the conservative Moderate Party, who last year complained about a major music award going to a rapper with a criminal conviction, said in an interview at Sweden’s parliament that radio stations should stop playing music by anyone found guilty of gang crime.
Many Swedish rappers, especially Einar’s peers from neighborhoods like Rinkeby at the end of Stockholm’s subway lines, feel as if they are being used to deflect attention from politicians struggling to deal with crime.
“How many rappers are there that are famous in Sweden? It’s, like, 20,” said Sebastian Stakset, the artist known as Sebbe Staxx, a member of the country’s first prominent gangster-rap group, Kartellen. “How many kids are there with guns out in the areas? Thousands.”
“They’re just a reflection of a much bigger problem,” he said.
For decades in the United States, rap has been tied to moral panics and blamed for urban violence. Europe, too, has recently seen swelling concern regarding its drill scenes, where deep bass lines combine with stark, hyperlocal descriptions of living, feuding and dying in struggling neighborhoods.
Sweden’s growing problems with crime perhaps make it more susceptible to concern about the genre. When Magdalena Andersson became the country’s first female prime minister at the end of November, she used her first policy speech to assail gangs.
In December, Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s newspaper of record, published an analysis of everyone arrested or prosecuted for gun offenses since 2017. About 85 percent were people born abroad, or had at least one parent who was. Some 71 percent belonged to the country’s lowest income group. Most of the country’s highest-profile rappers come from such backgrounds.
Some of those rappers started their careers in the suburbs by making amateur videos known as “freeslaktish”that require little more than a camera phone and a car, or a courtyard crowded with friends. Others began making tracks in youth centers established to help young people avoid crime, said Diamant Salihu, the author of a much-discussed Swedish book published last year about the ongoing battle between two gangs, Shottaz and Death Patrol.
Salihu said the Stockholm police have linked some of Sweden’s biggest rap stars, including Yasin and Jaffar Byn, to Shottaz.
“As the conflict got bigger and more brutal, the rappers became more involved as they had to pick sides, and that made them targets,” Salihu added during a walk around Rinkeby, where he pointed out the sites of 10 killings since 2015, including a cafe and a pizzeria.
Artists sometimes ratcheted up tensions by referencing suspected gang members and memorializing dead or jailed friends in tracks and videos, Salihu said. As in the United States, a thriving Swedish underground media ecosystem of YouTube pages, Instagram accounts and other social networks document and dissect the music, personalities and conflicts of those associated, often making stars and inflaming beefs at the same time.
“This all became a spectator sport for rap fans,” Hallen said, “and people interested and drawn to and fascinated by street crime.”
Salihu titled his book after a quote the artist Jaffar Byn gave to authorities after an arrest. When police asked how long the gang violence would last, he replied, “Until everyone dies.”
Beyond intermittent tough-guy lyrics, Einar’s potential gang affiliations were only the subject of whispered speculation. But in March of 2020, he became a target.
Authorities said later in court that the Varby Network, one of Sweden’s most notorious gangs, first intended to kidnap the teenager after a studio session that month with Yasin, who was Einar’s only competition as Sweden’s top rapper at the time.
That plot failed, but around two weeks later, the group succeeded, kidnapping Einar following another studio date with the artist Haval. Einar was forced to pose for photographs, bloodied, in women’s lingerie, with a knife against his neck. The gang demanded 3 million Swedish krona (around $331,000) to stop the release of the pictures.
Later, they attempted to place a bomb outside the rapper’s house to increase pressure. Einar refused to pay.
Swedish police only uncovered details of the crime after gaining access to Encrochat, an encrypted phone network. After a high-profile trial, Yasin and Haval were sentenced for their roles in the plots. Both men, whose representatives declined to comment for this story, are appealing their convictions, and Yasin was released on Dec. 28, having served his sentence.
Einar declined to cooperate in the trial, but his mother, Lena Nilsson, testified. In the months that followed, the young rapper addressed his rivals even more forcefully in music and on social media, with some seeing his new tracks as subliminally goading those he held responsible for his assault. On Oct. 9, Einar was arrested along with two others following a stabbing in a Stockholm restaurant. He was not charged. Less than three weeks later, on Oct. 21, he was dead.
A lawyer for Einar’s family did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this article. But the musician’s mother recently addressed the debate around her son’s death on Instagram, writing, “Most of the rappers are not criminals, they are artists. They tell of a horrible reality we have in Sweden.”
“I, like many mothers, lost a son in the horrible violence,” Nilsson added. “Our hearts are torn from our breasts.”
‘All About the Money’
With increased fan focus, political pressure and law-enforcement scrutiny now on Sweden’s rappers, many in the country are debating whether the still-young genre can change — or if it should even have to.
More than a dozen local rappers and their associates approached for this article declined to be interviewed, citing fears of being stereotyped or drawing unwanted attention.
But those who did speak freely said they didn’t feel any need to change what they rapped about, and not just because it reflected reality. “That’s what’s selling right now,” said the artist known as Moewgli, who collaborated with Einar on several hit singles and served prison time for robbery. “If something sells, I’m going to do it,” he said. “I’m all about the money.”
Dumlee, the aspiring rapper linked to the gang Death Patrol, said politicians would soon move on. In December, he was preparing to release a track called “Bunt” that included a line aimed directly at Shottaz, Death Patrol’s rivals, with little concern for inciting further tension.
Stakset — the Swedish hip-hop trailblazer and a mentor to Einar who made several tracks with the younger rapper, and now helps gang members leave crime — pointed back to the government. For decades, politicians of all stripes had been letting problems in the suburbs, including education and housing, worsen, he said.
“They tried to sweep everything under the carpet,” Stakset said. But after Einar’s killing, he added, “the carpet’s not big enough.”
Alex Marshall reported from Stockholm and Joe Coscarelli from New York. Nicholas Ringskog Ferrada-Noli contributed reporting from Stockholm.